Alaska Dinosaur Discovery
INTRO: Scientists searching for dinosaurs in Alaska have found fossilized bones and even footprints left behind in ancient mud turned to stone. But nearly all of these discoveries were made on Alaska's North Slope. Late this summer, that all changed when a Dallas, Texas, paleontologist made a remarkable discovery in southwest Alaska. Doug Schneider has more in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.
STORY: At first, it seemed like two years spent looking for evidence of dinosaurs in the Aniakchak National Monument, some 400 miles southwest of Anchorage, would go unrewarded. Tony Fiorillo, a paleontologist from the Dallas Museum of Natural History, had come to this remote corner of Alaska the year before, and had found nothing. And this time, after an incredibly scenic four-day raft trip through the heart of the monument, Fiorillo was again about to go home empty-handed.
FIORILLO: "The trip was spectacular. I just kept thinking gee, it's too bad we didn't find what I'd hoped we would. So when we got to the coast, we had about three hours before the float plane was to pick us up, and I said I'd like to walk the beach. A woman who works for the Park Service, Amanda Austin, came with me. We found some beautiful leaf fossils. While she was looking at those, I wandered over to the next point to get my bearings. And it was at this next point that I looked down and saw this thing staring at me."
That "thing" was the footprint of a small hadrosaur, a type of plant-noshing duck-billed dinosaur that that lived during the Cretaceous period some 70 million years ago.
FIORILLO: "My first thought was, 'Oh my God, I think I found it.' Amanda was several hundred yards down the beach, so she didn't hear me let out my Whoop! of excitement. I looked and looked at it and finally set my pack down and walked away to calm down. Then I walked back to the track and asked myself why I thought it was a track. Then I got out my camera and started photographing it from every angle I could think of."
The track looks as though it was made by a giant chicken. Impressions of three large toes made in the mud millions of years ago are today cast in solid rock.
FIORILLO: "To me it looked obvious. That doesn't mean it would be obvious to everybody. It was on a block of rock that was flipped over. It had fallen out of the cliff. It had three toes and it was raised up from the block, so the track was upside down. It's a hind foot, but on this block there were a couple of other tracks. They were smaller and of the right general shape that they could be the hand tracks. But they're not nearly as convincing as the three-toed hind foot."
After examining the footprints, Fiorillo brought Amanda Austin to the site to witness the discovery.
AUSTIN: "For a second he couldn't find it. We weren't sure where it was, and then he found it. It certainly looked like a footprint to me. It actually sticks up at you. It doesn't press down into the ground. It has these three toes on it, that are super-big. They are about 14 inches across."
Fiorillo believes the footprint was most likely made by a young duck-billed dinosaur, perhaps 25 to 30 feet long. Adults are thought to have grown to 40 feet long and weighed four tons. Scientists believe duck-bills traveled in great herds, grazing as they went along.
FIORILLO: "They're called duck-billed dinosaurs their mouth is flared out so you get this bill-like structure. They're plant eaters. They had hundreds of teeth in their mouth so they made for very efficient chewing animals of plants. They're sometimes referred to as the cows of the Cretaceous because they're so common."
Common 70 million years ago, maybe. But it's certainly not easy to find evidence of them in the Arctic today. In Alaska, the most abundant dinosaur fossils have been found in the Liscomb fields along the North Slope, named for the geologist who first discovered them. In 1994, fossil hunters in southcentral Alaska dug up bones belonging to Lizzie, a 90-million-year-old hadrosaur. But until now, no one has found evidence of dinosaurs in southwest Alaska.
FIORILLO: "The significance of the find is that we are at least 800 miles away from the North Slope locality."
Fiorillo hopes the discovery of this hadrosaur footprint will lead to further dinosaur discoveries in the area.
FIORILLO: "To me, Alaska is a great big paleontological candy store. After this summer's find, I'd say the welcome mat is out. We just can't wait to get back to work and find more. It's just so exciting."
Ultimately, he and colleagues at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks hope the tracks, fossils and other artifacts they find will help them build a picture of what life was like during Alaska's dinosaur heyday.
OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.
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Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:
Dr. Anthony R. Fiorillo, Paleontologist
Amanda Austin, Resource Management Specialist
Dr. Roland Gangloff, Curator
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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