Do you picture dinosaurs in tropical jungles and hot climates? You probably doubt dinosaurs could have lived in northern Alaska. Yet dinosaurs not only lived here more than 65 million years ago, they thrived!
The story of dinosaurs in Alaska began by accident in 1961. A geologist explored along the Colville River on Alaska’s North Slope and discovered what he assumed were bone samples from Ice Age animals, probably no more than two million years old. In 1978, another geologist found dinosaur footprints near Black Lake on the Alaska Peninsula. The footprints and other imprintsfound elsewhere in Alaska in the 1970s revolutionized thinking. In 1984, a USGS geologist reexamined the 1961 fossils and identified them as the first dinosaur bones found in Alaska.
In the mid-1980s, paleontologists from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks museum began exploring for dinosaur remains on lands managed by BLM along the Colville River region and elsewhere on Alaska’s North Slope. What they found was startling--dinosaur bones eroding from the Colville riverbank along a stretch more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The bones are in such abundance at this one location, that during the next few years more dinosaur bones are recovered than from all other known polar dinosaur bone localities in the world combined, including those from Russia, Canada, Australia, and Antarctica. Most people still don't know about this enormous discovery! The Colville River site is a world-class deposit that holds many secrets that can only be revealed through future scientific work.
In 1998, another exciting new dinosaur discovery on Alaska’s North Slope included extensive dinosaur footprints called trackways. The trackways provide evidence of seven different meat- and plant-eating dinosaurs, and include very odd oval-shaped tracks of a yet unknown species. Equally significant, the tracks date from the middle Cretaceous period, about 90-110 million years ago, and are far older than the other bone fossils found on the North Slope.
In 2007, paleontologists used a excavated tunnel in the permafrost in the bank of the Colville River at a site about 375 miles north of Fairbanks to recover some of the best preserved dinosaur fossils ever found on the North Slope. This may even contain species never before discovered in Alaska or that are not found anywhere else but Alaska.
To date, at least 12 different types of dinosaurs have been fdiscovered on the North Slope. The first type found, and the one from which the greatest number of bones have been recovered, was an impressive plant-eater called Edmontosaurus. This is a hadrosaur, a large duck-billed dinosaur that walked on two legs, stood up to 10 feet tall, was more than 40 feet long, and weighed 3 or more tons when fully grown.
The surprise is that some of the same polar dinosaurs that lived in Alaska, also lived in areas as far south as Texas. Paleontologists hope to understand in the future how the polar dinosaurs survived the cold, whether they were warm-blooded like modern birds and mammals or coldblooded like modern reptiles, if dinosaurs migrated with the seasons, and why they became extinct.