ILLUSTRATION BY JAMES HAVENSA species of duck-billed dinosaur grazed on plants above the Arctic Circle about 69 million years ago. And scientists have uncovered skeletal remains from the 30-foot-long Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, which means ancient grazer of the Colville River in the Inupiaq language of Alaska’s native Inuit people, making it the farthest north that such fossils have been unearthed. “The finding of dinosaurs this far north challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology,” Florida State University paleontologist Greg Erickson, who led the team, said in a statement released last week (September 22). “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?”
Erickson and his team, which comprised researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, trekked several miles into the Alaskan wilderness and rappelled down steep cliffs along the Colville River several hundred miles north of Fairbanks to dig up more than 6,000 dino bones from the site. The team reported its findings in a recent issue of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. “[This] is far and away the most complete dinosaur yet found in the Arctic or any polar region,” study coauthor Patrick Duckenmiller of the University of Alaska Museum of the North told Western Digs. “We have multiple elements of every single bone in the body.”
U. kuukpikensis was likely very different from the dozens of other hadrosaur species that were living at more southerly latitudes during the same time. “These animals were living in a very strange world,” Duckenmiller told The New York Times. “They probably had freezing and snow in winter. And they had to survive four months of complete darkness. Finding food would be difficult.” Perhaps as a result of the sparse vegetation, U. kuukpikensis had about 1,400 teeth that were perfect for grinding up tough plants, the researchers reported.
Erickson and his colleagues will reportedly continue their digs in Alaska in an effort to better understand the nature of prehistoric plant and animal communities at such high latitudes. “Alaska is basically the last frontier,” Erickson said in the statement. “It’s virtually unexplored in terms of vertebrate paleontology. So, we think we’re going to find a lot of new species.”