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University of Alaska Museum of the North opens its first public exhibition of polar dinosaurs

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 3, 2015

Fifty years ago paleontologists would have told you that no dinosaurs were known to have lived in Alaska. But in the 1980s rocks that had been found two decades earlier were re-examined and identified as being dinosaur fossils.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of California Berkeley sent a team to take a look at the area where the fossils came from, along the Colville River on the North Slope of the Brooks Range, and discovered a trove of bones and tracks.

In the seasons that followed more finds were made -- in Southeast, Denali, the Talkeetna Mountains, on the Alaska Peninsula and the lower Yukon. Today the vaults of the University of Alaska Museum of the North contain about 6,000 dinosaur bones and bone fragments. Earth sciences curator Patrick Druckenmiller calls it "the largest collection of polar dinosaurs in the world."

The museum opened an exhibit dedicated to dinosaurs in Alaska in May. It has teeth, skeletons and tracks of the extinct reptiles and their contemporaries that have never been seen by the public before. "Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs" is the first show of its kind at the museum and, as such, "fairly monumental," said Druckenmiller, who curated it.

Back-breaking work

In addition to dinosaurs in the far north, "Expedition Alaska" is also, in no small part, about how those fossils are found and recovered.

For the last several years those expeditions have been coordinated by Druckenmiller, a scientist with a mountain climber's body. Somewhat like the fictional Indiana Jones, he is a professor at UAF during the winter and extreme wilderness adventurer in the summer, cliff-climbing, racing tides, slogging through mud and rain, hiking through snowfields, bouncing in small boats through chilly fog on remote rivers and, when things really get bad, hunkering in a wet, overcrowded tent for days at a time.

It's a far cry from traditional dinosaur hunters who have made headlines and history in the Badlands of the Dakotas, the parched, sunny prairies of the American and Canadian west or the Gobi Desert.

"Coming to Alaska is a different world," Druckenmiller said. "You can't drive to your sites. Everything is a challenge -- the weather, the environment, the cost. I went from driving a truck to the work and spending the day in my shorts and a T-shirt to a place where I wear long underwear all summer long."

A field tent is among the displays in the "Expedition Alaska" exhibit. A film showing in the new museum theater in conjunction with the exhibit includes documentary footage of crews working at Alaska digs as well as information about the latest scientific thinking regarding prehistoric Alaska. The footage has scenes of sodden, weary volunteers packed together, waiting for a meal concocted from Spam and noodles while rain pounds down outside the tent flap.

But such downtime is rare, Druckenmiller said, even something of a luxury. "No matter the weather," he said with a slight shudder, "we work."

At least those who can stick it out do. Not everyone is attuned to such adventures. Druckenmiller said he's made the mistake of signing up people who can't handle the rigors of an Alaska expedition. That can be a serious issue when transportation in and out of a wilderness location is tenuous and expensive.

"When I'm interviewing someone for a crew, I don't ask so much about what they've studied or how much they know about biology or who their teachers were," he said. "I ask questions like: How much camping have you done? Are you OK riding in small boats? Can you sleep on cold ground? Do you like Spam?"

And, he might add, how strong is your back?

Druckenmiller pointed to a big specimen of bone and rock wrapped in the foil and plaster "jacket" used to protect fossils in transport. It appeared to be about 150 pounds, not much different from Druckenmiller's own wiry weight. "I had to pack that out by myself," he said. "It nearly killed me."

Tracks ‘like potatoes’

Druckenmiller, 48, developed an omnivorous interest in natural history as a boy. "I was always interested in one thing or another, bugs, birds, plants."

He was studying botany at the University of Wisconsin in Madison when a trip to a geology collection triggered his curiosity about fossil plants. A friend studying vertebrae paleontology suggested they team up on a field trip to the ancient seabeds of west Kansas. He became intrigued by marine reptiles in those formations and went on to graduate studies in Montana and Calgary, Canada, eventually taking a position at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana.

In 2007 he came to the Museum of the North at a time when the importance and abundance of Alaska fossils was becoming increasingly clear to the academic world. Scientists investigating the vast and, in paleontological terms, largely unexplored country were identifying new species of dinosaurs, marine reptiles and other extinct life forms. Massive trackways in Denali and along the Yukon revealed that the land of ice and snow had once hosted large dinosaur populations.

The amount of material discovered in recent years has been mind-boggling.

"We've only had two seasons on the Yukon so far," Druckenmiller said. "We didn't know about it until a couple of years ago. They don't even have a name for the geological formation yet."

In one span of 10 minutes the team working near Kaltag counted more than 100 tracks.

"I have never seen such a rich track site on any of my journeys to paleontological sites around the world," Jørn Hurum of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum told the Museum of the North's spokeswoman, Theresa Bakker. "We were picking sandstone casts of tracks like others pick potatoes."

