Ancient marine reptile fossil kept its head
FEBRUARY 2013 - When the rock slabs containing a thalattosaur specimen were shipped to Fairbanks in 2011, Earth Sciences Curator Pat Druckenmiller hoped there would be a skull somewhere in those 500 pounds of rock.
Since the tail was well-preserved in the exposed fossil found in a rocky underwater outcrop in Southeast Alaska, Druckenmiller expected to uncover the rest of the skeleton. Now, thanks to the fossil preparation skills of J.P. Cavigelli, the prep lab manager at the Tate Geological Museum in Casper, Wyoming, that is closer to coming true.
When Druckenmiller invited Cavigelli to come north (his first visit to Alaska), he quickly exposed one of the hind paddle-like limbs of the thalattosaur.. The next day, he revealed the skull.
Cavigelli is only here for a few days, but thanks to Tongass National Forest geologist Jim Baichtal and the US Forest Service, who are supporting this project, the work will continue.
The earth sciences team expects to have one of the best-preserved thalattosaur fossils in the world and maybe even a new species.
"It’s reasonably complete and once we reveal more of the skeleton, we will be able to compare it to other thalattosaurs to see if it is a new species,” said Druckenmiller. But even if it is a known species, it will be one of the best specimens ever found in North America and possibly anywhere else in the world. The thalattosaur is currently one of Alaska’s most compete fossil vertebrates.
The animal died in the ocean and then settled into mud at the bottom of the sea floor. The mud eventually turned to rock, entombing the skeleton for nearly 220 million years. Because this preservation of a complete fossil is a rare event, the specimen is a major find.