By Kimberly Cauvel
— Two creatures — one massive and extinct, one microscopic and thriving — were recently penned into bills with state legislators from the 40th and 42nd districts among the sponsors.
Although the bills — which proposed designating the Suciasaurus rex as the state dinosaur and the tardigrade as the state micro-animal — lost steam in the shuffle of the hundreds of bills moving through the legislature’s recently completed 60-day 2020 session, they created learning opportunities for state leaders and local students alike.
“It’s so ugly it’s really cute,” Rep. Laurie Dolan (D-Olympia) said of the tiny, alien-looking tardigrade, which she hadn’t heard of before.
While neither bill was about such critical issues as climate change, housing shortages, medical care costs or opioid addiction, both were supported by legislators from diverse regions of the state.
The proposal for a state dinosaur was sponsored by Reps. Sharon Shewmake (D-Bellingham), Carolyn Eslick (R-Sultan) and Dave Paul (D-Oak Harbor), along with 29 other legislators.
Reps. Alex Ramel (D-Bellingham) and Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow) were joined in their sponsorship of the state micro-animal proposal by legislators representing the Spokane area.
Both bills passed the House of Representatives with an overwhelming majority — 91-7 for the dinosaur and 93-5 for the tardigrade, also known as the water bear or moss piglet — but died in committee in the Senate in late February.
Ramel said taking up the cause of the tardigrade wasn’t critical, but he felt it was a worthy endeavor.
“This (bill) was sitting on my desk when I was appointed, there was some work on it already, and it was really inspired by some students,” he said. Ramel was appointed on Jan. 6 to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Jeff Morris (D-Mount Vernon).
Seven of those students, from Friday Harbor High School, spoke at a House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee hearing on the bill Jan. 29.
“There are many reasons why the tardigrade should be the state micro-animal, including bringing awareness to things we cannot see,” Ayla Ridwan said.
While the tardigrade is invisible to the naked eye, topping out at about a millimeter in length, these odd-looking creatures are common across the state’s landscape, with multiple species being found in a vast range of habitats including glaciers, hot springs, moss, soil and marine water.
The New York Times, reporting on emerging research, described them as looking “like a croissant with eight pudgy legs.” Magnified images are reminiscent of the caterpillar featured in Alice in Wonderland, sans much of a face.
The tardigrade dates back at least 530 million years according to fossil records, meaning it survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs that wiped the Suciasaurus rex and many other species from the planet.
Newsweek recently called the tardigrade “the toughest creature on Earth.”
“It is the resilience of the tardigrade that makes it the perfect micro-animal to represent Washington state,” Ridwan said.
The committee that heard from Ridwan and her peers unanimously passed the bill Feb. 5, after being impressed by their testimony.
“We could learn a lot from this little critter,” Dolan said before the vote. “It can help us with climate change, it can help us with radiation dangers, it can help us with cancer research, and probably the most important thing is the tardigrade is located in every county in Washington, so if we select this as the micro-animal we don’t have to worry about the Cascade curtain.”
Suciasaurus rex is the nickname for a dinosaur whose fossilized leg was discovered at Sucia Island State Park in San Juan County in April 2012. It is the only dinosaur fossil found in the state and has not been conclusively identified as a distinct dinosaur species.
The bill calling for its designation as the state dinosaur was also proposed by a group of students, in this case fourth graders from Tacoma.
“Passing this bill is not just about the state dinosaur, but also about civic engagement and teaching students how a bill becomes a law,” a related legislative document states.
Although the tardigrade and Suciasaurus rex didn’t make the vote to become state symbols this year, other critters have succeeded in gaining official designations in the past.
The willow goldfinch became the state bird in 1951, the steelhead the state fish in 1969 and the Olympia oyster the state oyster in 2014. Along the way, the orca whale, Pacific chorus frog, Olympic marmot, Columbian mammoth and green darner dragonfly also became state symbols — and students from across the state had a hand in achieving many of those designations.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to the reference librarians of the Whatcom County Library System for fact-checking assistance with this article.
For more: See how local legislators voted on selected bills that passed in the 2020 session: ‘Sex ed, clean water: local legislators vote on wide-ranging issues‘.
Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University.