When we think about dinosaurs, we mostly imagine towering creatures pushing through jungle, surrounded by lush, tropical foliage.
But researchers looking further afield have discovered remains from these creatures farther and farther from the tropics and temperate zones, into the polar regions.
A new discovery shows that dinosaurs lived in environments so harsh they may have been very different creatures than we once thought.
On September 22, researchers working with the University of Alaska Museum of the North published a paper describing the discovery of a 30-foot-long duck-billed dinosaur that lived in the Arctic at the very top of Alaska, the farthest north of any known dinosaur species.
That a previously unknown unique species lived in a place with snowy, icy winters and four months without seeing the sun every year — the sort of environment we didn’t know they could survive in — shows that the dinosaurs might have been tougher, hardier, and more diverse than previously thought.
This new species is in the hadrosaur family and is named Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, meaning "ancient grazer" in the language of the local Alaskan Native Iñupiaq culture.
James HavensA painting of Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, the new species of duck-billed dinosaur, that illustrates a scene from ancient Alaska during the Cretaceous Period.
Along with its Godzilla-like crests and scales, scientists say, the dinosaur was approximately 6 or 7 feet tall at the hip and could walk on all fours, even though its back legs were much longer than its front legs.
Its mouth was filled with hundreds of grinding teeth that would have helped it tear through coarse vegetation, which might have been all that was available in the Arctic winters. The press release notes that Erickson and co-discoverer Pat Druckenmiller previously have shown that the Alaskan Arctic was covered in a type of polar forest back in the Cretaceous Period, when this dinosaur would have roamed the land, approximately 69 million years ago.
It was warmer then than now, but winters would still have been snowy and mostly lifeless, and the Arctic would have been dark for months at a time in winter.
UAMN photo by Pat DruckenmillerA paleontologist searches for dinosaur bones. The Liscomb Bone Bed crops out for over 200 feet along the base of this bluff.
The bones of the U. kuukpikensi came from an area known as the Liscomb Bone Bed along the Colville River. This area, in a region known as the North Slope of Alaska, is a tough place to reach. Researchers told The Times that a journey there involves a 500-mile drive from Fairbanks before boarding a plane with "balloon tires." They have to navigate the area itself in rubber boats. But all that effort is worth it: The site is a treasure trove where bones from three species of dinosaur have been found.
While most of those fossil records are still incomplete, there are more than 6,000 bones from the newly discovered grazer, providing what the researchers describe as "multiple elements of every single bone in the body" — enough to describe a new dinosaur.
"The finding of dinosaurs this far north challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology," Erickson said in the press release. "It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?"
The research was published in the international journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.
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