The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of West Virginia

West Virginia has what you might call a "bottom-heavy" geologic record: this state is rich in fossils dating from the Paleozoic Era, from about 400 to 250 million years ago, at which point the well runs dry until we find evidence of scattered megafauna mammals at the cusp of the modern era. Even given these circumstances, though, West Virginia has yielded some fascinating specimens of early amphibians and tetrapods, as you can learn about by perusing the following slides.

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Greererpeton

Greererpeton drawing

Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Greererpeton ("creeping beast from Greer") occupies an odd position between the earliest tetrapods (the advanced lobe-finned fish that climbed onto land hundreds of millions of years ago) and the first true amphibians. This middle Carboniferous creature seems to have spent all of its time in the water, leading paleontologists to conclude that it "de-evolved" from recent amphibian ancestors. West Virginia has yielded dozens of Greererpeton fossils, making this one of the state's best-known prehistoric animals.

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Proterogyrinus

The three-foot-long Proterogyrinus (Greek for "early tadpole") was the apex predator of late Carboniferous West Virginia, about 325 million years ago, when North America was just beginning to be populated by air-breathing amphibians descended from the first tetrapods. This wriggly critter retained some evolutionary traces of its recent tetrapod ancestors, most notably its broad, fish-like tail, which was nearly as long as the rest of its body.

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Diploceraspis

Diploceraspis illustration

Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

A close relative of the similarly named Diplocaulus, Diploceraspis was an odd-looking amphibian of the Permian period, characterized by its oversized, boomerang-shaped head (which probably kept it from being swallowed whole by predators, or made it look so big from a distance that bigger meat-eaters avoided pursuing it in the first place). Various specimens of Diploceraspis have been discovered in both West Virginia and neighboring Ohio.

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Lithostrotionella

Oddly enough, Lithostrotionella is the official state gemstone of West Virginia, even though it wasn't a rock, but a prehistoric coral that lived about 340 million years ago during the early Carboniferous period (when much of eastern North America was submerged under water, and vertebrate life had yet to invade dry land). Corals, which still thrive today, are colonial, marine-dwelling animals, and not plants or minerals, as many people mistakenly believe.

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The Giant Ground Sloth

Magalonyx skeleton

Daderot/Wikimedia Commons/CC0

An object of perpetual dispute between West Virginia and Virginia is the true provenance of Megalonyx, the Giant Ground Sloth described by Thomas Jefferson before he became the third president of the United States. Until recently, it was believed that the type fossil of Megalonyx was discovered in Virginia proper; now, evidence has come to light that this megafauna mammal actually lived in Pleistocene West Virginia. (Remember that Virginia was one big colony in Jefferson's day; West Virginia was only created during the Civil War.)