See more of the story

It's too bad the Explore Minnesota tourist agency wasn't operating a few million years ago. Just think of the attractions it could have promoted:

"See the crocodiles — that's right, real crocs, not the shoes — on the Iron Range. They're 30-foot-long eating machines."

"Take a trip to Albert Lea to check out the mammoths. They're herbivores, so you don't have to worry about becoming their lunch. But you don't want to get close enough to let one step on you."

"If you're interested in something that will make a big impression, check out the 200-pound beavers in the Twin Cities area. Orthodontists will be particularly impressed by their imposing buck teeth."

Of course, none of these critters still exists, at least in their original form. But they — as well as thousands of others — have been preserved in fossils that have been discovered in Minnesota.

To help ensure that we never forget about them, the Science Museum of Minnesota is on a mission to designate an official state fossil. And the museum wants our help. It has set up a web page in which members of the public are urged to vote for one of nine candidates.

Despite the University of Minnesota's mascot, a gopher fossil is not one of the choices. A likely reason is that there have never been any 200-pound gophers in these parts. It turns out that Goldy Gopher isn't drawn to scale.

Each of the finalists has been picked for its particular ties to the state, said Alex Hastings, the museum's paleontology curator.

"The original eight candidates were picked for a variety of reasons," he said. "We wanted different geological ages, different areas of the state and different life forms."

The ninth candidate, the giant beaver, was the result of a write-in vote. It has a history in such matters. In 1988, it was the focus of an attempt to have it named the state fossil, but the effort failed to gain traction in the Legislature.

Hastings thinks it was because of its formal name. Although the fossil under consideration was found in St. Paul, the giant beaver's domain was much larger than the State of Hockey. The first evidence of it was discovered in Ohio, which led to its Greek name: Castoroides ohioensis.

"The fact that Ohio was part of its name worked against it," he said. "This time we have a candidate that has Minnesota in its name."

It's the Dikelocephalus minnesotensis, a trilobite, a sea creature resembling an insect. The first fossil of one was discovered near Stillwater 170 years ago, leading to Minnesota (albeit, misspelled) being included in its scientific name.

Going to the museum's fossil web page enables voters to click on each fossil to learn the story behind it. Voting continues through the end of the month, with the winner announced on Oct. 13, which is National Fossil Day.

Once the winner is revealed, the mission to talk the state government into endorsing the pick falls to Jon Severson, the museum's director of strategic partnerships and government relations.

He's well aware that he'll be wading into highly volatile political waters, but he's hoping that amid all the legislative vitriol, the chance to talk about rocks will provide a welcome diversion.

"Hopefully, fossils aren't terribly contentious," he said. But that doesn't mean there's anything frivolous about the fossil movement.

"We are one of just seven states that doesn't have a state fossil," he said. "We have a state muffin." (It's blueberry, in case you're curious — or hungry.) "If that's not frivolous, this certainly isn't."

Hastings underlines the educational aspect of fossils.

"You learn about geology. You learn other life forms," he said. "We have thousands of fossils in Minnesota. If this gets kids interested in hunting for them, all for the better."

Fossils aren't just about the past, he said. The animals captured in them went through things mankind has never experienced. This is particularly relevant in an age of climate change. Researching how the creatures were affected by major ecological changes — some of which resulted in their extinction — can give us an idea of what the future holds.

Both Hastings and Severson said they are "100% committed" to furthering the cause of whatever fossil wins the museum's vote. But they have their personal favorite. They both are hoping that the crocodile — technically known as the Terminonaris robusta — will win.

Not only did it look like something conjured up for a sci-fi movie, it was as powerful as it looked, often dining on sharks — yes, we had those here, too, another potential educational point. It has ties to the museum, having been discovered in 1969 by museum paleontologist Bruce Erickson, and until the nomenclature was changed in 2001, it was called Teleorhinus mesabiensis, reflecting its ties to the Mesabi Iron Range.

But things don't look good for the croc. As of last week, it was closer to last place than first place, which was held by the giant beaver. But with schools now in session and science classes being encouraged to vote, the crocodile camp is hoping to take a bite out of that lead.