An ancient 30-foot reptile from the North Pole with a duckbill and the habits of a herding moose. Strange and fantastic as it sounds, it’s a newly discovered species of dinosaur announced this week. Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis (oo-GROO'-nah-luk KOOK'-pik-en-sis) was a species of hadrosaur, or duckbilled dinosaur, that lived 69 million years ago in Alaska. The name derives from Inupiaq, the language of Alaska Inupiat Eskimos meaning “ancient grazer.”
To get a handle of how different the world was back in the late Cretaceous period, The Daily Beast talked to Pat Druckenmiller, earth sciences curator at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks, who co-authored the paper in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.
“At the time, Alaska was actually farther north than it is today, but the global climate was much warmer,” Druckenmiller says. “The temperatures we can tell from plant fossils…in the Polar Regions indicate it was probably around the low 40s in Fahrenheit. I think it’s pretty safe to say they saw freezing temperatures during the winter months and, very likely, snow.”
Different as the climate was, there are some things about northern latitudes that never change. “Because they were so close to the North Pole (roughly 80°N) they would have experienced 3-4 months of complete winter darkness,” Druckenmiller says. “This is as far north as we believe or know dinosaurs to have ever existed.”
Ugrunaaluks lived in an area that “was definitely a forested zone,” says Druckenmiller. “The dominant trees during that time were deciduous conifers—trees that shed their needles every year,” he continues. “The understory would have consisted of things like ferns and horsetails and some other small, flowering plants.”
According to Druckenmiller, “their primary food was the conifer needles” off the trees, and they probably ate the ferns too.
“In the winter they probably had to do what moose do today, in terms of foraging off bark and twigs and branches,” he says. “Duckbilled dinosaurs have a really interesting set of teeth called dental batteries—instead of rows of teeth like you and I have, each side of the check [has] an upper and lower battery made of dozens of teeth that work together to form a broad grinding surface.”
This is unusual for reptiles because “living plant-eating reptiles generally don’t chew; they simply grab vegetation, swallow, and do the rest in their gut. Duckbilled dinosaurs actually had the ability to chew and grind their food.”
In terms of animal biodiversity, Druckenmiller explains: “Right now we have evidence for at least 13 different types of dinosaur, including both meat- and plant-eating types.” Researchers are still investigating yet another species of hadrosaur in the region. Bird tracks from that era have been found, and it was also known to be home to four kinds of rodent-sized mammals.
Though moderate in climate, the land was not without its dangers. “The apex predators would have been dinosaurs,” Druckenmiller says. “In particular, we see the presence of a smaller relative of the T-Rex called Nanuqsaurus, which would have been one of its main predators. The young ones would have also looked out for a human-sized carnivore called the Troodon.”
There were at least four other types of small- to medium-sized meat-eating dinosaurs, including very close relatives of the Velociraptor,” which were about the size of “an overgrown turkey.”
The museum has excavated over 6,000 bones since the late 1980s. Druckenmiller explains that “the site that these bones came from is a bone bed deposit,” which is “a layer of rock—in this case it’s about 2-3 feet thick, chock-a-block full of dinosaur bones.”
He continues: “What probably happened here is these animals were part of a herd that died catastrophically.” One of the likely possibilities is a snowmelt flood off of the Brooks Range.
“Hundreds of these animals” were found in the bed, says Druckenmiller. “When you find a bone bed there’s a good side and a bad side. The good side is you have lots and lots and lots of bones. The bad side is typically the bones are completely disarticulated. It’s like dinosaurs in a blender—it’s just a huge mess of bones!”
So how, exactly, does Druckenmiller establish a new dinosaur species? “When I showed up here at the museum, I had this huge collection of bones and nobody had sat down and studied them yet,” he says. “I get up to this area and collect more bones every summer, but there was already a huge sample size to work with.”
Establishing a new species of dinosaur “comes down to the field of comparative anatomy,” Druckenmiller explains. “Over time you build up a list of important features that are different from other species” found in other museum collections. If a paper passes peer review, that “proves that it’s different, you create and propose a new name.” That paper was published Tuesday, making the name official.