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Paleontologist Anthony Fiorillo studies Alaska dinosaurs

July 22 , 2016

by Lori Townsend

Alaska is a paleontological candy store. Those are the words of Texas-based scientist Anthony Fiorillo. He’s spent the last 19 years studying dinosaurs in Alaska. Before he left for this season’s Alaska field research, he spoke to APRN’s Lori Townsend, saying our state is so exciting to research because although the first fossils were found in 1961, the big work didn’t start until the mid 80s.

FIORILLO: So it’s very, very new. And now that more people are looking, there’s just a tremendous amount of opportunity here. And that’s what prompted me to think of a candy store. And somebody gave me the keys, and it’s been a great ride.

TOWNSEND: What are the more unique discoveries in Alaska?

FIORILLO: Boy! That’s a tough one. I would almost feel like every one of the discoveries is unique. The idea that we’re finding new animals isn’t really that surprising. You can almost predict it. Because we are so far away from where anything else had been found. And just by virtue of that, you think geographically, you could make a prediction that, ‘I’ll bet there’s gonna be some new material here.’ And in some cases, that’s been the case. There are other dinosaurs that are found in the lower 48, and that’s OK. And so there are some dinosaurs like troodon, for example, which is a small meat-eating dinosaur. You find it in abundance on the North Slope. But you can go to West Texas and find it as well. But then there are some unique dinosaurs like the pygmy Tyranasaur, Nanuqsaurus and then the horned dinosaur’s unique a Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum are two examples of unique dinosaurs to Alaska.

TOWNSEND: What’s on your agenda for this summer, where are you heading, and what are you looking for?

FIORILLO: We’re going out from King Salmon out to Aniakchak National Monument where we’ll spend the next couple weeks looking at rocks that we think are about the same age as the rocks we’ve been working on in Denali an the rocks that we were working on along the Colville River. And that ages about 70 million years. I worked this area about 2001, 2002 and this was a park that intrigued me for a number of reasons. And literally in the last two hours of that expedition, I looked on the ground and there was a hadrosaur footprint and two hand prints. And it was the first time anything like that had been found. And I was giddy and speechless and grabbed everybody to make sure that they saw this in case something happened to me. This was like the most important thing I think had ever been found in human history. At least that’s what I thought. So, I made sure that somebody knew about this thing, And that was the first record of a dinosaur from Southwestern Alaska for this age. And what was nice about that was it launched a lot of enthusiasm in the park service, the region, so that other parks then opened their doors for me to come and look. And now we’ve had this great success in Yukon Charlie and Wrangell-St. Elias but mostly spectacularly is Denali, which for the last 10,11,12 years we have found dinosaurs like it’s nobody’s business. And so we’re doing in Aniakchak is trying to extend. First we wanna confirm that these rocks are the same age. And from that we want to go into this area with this newly informed sense of what the ecosystem looked like and see if we can’t extend that transect all the way from Northern Alaska to Southern Alaska. And look at things across a really large region to understand what is determining biodiversity and ecosystem dynamics and things like that. And so it could be pretty exciting stuff.



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