There are no photos of dinosaurs to show us what this fascinating group of animals looked like when they roamed the planet millions of years ago. Although they only left a shadow of their former selves behind as fossils, that doesn’t mean we can’t use a combination of scientific evidence and artistic skills to depict dinosaurs in their life-sized glory.
Pat Druckenmiller, curator of earth sciences at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, said a variety of fossil evidence helps us understand what dinosaurs looked like. These clues include skin impressions, footprints and, of course, bones. We can even look at some of their direct descendants for insight into how they behaved.
“The birds are still here today, but 70 million years ago Alaska was also home to some amazing dinosaurs,” Druckenmiller said. “At the Museum of the North we have amassed the largest collection of Arctic dinosaurs in the world. These came from excavations conducted by the museum across the state.”
Druckenmiller said some areas, such as the North Slope of Alaska, are particularly productive. “These provide a glimpse of how dinosaurs lived and died in the polar regions.”
While paleontologists first discovered evidence of dinosaurs and ancient marine reptiles more than 150 years ago, it’s only been in the last few decades that scientists realized dinosaurs lived in the polar regions, which were much warmer at that time.
As part of an upcoming exhibit on Alaska dinosaurs called Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs, the museum will put many of these compelling specimens on display for the first time.
“I’m very excited to share many of the original fossils we’ve collected over the years,” Druckenmiller said. “These fossils tell stories, not just about dinosaurs, but also about the world they lived in when Alaska was a very different place. It’s an Alaska you’ve never seen before.”
This exhibit was years in the making. Druckenmiller said it took many field seasons to find and then collect the dinosaurs and other fossils. “Just getting them to the lab is only part of the job. Then it takes years to clean the fossils and study them to understand what they mean.”
The exhibit will also include a large original painting of a new species of duck-billed dinosaurs from Alaska. The original artwork measures 11-feet tall by 16-feet wide and illustrates a scene from ancient Alaska during the Cretaceous Period. It was purchased by the museum with a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation.
James Havens created his life-sized mural in an Anchorage mall so he could help educate others about his favorite subject. “I invite the public to dabble some paint on the canvas so we can inform them about the featured dinosaur. My goal is to represent Alaska dinosaurs, Alaska scientists, research facilities and local museums.”
The artist and the scientist worked closely together to get the details right, from the color of their skin to the kinds of plants they are walking through. “With each new painting, I have new information to take in,” Havens said, “about the anatomy, environment and social behavior of dinosaurs. With this hadrosaur painting, I’ve even explored the texture of the pads of their feet.”
The painting will be displayed this summer, along with footprints and fossils of dinosaurs and other animals that lived in Alaska more than 100 million years ago when the new exhibit Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs opens at the UA Museum of the North.
— Theresa Bakker (Marketing & Communications)