Grandfather of Alaska paleontology has new book

Anchorage Daily NewsAugust 11, 2012 

For 15 pivotal years, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Roland A. Gangloff was the main dinosaur man in Alaska. Starting in the 1980s, he coordinated searches for fossils in places where none had ever been found, discovering or helping to identify fantastical creatures that roamed the Arctic millions of years ago.

Those discoveries helped create a revolution in paleontology and led scientists to reconsider long-held hypotheses -- particularly concerning the range and adaptability of dinosaurs. Gangloff's name popped up year after year as the author of scientific papers, the subject of magazine articles or in newspaper stories reporting what the latest digs had uncovered and how the finds were setting standard assumptions on their head.

Among the prehistoric Alaskans associated with Gangloff, either as discoverer or investigator, are duck-billed dinosaurs, horned dinosaurs, armored dinosaurs and the bone-headed herbivore named for him and the 49th state, Alaskacephale gangloffi.

(There's also the "Nirvana dragon" found in Unalaska, more correctly called "Behemotops" likened to a sea-going hippopotamus -- but that was a mammal, not a dinosaur.)

Getting one's mind around the scope of his accomplishments is not easy. The formal papers contain words like "holotype" and "squamosal."

Gangloff has just published a new book that consolidates much of the information and speculation he considers important. Happily, "Dinosaurs under the Aurora" (Indiana University Press, $40 hardbound, $19.24 on Kindle) is aimed at members of the public who want to know more but don't have doctoral degrees.

"It's not meant to be a catalog of finds and bones," Gangloff said in a phone call from Sonoma, Calif., where he moved after retiring from UAF in 2003. "It was written to be of interest to the general reader."

General readers will have the chance to hear Gangloff talk about Alaska prehistory and get copies of the book for themselves when he returns to Alaska this week.

Part of the book recounts the history of dinosaur discoveries in Alaska.

A Shell Oil Company geologist, Robert Liscomb, found tracks in the Colville River area, north of the Arctic Circle, in 1961, but didn't know what to make of them. It would be another 22 years before they were identified as dinosaur tracks.

A field team from California revisited the area in 1985 and found more evidence of dinosaurs. In the winter of 1987 Gangloff relocated from his job at Merritt College in Oakland, where he'd taught for 20 years, and set up shop at UAF. He organized and led annual digs, notably on the North Slope.

"He was the lone paleontologist for a while," said University of Alaska Anchorage professor emeritus Anne Pasch. But that changed quickly as more scientists became interested in Arctic dinosaurs. They regularly turned to Gangloff for insight and assistance.

"He identified the Edmontonia for me," she said. That was an ankylosaur, a shelled dinosaur built like a tank, found in the Talkeetna Mountains. "He was always very helpful -- and always a fun guy to work with."

"He not only did research on the dinosaurs of Alaska, but he was very interested in education and did a lot to help teachers," she added. He spoke widely to school groups and had teachers come into the museum and work behind the scenes. He joined with Pasch in taking students on a statewide tour of paleontological sites running from Cook Inlet to the Arctic Ocean.

By the 1990s, the Colville region had been confirmed as a major dinosaur bed, divulging thousands of bones and fragments.

"We have more polar dinosaurs in Alaska than any other country or continent," said Pasch. "The amount and diversity of high latitude dinosaur material here is just astonishing, probably hundreds of times more than any other place. There's no other site that can compare."

As others were absorbed in the excitement of the digs, Gangloff turned his attention back to the footprints that had supplied the first evidence of the animals in Alaska. He and Pasch made raft trips down the river in 1997 and 1998, specifically looking for tracks. As a result of their expedition, they were able to document something that the bones alone couldn't tell them -- that the area had been a major thoroughfare, a migration corridor, for prehistoric wildlife for millions of years.

Within the course of two decades, the perception of the far north during the age of the dinosaurs was radically altered. Alaska, with its cold, dark winters, had been considered free of cold-blooded reptiles of yore, as it is today.

Now paleontologists realized that, not only were there dinosaurs roaming under the midnight sun, but many of them, generations of them.

How did they survive?

"It's an ongoing question," Gangloff said. "There are a lot of misconceptions about the Arctic. Even today, too many people get this idea that the Arctic is a frozen wasteland. These people should know better. They don't know how beautiful and rich the Arctic is. I've tried to correct those impressions as much as I could in the book."

Gangloff acknowledged that Alaska 70 million years ago was "very different" than today, something like the coast of Oregon. But not that different. There were still 24 hour days and nights in different seasons. It was notably colder than the temperate zones or tropics, probably cold enough for snow from time to time.

In parallel with the Alaska discoveries, other scientists were looking at emerging evidence that dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded, like birds and mammals. That they may have had complex social or communal behavior, moved in herds and nested together. That some had feathers.

The most profound implication of high-latitude dinosaurs is that this branch of the animal kingdom had the ability to adapt to nearly any environment.

In 2002, Gangloff and Australian collaborators Thomas Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich published a paper in the journal Science that challenged a widespread theory of why dinosaurs became extinct. That theory, still prevalent, holds that an asteroid or a meteor struck Earth about 65 million years ago creating an enormous explosion that blew dust into the atmosphere that blocked the sun and brought on freezing temperatures.

But dinosaurs in Alaska could well have been accustomed to freezing temperatures from time to time.

"If dinosaurs adapted to such a variety of environments, how did one nuclear winter knock them off?" Gangloff said. "Anyone who explains the whole picture of dinosaur extinction has to explain high-latitude dinosaurs."

Gangloff's research showed that dinosaurs "weren't just dumb alligator-like things," Pasch said. "That was really pioneering work."

"He's been compiling this information for at least 20 years and trying to synthesize it," she added. "He's always been interested in the big picture. I'm glad this book is out."

Gangloff describes and discusses the controversies in "Dinosaurs under the Aurora." He also examines how new technology will affect the study of ancient life. "The future of paleontology will be intertwined with the hunt for natural resources," he said.

Perhaps the most entertaining part of the book incorporates Gangloff's observations of what Rich and Vickers-Rich call "the social setting" of the digs and the difficulties involved working in Alaska's remote sites: mosquitoes, freezing rain, rising water, flights on weather hold, work coming to a halt when a protected falcon decides to build its nest on the site.

"I tried to lay out the challenges of working in Alaska," Gangloff said. "I also wanted to emphasize the role played by the U.S. Army," which provided Chinook helicopters to transport large specimens. "And the students and volunteers. They made it possible."

He's now married to one of those volunteers, Judy Scotchmoor, assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology at U.C. Berkeley, his alma mater. He's a visiting scholar with the institution.

For an expert in extinct animals, Gangloff has a lot to say about one living species -- Alaska ground squirrels.

"We had to work under 100-foot-high cliffs," he recalled. "They burrow along the top and kick rocks and sediment and stuff down on us. Anytime they can, they'll steal food. They'll tear up tents to get to food. We put the food in boats and tied them off away from shore, but we caught one squirrel going hand-over-hand along the anchor ropes to get to the food. They even came for caribou we'd shot for food and hung up. Don't let anyone tell you they can't be carnivores.

"People worry about bears, but we had little trouble with them. The ground squirrels were much more of a nemesis than any other animal."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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