Alaskans -- extinct and not -- included in new Dallas museum

August 25, 2012 

A highlight in this job was getting to interview paleontologist Anthony Fiorillo for an article that ran on Aug. 20 ("Feathered dinosaurs once flocked to Denali").

Fiorillo, curator of earth sciences for the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, has been digging dinosaurs in Alaska since the 1990s. He was with Alaska paleontologist Dave Norton when Norton found the "bone-head" skull of a pachycephalosaur on the North Slope -- the thrill of the discovery somewhat diverted by the fact that the Colville River was rising quickly, Fiorillo recalled, 10 feet in a matter of hours.

A PBS television crew was following him when he discovered a new dinosaur, the horned Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum, again on the North Slope. That's the same animal in the big canvas you may have caught artist James Havens painting in the University Center mall last month.

In 2001, Fiorillo went to the Aniakchak region on the Alaska Peninsula. The National Park Service had been somewhat reluctant to let people dig around in parks, but there were hints of dinosaur evidence in that area. Fiorillo reached the region after spending most of the week on weather hold in King Salmon. When he reached the area, he thought he was skunked.

"It was two hours before we were supposed to leave," he recalled. "I had nothing."

He made one last walk along the shore and -- as if in a movie script -- found dinosaur prints at about the same time the engine of the plane coming to pick up the expedition could be heard.

"It was pay dirt," he said. "Those tracks excited the Park Service in ways I never imagined."

The Aniakchak fossils helped convince park officials to let him work in Denali. There, in 2005, he found the first theropod print in the park. It's now on display at the park's visitors center.

Hadrosaur tracks followed. Then came the find of a print from a winged pterosaur. More have since been found, he said. Most recently: the tracks of feathered therizinosaurs, some of the weirdest dinosaurs ever.

"I've got the greatest gig in the world and I get to do it here," he said. "I love the combination of academic pursuits and having your head handed to you by the elements from time to time."

The conversation included many odds and ends that never made it into the main story. Fiorillo said he was trying to find out more about a photo on the cover of a French journal from 1930 showing "dinosaur tracks in Alaska" (probably on the Alaska Peninsula, Fiorillo thinks). This alters the received timeline indicating no one knew there had been dinosaurs in Alaska until the 1980s, when Shell Oil turned over to government agencies some specimens, originally collected in the early 1960s, they didn't know what to make of.

He talked about the Perot museum, scheduled to open early next year, and how it will display not only a cornucopia of Alaska fossils, but also several living Alaskans. "One of the cool things is a video showing people who've helped me," he said. "Helicopter pilots, boat drivers, administrators who helped with permitting."

He talked about Alaska beers and Troodons, which some think may have been the brainiest dinosaur. The critters' remains have been found in the phenomenal bone beds of Alaska's North Slope and, he noted, Troodons have been featured in at least two episodes in the "Star Trek" series. They've also made the cover of National Geographic.

The therizinosaurs is not so popular. Few laymen are even aware of it. I used to consider my knowledge of dinosaurs encyclopedic, but I never heard of it until Havens, the artist, mentioned it. Havens also said he was planning to create a painting of the feathered theropod in the near future.

That would be welcome, since the images found on the Internet are all over the map, almost as if scientists are not certain about the animal's appearance.

Well, we may not know what it looked like, but we know right where it was, thanks to Fiorillo's work.

But he voiced one regret.

That first therapod print found in Denali National Park was only 50 feet from the road. The excavation crew grew used to the sound of tour buses rumbling by. One day the bus stopped. People inside were clicking pictures. "We must be pretty interesting," he thought.

After a while, one of his colleagues looked up and saw a wolf, reclining like a domestic dog, just past where they were working. The wolf was what had attracted the attention of the tourists. This would have been in 2005 or 2006, by my estimate.

Fiorillo wanted a picture too. But by the time he got to his camera, the wolf had tired of the show and taken off.

"Someone on that bus must have gotten a photo of us working with the wolf watching," he said. "I'd really like to have one. "

Anyone from the bus recalling such an incident, and perhaps having such a photo, can contact me and I'll forward it to him.

ATTU LEGACY

The replacement last week of a deteriorating memorial honoring the villagers of Attu, captured or killed when their village was invaded by Japan during World War II, was, as Col. Suellyn Novak of the Alaska Veterans Museum said a "monumental achievement" -- no pun intended, I'm sure.

The museum took the lead in getting the new monument paid for, a frightening obligation for a small nonprofit group, and kept pushing until the government could get it to the site of the village, a place so remote and inaccessible that it might be called America's Forbidden Island.

The final delivery required a C-130 cargo plane, a Coast Guard cutter and a CH65 helicopter. Because of the limited space on the chopper for the monument and dignitaries -- you know it's a big deal when a U.S. senator is in one of the seats -- no one from the museum was able to make the trip. But Novak nonetheless was in high spirits when she called me with the news on Tuesday.

The important part of the memorial is the names of those who lived there when war came to the village. Among those who did not return from internment in Japan were Mike Hodikoff, who warned U.S. officials that Japanese ships were scouting the island but who declined to leave when, shortly before the invasion, the Navy offered to evacuate the village.

Radio operator Foster Jones, husband of the village's school teacher, was killed by the invading soldiers. This particular Alaskan may be the only American civilian killed on American soil by the Japanese army. He was buried near the village church and, after the war, his remains were reinterred at Fort Richardson National Cemetery.

CALLING ALL CAMERAS

The Alaska State Museum in Juneau is seeking entries from Alaska photographers for Alaska Positive 2012, the museum's biennial exhibition of Alaska photography. One of the most important photo shows in the state, Alaska Positive is now in its 40th year. It will open in Juneau on Nov. 2 and tour Anchorage and other towns in 2013.

A $300 Juror's Choice Award and two $150 Awards of Recognition will be presented to winners, who will be selected by Portland photographer Holly Andres.

The deadline for receipt of entries is Sept. 22. An entry form for the exhibit and more details are available online. The competition is open to any Alaska resident.


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

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