First dinosaur bone found in Washington is collected by Burke Museum paleontologists on May 18, 2012.

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 4/04/2020
  • Essay 20977
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On May 18, 2012, paleontologists from Seattle's Burke Museum collect the first dinosaur bone ever found in Washington state. They are on Sucia Island, a U-shaped dot of land two miles north of Orcas Island in the San Juans. Working with hammer, mallet, and saw, they cut out the fossil from its stony matrix, but must break it in two in order to do so. Three years later, Burke paleontologists Brandon Peecook and Christian Sider will publish the first paper describing the fossil, which they propose is in the tyrannosaurid family, making it a close cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex. The fossil is now in storage at the Burke Museum.


Standing on a beach on Sucia Island on May 18, 2012, Brandon Peecook knew the second he saw it that he was looking at a dinosaur bone, the first ever discovered in Washington. It looked nothing like the classic image of dinosaur fossils as they are often portrayed in the popular press. Instead, it was barely discernible from the surrounding mudstone, particularly in the diffuse light of a cloudy May day. The only reason it had been noticed was that the discoverers, Jim Goedert and David Starr, had spent years exploring the fossil-rich bluff that rose above the boulder-strewn beach in the San Juan Islands.

Three weeks before Peecook visited the site on Sucia, Goedert and Starr were there on one of their regular forays for ammonites -- a common fossil that resembles a cinnamon roll. People have long collected ammonites from northwest Washington; some of the first were found in the 1850s during the Northwestern Boundary Survey. Then they noticed the bone embedded in mudstone. Eroded to a smooth surface by waves, the fossil stood out because of its size, about 18 inches long; color, oatmeal instead of gray; and texture, spongy like the inside of a bone.

Goedert took a photograph and sent it to Peecook's colleague, Christian Sidor, curator of vertebrate paleontology at Seattle's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Because of the 80-million-year age of the surrounding rock, Sidor and Peecook (the latter of whom was working on his dissertation on vertebrate fossils and later became assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Idaho Museum of Natural History) suspected that the fossil was either a dinosaur or a marine reptile, which includes animals such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Some people say that the fossils of these long-extinct sea dwellers inspired the classic image of the Loch Ness monster with its long neck, paddle-like legs, and sinuous movement.

Getting to It

Either way, the paleontologists knew that the bones of neither dinosaurs or prehistoric marine reptiles had ever been collected in Washington. Peecook would have to go see the bone and figure out if it could be brought back to the Burke. (Collecting vertebrate and invertebrate fossils on public land is illegal unless one possesses a collecting permit, which the Burke does.)

After taking the ferry to Orcas Island, Peecook and his Burke colleagues Bruce Crowley (chief preparator), Ron Eng (collections manager), Don Hopkins (volunteer preparator), and Adam Huttenlocker (PhD candidate), hitched a boat ride to Sucia with a ranger who worked at the island's state park facility. He dropped them off on a kelp- and barnacle-covered fin of rock visible only at low tide, which was also the only time the fossil was easily accessible. Because of the tide, the group had a window of about six hours to locate the fossil, determine what it was, and extract it. Their tools were rock hammers, mallets, and a diamond-tipped saw to cut into the hard mudstone.

Bringing It Home

The Burke team immediately realized the fossil had to be a dinosaur because the bone had a hollow shaft, a feature not found in marine reptiles. They began to hammer and saw around the fossil, working in tighter circles to figure out where its edges were. They eventually cut away enough rock to leave the bone on a pedestal, but by this time the tide had covered most of the beach. They had only about 40 minutes remaining until the ranger would return. That didn't leave them enough time to extract the bone without damaging it, so they made the decision to cut it and the surrounding material into two pieces, which meant they would lose about a quarter inch of the fossil. The two fossil pieces were the size of a shoe box and a banker box. When the ranger arrived soon after to pick them up, only about 10 feet of beach remained of the 150 feet that had been out of the water when they had arrived.

Back at the Burke, Peecook put the two specimens in the basement, where they remained for the next eight months. During that period preparators Bruce Crowley and Donna Ritchie, working in their free time, slowly removed the excess rock. "The bone was interesting but we had other work that took scientific priority," says Peecook (Peecook interview). Crowley and Ritchie ultimately revealed a dagger-shaped bone made by gluing together the two parts. It was 17 inches long, 9 inches wide at the top, and an inch wide at the bottom.

What It Was

Now that he had the bone, Peecook began to try to figure out what it was. That required comparing the bone with other specimens in other museums, and that required travel money. As he began to seek funding, other members of the Burke community, including Executive Director Julie Stein, learned of the specimen and immediately provided the travel funds.

At the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, Peecook decided that the bone was either part of a femur from a hadrosaur, a group of plant-eating dinosaurs popularly called duckbills, or from a tyrannosaurid, the family that includes Tyrannosaurus rex (although it was clear that the Sucia specimen was not T. rex, which lived about 10 million years later).

Eventually, at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, home to an extensive collection of dinosaur fossils, Peecook found what he called a "dead ringer." Daspletosaurus torosus were meat-eaters in the tyrannosaurid family. Smaller than T. rex, they had larger teeth and lived about 10 million years earlier. The Sucia island dinosaur was not a Daspletosaurus, which have been found only in Alberta, Canada, but the similarities indicate that Washington's lone known dinosaur was closely related to it.

To Name or Not to Name?

Within the bone cavity, the preparators found shells of dime-size clams that lived in shallow water. This led Peecook to hypothesize that the dinosaur had perhaps died near a river and been washed into the sea, where it settled close to a shoreline and became home to the clams. What happened to the dinosaur's other body parts can never be known. They could have remained on land, never reached the sea, been scavenged and dispersed in the water, or washed away to end up far out on the seafloor.

Peecook had no further plans for the bone. Because of the poor preservation of the specimen and lack of any additional bones, he can obtain little scientific information beyond placing it in the tyrannosaurid family. He doesn't even have enough material to give the dinosaur a formal name, and at this point, it's more a novelty than anything else. This hasn't stopped fourth graders at Elmhurst Elementary in Tacoma from urging state lawmakers to make what has been dubbed "Suciasaurus rex" the official state dinosaur. As of February 2020, the bill was in committee and the fossil was in the basement of the Burke.


Brandon R. Peecook and Christian A. Sidor, "The First Dinosaur from Washington State and a Review of Pacific Coast Dinosaurs from North America" (May 20, 2015), PLOS Journal website accessed March 10, 2020 (; Brandon Peecook interview with David Williams, February 7, 2020, transcript in possession of David Williams, Seattle.

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