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University museum unveils northern marine reptile fossil

16-foot fossilized ichthyosaur displayed to public in Fairbanks

Posted: Monday, February 09, 2009

FAIRBANKS - The University of Alaska Museum of the North has unveiled what officials call one of the largest, oldest and northernmost marine reptile fossils ever found.

Eric Engman / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Eric Engman / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

The 16-foot fossilized ichthyosaur was displayed to the public Saturday.

Officials say the fossil sat in the Brooks Range for almost 210 million years before it was discovered in 1950, eventually arriving in Fairbanks.

Scientists say the ichthyosaurs once roamed the Brooks Range. Back then, the area was a swampy wooded environment that possibly sat below sea level during the Mesozoic and early Triassic periods.

Scientists Bud Ken and Carl Benson discovered the fossil while mapping rocks in the foothills of the Brooks Range along Cutaway Creek. The find was 200 miles south of Point Barrow.

Benson wasn't a paleontologist, but he knew there was something unique about the fossil and quickly notified the U.S. Geological Survey.

It took more than 50 years to dig out the fossil.

It was moved to Fairbanks after museum officials recruited the Army Sugar Bears - a company of Chinook helicopter pilots - to retrieve the rock in which it was embedded as part of a training mission in 2002.

The fossil sat in museum storage for five years before it was rediscovered by Patrick Druckenmiller, an Earth sciences curator for the Museum of the North.

Paleontologists and museum curators have been cleaning and studying the fossilized marine reptile over the past year.

"There is a long process of figuring out each of the bones to determine what we know about this fossil," Druckenmiller said.

Michael Windham, 10, and Matthew Beckwith, 11, came to the museum Saturday to see the fossil. The boys decided they wanted to be scientists after seeing the artifact.

"It's like solving a puzzle," Beckwith said. "Seeing the skeleton there is cool, especially since it came from Alaska."

Druckenmiller said the ichthyosaur would have been roughly 25 feet long. Ichthyosaurs found in British Columbia were about 75 feet in length.



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