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Arctic dinosaurs demand their due

This weekend, Roland Gangloff, author of Dinosaurs Under the Aurora, is bringing news of a revolution in Arctic paleontology to Whitehorse and Haines Junction. Gangloff is a former professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

This weekend, Roland Gangloff, author of Dinosaurs Under the Aurora, is bringing news of a revolution in Arctic paleontology to Whitehorse and Haines Junction.

Gangloff is a former professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and an internationally respected dinosaur hunter. As an extra stitch of credibility in his mantle, he even has a dinosaur named after him: Alaskacephale gangloffi.

In his upcoming talk, Dinosaurs in the Arctic?! The Circumarctic Record of Dinosaurs with Emphasis on the Records in Alaska and Yukon Territory, Gangloff will make a case for the existence of significant dinosaur populations in the Arctic during the Late Cretaceous period - about 100 to 65 million years ago.

“That’s the first thing that I want to get across,” says Gangloff, “that people who worked on dinosaurs, in most popular accounts, had no idea that dinosaurs would ever be found in the Arctic and certainly not as far back as they were in the Mesozoic era, the so-called ‘Age of Dinosaurs.’”

At the end of the Cretaceous period, the dinosaurs vanished. Many scientists believe the extinction event resulted from a massive global-climate disruption caused by an asteroid impact. However, there are creditable claims for other causes.

Until the late 20th century, prehistorians had trouble wrapping their minds around the idea of dinosaurs ever roaming the Far Far North - braving the cold and dark near the North Pole and browsing under the northern lights.

“But the record is astounding,” says Gangloff. A mere hint of circumarctic dinosaur activity only came to light in 1960. Research really got underway in the late 1980s (about the time Gangloff moved to Fairbanks), but the data already collected is changing how we think about the ancient fauna, flora and landscape in the North, he says.

“It even surprised me and I was always one who felt we hadn’t looked at the Arctic enough.” Even before remnants of Arctic dinosaurs began to show up in appreciable numbers, Gangloff entertained some fascinating visions of northern dinosaurs. “We shouldn’t assume that dinosaurs could not take hold in the Arctic,” he warned.

This is a particularly significant, even essential, time to be rethinking the deep past of the Arctic. “The race for riches there is on,” Gangloff says. The fabled Northwest Passage is fable no more. “And we’ve got to make sure we don’t bulldoze over the Arctic,” he adds.

“I just want to get across that we must really focus more on the Arctic and our understanding of it if we’re going to thrive in the northern hemisphere.”

Gangloff and his colleagues have made a convincing case for the Arctic being warmer during the late Cretaceous than it has been recently. Evidence of plant communities and characteristics at the time is indicative of a milder climate, he says, perhaps even as far north as 80 degrees. The climate we have traditionally associated with an area from northern coastal California to southern coastal British Columbia was likely the norm at the end of the Late Cretaceous, at least for part of each year.

The Arctic did go through warming and cooling cycles, says Gangloff, and changes to dinosaur physiology were likely the result of their changing food plants rather than climate, at least directly.

Our dinosaurs, those of the western Arctic, likely crossed from Eastern Asia to Alaska and Canada on one of the Beringian “land bridges” that have periodically emerged from the sea when water levels dropped. Gangloff cautions, however, that “bridge” is a misnomer. It was actually more of a land mass, long and wide enough to provide sustenance, slow the journey for generations and even allow dinosaurs to evolve as they headed toward the east.

Finds in China have provided tantalizing clues as to what dinosaurs may have looked liked. Scientists have been able to locate remains of hemoglobin, pigmentation and DNA. Some dinosaurs, from which birds likely evolved, had feathers and some may have sported something like fur. Gangloff says we’ve been surprised many times, but we should also apply caution to our visualizations. Some artists’ renditions may be based more on fantastic imaginations than science. “Still we should never say never,” he says.

Dinosaur remains have also been found in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, on Axel Heiberg Island and Ellesmere Island. These dinosaurs may have arrived in eastern Arctic Canada from northern Europe via some sort of recurring land “bridge,” one some refer to as “Barentsia.”

Scientists are also hard at work identifying dinosaur remains in the Antarctic. In fact, for several years, more effort was going into locating dinosaurs who roamed beneath Borealis australis than the northern lights. After northern scientists “screamed and yelled,” though, Arctic paleontology has received more support, says Gangloff.

And that brings up another major goal of the senior paleontologist’s Yukon talk. “I try to encourage young people to go to the Arctic,” he says. Our knowledge of Arctic dinosaurs is growing quickly, but the North is also changing quickly and a generation of pioneering dinosaur hunters is rapidly reaching retirement age.

It’s time for the next generation to pack up their computers, trowels and toothbrushes and head into the Arctic. “Work there has barely scratched the surface,” Gangloff says.

Roland Gangloff will speak Sunday, June 7, at 7:30 p.m., in the Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse. On Monday, at 7:30 p.m., he will address the audience at the Kluane National Park and Reserve Visitor Centre in Haines Junction.