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Dallas scientist digs Alaska’s dinosaurs

A Dallas scientist with a passion for Arctic dinosaurs and a University of Alaska Fairbanks geologist have secured $450,000 from the National Science Foundation to study dinosaur bonebeds on the North Slope, announced the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

Principal investigator Tony Fiorillo, curator of earth sciences at the museum, says the fossil beds found along the Colville River-which include remains of dinosaurs as well as those of other vertebrates- could help document what the ancient Arctic land and coastal ecosystem was like during a “greenhouse” period in Earth’s history more than 65 million years ago.

In addition to providing information about the region’s dinosaurs, the research could be important for “better understanding Earth history at a critical time of biological diversity, mass extinction and climate change,” according to Fiorillo’s proposal. Fiorillo will be collaborating with UAF geologist Paul McCarthy.

Funding for researching dinosaurs in Alaska has long been almost as scarce as the extinct creatures themselves. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the first dinosaur fossils in the state were even identified. Since then, dinosaur research here has been rare.

But Fiorillo is part of a small, persistent cadre of paleontologists who believe that dinosaur finds at both poles may hold important information about the early history of Earth ecosystems. For years now, he has been collaborating with Alaska researchers to pursue promising finds, such as this summer’s discovery of dinosaur trackways on the banks of the Kaolok River, south of Wainwright. As he recently told a gathering at a national paleontological meeting, evidence of dinosaurs there and on the Alaska Peninsula may support the idea of a land bridge between Asia and North America millions of years earlier than previously documented.

Such findings are just “the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “I’ve often told people that Alaska is a great paleontological candy store waiting for someone to unlock the door and go in.”

Alaska dinosaurs may have a low profile, but they have been making a big impression in Texas. Last Thursday, more than 850 supporters of the Dallas museum of Natural History paid $150 per plate to hear from Fiorillo and see fossils and plaster casts of footprints from his Alaska travels. “That is by far the largest party we’ve ever had,” Fiorillo said. “Something is generating a lot of enthusiasm.”

Or someone. Fiorillo has not limited his conversations about Alaska dinosaurs to meetings of his peers. The museum curator has shared photos and writings from his expeditions through museum newsletters and exhibits. An article he wrote about his Alaska research is featured in the December Scientific American

The National Science Foundation grant and recent support for paleontology from the National Park Service promise to make big things possible for dinosaur research in Alaska, says Fiorillo. One of his hopes, he says, is that he may use the interest in the paleontology of Alaska to develop a museum studies program for rural Alaska students, to involve the community in collecting and interpreting data.

He also seeks to put the Dallas museum on the map as a leader in the study of polar dinosaurs. Why should a Texas museum be a leader in Arctic research? “Why not?” says Fiorillo. “You follow your curiosities - and my curiosities have led me to Alaska.”

Work on the Colville River sites will begin in 2005.

-Sonya Senkowsky
(This story originally appeared in the Anchorage Chronicle)

[Read more at Alaska Newspapers Inc. (offline only)]

Sonya Senkowsky | Posted 11.29.04 at 7:28 am

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