From North to South: Finding dinosaurs in Alaska

Not everyone thinks of the Arctic when it comes to dinosaurs, but Pat Druckenmiller, earth sciences curator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, says they lived pretty much everywhere in Alaska.

[Watch a presentation by Pat Druckenmiller on the museum’s YouTube page.]

Evidence has been discovered at sites ranging from the Alaska Peninsula to the Talkeetna Mountains, where both bones and tracks have been found. Fossils and footprints have also been found in Denali National Park and Preserve. And the museum’s earth sciences team recently discovered a major new site for dinosaur footprints on the Yukon River.

Uncovering fossils along the Colville River on Alaska's North Slope. Photo by Roger Topp

Uncovering fossils along the Colville River on Alaska’s North Slope. Photo by Roger Topp

But when it comes to researching the kinds of dinosaurs that lived in Alaska, ground zero has been the Prince Creek formation along the Colville river on the North Slope. That ‘s where most of the bone material has been found in the state.

In fact, Druckenmiller says it’s the best place in the world to find polar dinosaurs. “Pound for pound, there are more bones and tracks that come out of these rocks that tell us what dinosaurs were doing at high latitudes than anywhere else on the planet,” he said. “So it’s a really neat place to work.”

Exposing the pelvic bone of an adult duck-billed dinosaur in a dinosaur quarry during the summer of 2014 on the Colville River. Photo by Roger Topp

Exposing the pelvic bone of an adult duck-billed dinosaur in a dinosaur quarry during the summer of 2014 on the Colville River. Photo by Roger Topp

It’s also a hard place to work. Researchers from the museum have been collecting fossils there for over 20 years, amassing 6,000 or 7,000 different specimens, from bones to bone fragments and other fossils. “We find big bones,” Druckenmiller said. “And we find little bones, too.”

But it’s a big state. And the museum has poked around in other far reaching corners to find evidence of what kinds of dinosaurs lived here, as far south as Chignik Bay on the Alaska Peninsula.

Climbing the ridge to make casts of dinosaur footprints found near Chignik Bay. Photo by Kevin May

When Druckenmiller arrived at the museum in 2007, he found a photograph left behind by the previous curator showing an interesting set of dinosaur footprints running up a ridge along a slab of rock. He also found a note that said they were discovered among rocks that could be from the Cretaceous or possibly Jurassic, which stretches from 150 to 200 million years ago.

“That made me excited because it would mean that these would be the only Jurassic dinosaurs found in the state,” Druckenmiller said.

In the summer of 2010, Druckenmiller, paleontologist Robert B. Blodgett, geologists Sarah Fowell and Paul McCarthy, and the museum’s Kevin May were able to pull together an expedition to the site in Southwest Alaska. They flew out of Chignik, AK in a helicopter and set up camp along a remote mountain range in the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge.

After picking a spot along the mountain ridge, they hiked up a valley. The first valley turned out to be the one where the dinosaur tracks were located. The crew spent the next several days making casts of the footprints.

They were all three-toed, left by meat-eating dinosaurs. The researchers also confirmed that the rocks were Jurassic in age, occurring at the very end of that period. “It turned out that we pushed the fossil record of dinosaurs in Alaska back about 50 million years,” Druckenmiller said.

— Theresa Bakker (Marketing & Communications)

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