"Long before it's in the papers"
September 22, 2015


“Most complete” Arctic dino found; said to have endured nasty conditions

Sept. 22, 2015
Courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks
and World Science staff

A newly pub­lished study de­scribes a type of duck-billed di­no­saur that once roamed Alas­ka’s North Slope in herds, liv­ing in dark­ness for months at a time and probably ex­pe­ri­encing snow.

It’s “far and away the most com­plete di­no­saur yet found in the Arc­tic or any po­lar re­gion,” from fos­sils, said Pat Druck­en­miller, cu­ra­tor of Earth sci­ences at the Un­ivers­ity of Alas­ka Mu­se­um of the North and co-author of the stu­dy. “We have mul­ti­ple el­e­ments of eve­ry sin­gle bone in the body.”

A painting by James Havens of several Ugru­naaluk kuuk­pi­ken­sis in Alas­ka dur­ing the Creta­ceous Pe­riod.

“The find­ing of di­no­saurs this far north chal­lenges eve­rything we thought about a di­no­saur’s phys­i­ol­o­gy,” added Flor­i­da State Un­ivers­ity’s Greg­o­ry Er­ick­son, an­oth­er co-author. 

“It cre­ates this nat­u­ral ques­tion. How did they sur­vive up here?”

The pre­vi­ously un­rec­og­nized spe­cies, dubbed Ug­ru­naa­luk (oo-GREW-na-luck) kuuk­pik­en­sis (KOOK-pik-en-sis), grew up to an es­ti­mat­ed 30 feet (9 me­ters) long. 

The name, us­ing the lan­guage of the na­tive Iñu­piaq peo­ple who live there to­day, means an­cient graz­er, the re­search­ers said. Part of an evolu­tionary fam­ily known as had­ro­saurs, also called duck-billed dino­saurs, Ug­ru­naa­luk is de­scribed as a su­perb chew­er with hun­dreds of teeth good for munch­ing tough plants.

Druck­en­miller said the ma­jor­ity of the bones stud­ied came from the Lis­comb Bone Bed, a fos­sil-rich lay­er of rock along the Col­ville Riv­er in a 69-million-year-old rock de­pos­it called the Prince Creek Forma­t­ion.

“To­day we find these an­i­mals in po­lar lat­i­tudes,” Druck­en­miller said. “A­maz­ingly, they lived even far­ther north dur­ing the Cre­ta­ceous Pe­ri­od,” the lat­er part of the di­no­saur age. “These were the north­ern-most di­no­saurs to have lived dur­ing the Age of Di­no­saurs. They were truly po­lar.”

The scientists pub­lished their find­ings in the ac­a­dem­ic jour­nal Ac­ta Palaeon­to­log­ica Polonica. Druck­en­miller and Er­ick­son had pre­vi­ously pub­lished doc­u­menta­t­ion sug­gest­ing that at the time, a dis­tinct com­mun­ity of an­i­mals lived in what is now north­ern Alas­ka. The ar­ea was forested be­cause the cli­mate was much warm­er, but still, the di­no­saurs had to deal with snow and months of dark­ness, the re­search­ers said.

The fos­sil site where the dis­cov­ery was made is named for ge­ol­o­gist Rob­ert Lis­comb. He found the first di­no­saur bones in Alas­ka while map­ping along the Col­ville Riv­er for Shell Oil Company in 1961, but did­n’t real­ize they were from a di­no­saur.

Since then, mu­se­um sci­en­tists say they have dug out and cat­a­logued more than 6,000 bones from the new spe­cies, mainly young­sters es­ti­mat­ed to have been about 9 feet (al­most 3 me­ters) long and one-third as tall at the hips. It seems “a herd of young an­i­mals was killed sud­den­ly, wip­ing out mostly one similar-aged popula­t­ion” to cre­ate these fossils, Druck­en­miller said.

There are three named di­no­saurs doc­u­mented from the North Slope—two plant eaters and one car­ni­vore—but the oth­er two are known from incom­plete ma­te­ri­al, Druck­en­miller added.

“So far, all di­no­saurs from the Prince Creek Forma­t­ion that we can iden­ti­fy as spe­cies are dis­tinct from those found an­ywhere else. The rec­og­ni­tion of Ug­ru­naa­luk kuuk­pik­en­sis pro­vides fur­ther ev­i­dence that the di­no­saurs liv­ing in po­lar lat­i­tudes in what is now Alas­ka were not the same spe­cies found from the same time pe­ri­ods in low­er lat­i­tudes.”

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A newly published study describes a type of duck-billed dinosaur that once roamed Alaska’s North Slope in herds, living in darkness for months at a time and probably experiencing snow. It’s “far and away the most complete dinosaur yet found in the Arctic or any polar region,” said Pat Druckenmiller, curator of Earth sciences at the University of Alaska Museum of the North and co-author of the study. “We have multiple elements of every single bone in the body.” “The finding of dinosaurs this far north challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology,” added Florida State University’s Gregory Erickson, another co-author. “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?” The previously unrecognized species, dubbed Ugrunaaluk (oo-GREW-na-luck) kuukpikensis (KOOK-pik-en-sis), grew up to an estimated 30 feet (9 meters) long. The name, using the language of the native Iñupiaq people who live there today, means ancient grazer, the researchers said—it was a superb chewer with hundreds of teeth good for munching tough plants. Druckenmiller said the majority of the bones studied came from the Liscomb Bone Bed, a fossil-rich layer of rock along the Colville River in a 69-million-year-old rock deposit called the Prince Creek Formation. “Today we find these animals in polar latitudes,” Druckenmiller said. “Amazingly, they lived even farther north during the Cretaceous Period,” the later part of the dinosaur age. “These were the northern-most dinosaurs to have lived during the Age of Dinosaurs. They were truly polar.” Druckenmiller and colleagues published their findings in the academic journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. Druckenmiller and Erickson had previously published documentation suggesting that during this time, a distinct community of animals lived in what is now northern Alaska. The area was forested because the climate was much warmer, but still, the dinosaurs had to contend with snow and months of darkness, the researchers said. The fossil site where the discovery was made is named for geologist Robert Liscomb. He found the first dinosaur bones in Alaska while mapping along the Colville River for Shell Oil Company in 1961, but didn’t realize they were from a dinosaur. Since then, museum scientists say they have dug out and catalogued more than 6,000 bones from the new species, mainly youngsters estimated to have been about 9 feet (almost 3 meters) long and one-third as tall at the hips. It seems “a herd of young animals was killed suddenly, wiping out mostly one similar-aged population to create this deposit,” Druckenmiller said. There are three named dinosaurs documented from the North Slope—two plant eaters and one carnivore—but the other two are known from incomplete material, Druckenmiller added. “So far, all dinosaurs from the Prince Creek Formation that we can identify as species are distinct from those found anywhere else. The recognition of Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis provides further evidence that the dinosaurs living in polar latitudes in what is now Alaska were not the same species found from the same time periods in lower latitudes.”