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University of Alaska Anchorage

November 9, 2009 by USA Post 

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — I grew up in Alaska. I didn’t know there were dinosaurs up here, and I admit my perception of dinosaurs has been largely formed by the movies. That changed at this weekend’s Rock and Mineral Show, which ended Sunday night.

We’ve seen the skeletons, looked at the big teeth, and watched the movies with giant lizards roaming tropical lands, so you might not expect to find dinosaurs in Alaska. And for many years scientists agreed: it was too cold.

In 1961 a dinosaur bone was found near the Colville River on the North Slope. It was thought to be a mammoth bone, and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that they figured out what they had. Since then, thousands of dinosaur bones have been discovered.

“And what’s so exciting about Alaska is we have more dinosaurs, high-latitude dinosaurs in our state than all the other high-latitude localities combined,” said University of Alaska Anchorage geologist Anna Pasch.

During the Cretaceous period, average temperatures in Alaska ranged between 30 and 60 degrees — warmer than today, but by no means tropical. Finding dinosaurs in Alaska helped create a revolution of sorts in the way paleontologists thought about dinosaurs.

“These were very, very hotly debated questions in the sixties, whether they were hot or cold blooded,” Pasch said. “And now there is no question that dinosaurs were very active, and they had to have mechanisms to survive in colder environments.”

Since that first discovery, a dozen different types of dinosaurs have been found in Alaska, including the tooth of a T-rex. Though the names are familiar, polar dinosaurs were a little different from those who roamed the tropics. Their eyes were bigger to accommodate the lack of light and there’s evidence that they hibernated.

“Another difference we find with the larger predatory dinosaurs, we find arrested bone growth in their bones, exactly like bears,” said Katch Bacheller, executive director of the Anchorage Museum of Natural History. “Which means they slept, they napped throughout the winter. But the smaller dinosaurs were up and around all year long.”

In the past few years, it’s become clear that dinosaurs are close relatives to birds and probably had feathers. Those feathers likely helped keep polar dinosaurs warm during the cold winters. so when you think about dinosaurs, don’t think Jurassic Park — think KFC.

“Because our original perception of dinosaurs was that they were reptiles,” Bacheller said. “But through mitochondrial DNA studies we now know that T-rex is basically a chicken.”

The hadrosaur is the most common dinosaur found in Alaska. Dinosaurs have been found not only on the North Slope, but in the Talkeetna Mountains and a few other locations as well. Pasch believes they’ve just skimmed the surface of what’s out there.

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