Prehistoric discovery challenges ideas of where dinosaurs once roamed Alaska

Alaska is quickly becoming a hotbed for ancient, fossilized dinosaur remains
Published: Dec. 26, 2022 at 6:48 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When it comes to dinosaur bones, Alaska may not be the first place that most think of.

However, it’s quickly becoming a hotbed for ancient, fossilized remains. Just ask Paleontologist Dr. Anthony Fiorillo, whose team of experts discovered some of the first evidence supporting that. It was during Fiorillo’s first trip to Alaska in 1998 to attend a conference in Fairbanks that he knew he had to come back.

“I just remember the experience of being, ‘I need more of this,’” Fiorillo said. “This can’t be my last trip to Alaska.”

Since then, he and his team have done extensive research in hopes of digging up dinosaur bones.

“The number of localities in Alaska that you could count that had dinosaurs probably would fit on one hand, you know, there were very, very few,” Fiorillo said.

But, over the course of a successful journey, that’s changed. Fiorillo, the executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, said the fossil finds have surged in recent years.

“It seems like now, I can actually say you can’t take 10 steps without tripping over a dinosaur fossil,” he said. “Like, they’re everywhere.”

To date, dinosaur records can be found in four of Alaska’s national parks, with the first discovery being in one of the least visited, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula.

Fiorillo said it was during the last two hours of the trip on the Colville River that he found the first dinosaur record; a series of footprints that he and his team went on to publish a few years later.

“I’m sure my feet touched the ground, but I was away from where the float plane was coming to get us,” he described. “I thought that I actually ran through the air. I grabbed two people and dragged them back there to say, this is a dinosaur footprint, it’s the first one in any Alaska National Park, if something happens to me, somebody needs to know this.”

That was only scratching the surface as to what these discoveries tell humans about Alaska so long ago. Through research, Fiorillo and his team discovered baby dinosaur fragments in the state, suggesting they nested in high latitudes and were able to adapt to whatever the environment was back then.

“They actually did what animals do and they were highly successful at it,” he said. “... Alaska is rich with fossils and they have an important statement to make about what we think we know, challenging the stereotype, that’s what I like.”

Fiorillo is in the planning stages of his next visit to Alaska, which would be his 24th summer.

The other three national parks where dinosaur records have been discovered — all of which were by Fiorillo and his team — are Denali, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and Wrangell St. Elias.