Dinosaurs in the museum lobby
The lobby at the University of Alaska Museum of the North now features the skeletons of a newly discovered species of duck-billed dinosaur called Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis. They roamed the North Slope in herds 69 million years ago, living in darkness for months at a time.
The species was recently named by scientists, including the museum’s earth sciences curator Pat Druckenmiller and his student Hiro Mori, to honor the Iñupiaq people who live in that area today. The name means “ancient grazer of the Colville River.” The dinosaur is unique to the Arctic and Alaska.
Druckenmiller said the mounts were created using specimens from the museum’s collection. “More than 6,000 bones of Ugrunaaluk have been collected, giving us an exceptionally complete idea of the anatomy of this animal.”
The three skeletons are each about nine feet long. That’s bigger than an adult caribou! But these were not fully grown dinosaurs. They were juveniles, like most of the duck-billed dinosaurs discovered at the Lipscom bone bed fossil site in northern Alaska. Druckenmiller said adult bones are relatively rare at that location. “But what we have found suggests that adults reached nearly 25 feet in length.“
The museum’s skeleton mounts are built from plastic resin casts of real bones housed in the museum’s collection, so they look completely real. The display features casts of the fossils and not the real bones, so the bones are not damaged and can be available for research and education.
The mounts are displayed in front of a large painting by Anchorage artist James Havens. Museum educator Gabrielle Vance said that pairing brings the fossil discoveries to life. “Many people are surprised to learn that dinosaurs once lived in Alaska. With the mountains and aurora, the mural places the hadrosaurs firmly in Alaska but also shows how different northern Alaska was when they roamed a polar forest teeming with life.”
Hadrosaurs, another name for duck-billed dinosaurs, ate only plants and had flattened jaws like the bill of a duck. They were large animals. The name means “bulky (or heavy) lizards.” They were one of the most common dinosaurs in the Late Cretaceous Period, near the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.
Vance said it is fun for kids to see a juvenile hadrosaur as it once looked. The mounts also help visitors understand the skeletons in their entirety. Fossils found by paleontologists are not usually so complete, intact or nicely articulated.
“We can see all the bones and how they fit together and start to imagine what they looked like when they were alive, how they moved and behaved and the tracks they left,” Vance said. “The mounts connect science and sculpture to remind people that Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis is the most completely known Arctic dinosaur in the world.”