"People must have been walking by these tracks for years, for centuries, as long as there have been people there," said Druckenmiller. "But they didn't know what they were."

The consistent shape of a dinosaur track, rather like a large chicken footprint, is easy to spot once it has been pointed out. But a layman could easily think it nothing more than an odd natural pattern.

The museum's explorers found tracks of large and small plant eaters and meat eaters. Sauropods like the huge, long-necked Diplodocus; ornithopods like duck-billed Hadrosaurs; theropods like Tyrannosaurus. All stunning evidence, Druckenmiller said, "of an extinct ecosystem we never knew existed."

The Troodon’s tooth

Some of those tracks are on view in the current exhibit. Other highlights include a beautiful skeleton of a Dromaeosaur, a six-foot long carnivore with knife-like claws; a rare Thalattosaur, an otter-like marine reptile whose impression was frantically extracted between tides near Kake in Southeast using a power rock-cutter; a Hadrosaur thigh that visitors are invited to touch, an exception to the general museum practice of putting actual fossils behind glass or out of reach of the public.

A painting showing Alaska duck-bills on a life-size scale hangs in the lobby near the entrance to the exhibit gallery, off the museum gift shop. Replicas of the skeletons of three juvenile Hadrosaurs were still under construction in early August but expected to be installed soon.

"Expedition Alaska" displays less than one percent of the material gathered by museum staff over the years. The Museum of the North is a research facility with a mission to collect and document specimens as well as display them. The mission encompasses not only natural history, but human activity and fine art.

The public doesn't see most of the material. It's stored in the bottom floor of the museum, the so-called "collection range." Lined with shelving units that roll back and forth to maximize use of space, it contains 1.5 million cataloged objects, everything from bugs and lichen to Chilkat robes and a Russian cannon.

The fossils fill several rows. They include lots of mammoth parts, a rare-for-Alaska mastodon skull, the bones of an Elasmosaur, a snake-necked seagoing contemporary of dinosaurs, extracted just this summer in the Talkeetna Mountains and the first such find in Alaska.

"The rest of it's still up there," Druckenmiller said. "We need to go back next year and get the rest."

Fossils are cleaned and examined in a separate room, a prep lab of sorts, with yet more shelves occupied by yet more dinosaur parts.

"These are from Lizzie," a Hadrosaur found in the Talkeetna Mountains in 1994, Druckenmiller said as he opened one drawer. And then another drawer. "These are all teeth of theropods (carnivores). This one's from a Troodon," a relative of the Velociraptor.

"Most of what we know about polar theropods is based on teeth. We only have a few bones, but this is one," he lifted it and gave it a thump with his fingernail. It made a sound like thumping a wooden flute. "You can always tell the meat-eaters. They have hollow bones, like birds."

In fact, current science holds that modern birds descended from theropods and are the closest living relatives to the ancient dinosaurs. True bird parts from the period are hard to find, but the museum has some teeth from them in the exhibit. Seventy million years ago birds had teeth -- at least some of them did.

"We have more material on polar theropods than anywhere else in the world," he said. "There have been other dinosaurs found in the Arctic and even Antarctica. But not many. We have the biggest collection of bones and fragments of anyone on the planet."

A patient art

Bits and pieces can tell scientists much. A mysterious fragment can be matched to parts of a complete fossil found elsewhere. The size of the footprint reveals the length of the leg. The impression of a leaf with a pointed tip indicates a rainforest.

But these glimpses don't answer all the questions. For instance, how did the big lizards survive at latitudes so close to the poles?

The world was a warmer place, say the signs in the exhibit. Northern Alaska had year-round average temperatures closer to what one would find in Juneau today. Even though the Colville area, for example, was even farther north then than it is now, it's annual average was about 42 degrees. In modern Barrow the annual average is 12 degrees.

Aside from the excitement generated by descriptions of strange and giant animals from the past, is there any practical reason for collecting, studying and displaying them?

Absolutely, said Druckenmiller.

"These dinosaurs were at the limit of where we think they could survive," he said. "When animals live at the edge of their range, it tells us a lot." A lot about physiology, environment, adaptation, diversification and change. "Alaska is right at the center of this whole field of study. We're at the hub."

But, he added with scientific caution, "We don't know the whole story. Science never proves anything; it can only disprove things. We keep finding things all the time and, except for a few pieces, we haven't begun to take a close look at what we have now."

In the prep lab students and volunteers were busy cleaning specimens with toothbrushes and dentist picks, carefully removing rock and dirt from around bits of bone. One of the samples had a label indicating that it was brought in in 1983. It had been in storage for more than 30 years. Paleontology is a patient art.

Druckenmiller pointed to a large fossil on a shelf in the collection range, safely packaged in its jacket of plaster. "It could sit there for another century and be just fine," he said.

EXPEDITION ALASKA: DINOSAURS will be on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks through 2016.

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