The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Virginia

Frustratingly enough, for a state that's so rich in other fossils, no actual dinosaurs have ever been discovered in Virginia—just dinosaur footprints, which at least indicates that these majestic reptiles once lived in the Old Dominion. It may or may not be any consolation, but during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras Virginia was home to a rich assortment of wildlife, ranging from prehistoric insects to Mammoths and Mastodons, as you can explore in the following slides. (See a list of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals discovered in each U.S. state.)

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Dinosaur Footprints

Carnosaur dinosaur footprint from Culpepper, Virginia
John Cancalosi / Getty Images

The Culpeper Stone Quarry, in Stevensburg, Virginia, is home to literally thousands of dinosaur footprints dating to the late Triassic period, about 200 million years ago--some of them left by small, agile theropods similar to the southwestern Coelophysis. At least six kinds of dinosaurs left these footprints, including not only meat-eaters but early prosauropods (the distant ancestors of the giant sauropods of the late Jurassic period) and fleet, two-legged ornithopods.

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Tanytrachelos fossil

Fanboyphilosopher/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The closest the state of Virginia has ever gotten to an actual dinosaur fossil, Tanytrachelos was a tiny, long-necked reptile of the middle Triassic period, about 225 million years ago. Like an amphibian, Tanytrachelos was equally comfortable moving about in water or on land, and it probably subsisted on insects and small marine organisms. Amazingly, several hundred Tanytrachelos specimens have been recovered from Virginia's Solite Quarry, some of them with preserved soft tissue.

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Chesapecten fossil
BruceBlock / Getty Images

The official state fossil of Virginia, Chesapecten was (don't laugh) a prehistoric scallop of the Miocene through the early Pleistocene epoch (about 20 to two million years ago). If the name Chesapecten sounds vaguely familiar, that's because this bivalve pays homage to Chesapeake Bay, where numerous specimens have been discovered. Chesapecten is also the first North American fossil ever to be described and illustrated in a book, by an English naturalist in 1687.

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Prehistoric Insects

The Solite Quarry, in Virginia's Pittsylvania County, is one of the few places in the world to preserve evidence of insect life from the early Triassic period, about 225 million years ago. (Many of these prehistoric bugs probably featured on the lunch menu of Tanytrachelos, described in slide #3.) These weren't, however, the giant, foot-long dragonflies of the oxygen-rich Carboniferous period 100 million years before, but more modestly proportioned bugs that closely resembled their modern counterparts.

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Prehistoric Whales

ounted skeleton of the cetotheriid baleen whale Cetotherium riabinini

Pavel Gol’din, Dmitry Startsev, and Tatiana Krakhmalnaya/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0 

Given this state's countless twisting bays and inlets, you may not be surprised to learn that numerous prehistoric whales have been discovered in Virginia. The two most important genera are Diorocetus and Cetotherium (literally, "whale beast"), the latter of which resembled a small, sleek grey whale. Anticipating its more famous descendant, Cetotherium filtered plankton from the water with primitive baleen plates, one of the first whales to do so in the Oligocene epoch (about 30 million years ago).

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Mammoths and Mastodons

Woolly Mammoth Clones
Aunt_Spray / Getty Images

Like many states in the U.S., Pleistocene Virginia was traversed by thundering herds of prehistoric elephants, which left behind scattered teeth, tusks and small bones. Both the American Mastodon (Mammut americanum) and the Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) have been discovered in this state, the latter straying far from its accustomed chilly habitat (at the time, clearly, parts of Virginia enjoyed a cooler climate than they do today).

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Fossilised stromatolites
DIRK WIERSMA / Getty Images

Stromatolites aren't technically living organisms, but large, heavy mounds of fossilized mud left behind by colonies of prehistoric algae (one-celled marine organisms). In 2008, researchers in Roanoke, Virginia discovered a five-foot-wide, two-ton stromatolite dating all the way back to the Cambrian period, about 500 million years ago—a time when life on earth was just beginning the transition from single-celled to multiple-celled organisms.

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Strauss, Bob. "The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Virginia." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Strauss, Bob. (2021, January 26). The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Virginia. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Virginia." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).