Cypress Oury loves dinosaurs and his home state of Arkansas. His passions combine in Arkansaurus fridayi, an ostrich-like reptile that roamed North America 120 million years ago. It’s named commemorates the Arkansan farmer who dug up its fossilized foot.
“It’s the only dinosaur unique to Arkansas,” Oury tells Inverse. “It’s the only dinosaur that truly bleeds Razorback Red.”
Oury, a 17-year-old junior from Fayetteville, is pushing for the prehistoric beast to be officially recognized as the Arkansas state dinosaur. Eight other states already have official dinosaurs and 43 states have named a state fossil. Oury’s has been pushing to get the Arkansaurus recognized for three years and now his efforts appear to be paying off.
Oury is a teen, not a political operative, so he went about making his case as a high schooler would: He created a website, wrote up a petition, and started uploadin educational videos to YouTube. But he’s not a normal high schooler either. He drafted new legislation himself, basing the legal language on what’s being used in other states. Having done so, he contacted state politicians, soliciting their support. It’s not a partisan issue so support has been fairly universal. Arkansas supports thing with “Arkansa” in its name isn’t a hard sell.. “All of the representatives I’ve emailed, they’re like ‘Yeah, this would be fun, let’s do that, woo!’” says Oury. “In a way, I’ve awakened the inner child in everyone.”
He adds that he expects the legislation will be passed in early 2017.
The best description of the dinosaur comes from a publication by the Arkansas Geological Survey:
Arkansaurus was probably a swift hunter who preyed on small animals, insects, and eggs. He may have added to his diet by eating fruits and leaves of plants. This dinosaur was bipedal (walked on two legs), and possibly stood 6 to 15 feet tall and may have been even taller. Its neck was relatively long and slender with a small head that may have had teeth located in the front part of the jaw. Although the skull was small compared to his body size, Arkansaurus most likely had a relatively large brain, providing intelligence comparable to that of some large modern-day flightless birds. Unusually large eye sockets indicate exceptionally good vision and by reference to some modern reptiles and birds, paleontologists believe the small dinosaurs like Arkansaurus were able to distinguish colors and were brightly patterned. Arkansaurus’ front limbs were long, having a specialized hand with three functional digits. The first digit of the hand was opposable, like a thumb, giving the creature the ability to grasp.
Beyond recognition for his favorite dinosaur, a bigger victory for Oury would be to get more people in Arkansas excited about the ancient past. “If this happens, I hope it sparks an interest in paleontology, which could be very positive for the University of Arkansas, because maybe they could create paleontology program here,” he says. “It’s very exciting.”
Right now, the university has only a single class on the subject, and it’s only offered once every other year. Oury volunteers every week with the professor who teaches it. Oury plans to eventually write a master’s or PhD thesis on the Arkansaurus foot fossil found in 1972 by J.B. Friday. After that, his plan is to continue to work in the field of Arkansas paleontology, with a focus on studying vertebrate fossils.
If you ask Oury to imagine what his state would have looked like in the time of Arkansaurus, he’ll paint you a detailed picture: The encroaching shores of the ancient Gulf of Mexico; the grasses, trees, and vegetation; the munching herbivores and maybe a large carnivore stalking prey; the distant views of the rising Ouachita Appalachians in the distance.
It’s clear he’s spent a good deal of time imagining what that distant past, imagining himself there on that beach. But it’s not enough for him to travel back in time to that place alone — he wants to take the rest of us back with him, too.