Professor helps find pliosaur skeleton

Posted: Monday, March 17, 2008

FAIRBANKS - Patrick Druckenmiller spent three weeks last summer on the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, working in freezing temperatures and looking out for polar bears.

In return, he may have helped discover a new species.

Druckenmiller, earth science curator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, helped a Norwegian research team excavate a large pliosaur skeleton. After laboratory examination, researchers at the Natural History Musuem at the University of Oslo confirmed that the fossil is perhaps the largest pliosaur ever found and may be a new species of extinct marine reptile.

"The vertebrae, shoulder girdle and the paddle all point to something new," Jorn H. Hurum, the expedition leader and an associate professor of vertebreate palentology at the University of Oslo, said in an e-mail.

Pliosaurs are part of a group of extinct reptiles that lived in the world's oceans 205 million to 65 million years ago. The animals had tear-shaped bodies with two pairs of powerful flippers used to propel them through the water. The species averaged 16 to 20 feet in length with flippers that were 3 to 4 feet long. The Svalbard specimen, nicknamed "The Monster," is estimated to be 50 feet long and the scientists speculate that it had 10-foot flippers.

Druckenmiller estimates the team found only 25 percent to 30 percent of the creature, but he said the parts that were found are important. The team excavated the shoulder girdle, which can determine the specific species, and part of the skull, which can help researchers determine the diet and behavior of the animal. The skull also contained teeth, which revealed a lot about the size of "The Monster."

"They were banana-sized teeth - bigger than a T-Rex," Druckenmiller said.

Druckenmiller said he hopes his work will better establish the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a research school for fossil vertebrates and create more excitement for his field of study. In other fields of study, Druckenmiller said, there are many UAF researchers working in the field. He was the only UAF researcher on Svalbard.

"There are a few hundred specialists on fossil vertebrates in the world, if you count all of the researchers working on fish, reptiles, mammals, birds, etc," Hurum said. "But in marine reptiles there just a handful - less than 20 probably - and (Druckenmiller) is one of them."

In addition to "The Monster," the excavation team found parts of a long-necked plesiosaur - a member of the same marine reptile order as the pliosaur - and an icthyosaur, a sea reptile that superficially resembles the modern dolphin.

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