ANCHORAGE - A track from a three-toed dinosaur thought to be about 70 million years old was discovered in Denali National Park by a University of Alaska Fairbanks student.
The track from a theropod, a meat-eater, is the first dinosaur evidence found in the park, and caused its first paleontology closure. The track was found near the park road 35 miles from the park entrance close to the Igloo Campground.
Anthony Fiorillo, curator of earth sciences at the Dallas Museum of Natural History, said the importance of the find was its location in Interior Alaska, far from a coastline.
"It's not necessarily the track itself that's significant," he said "It's where it is that's got us all excited."
An Interior dinosaur likely would experience more seasonal variation in annual climate than creatures to the north or south, Fiorillo said.
Fiorillo and others have for years explored evidence of polar dinosaurs near the Colville River on Alaska's North Slope about 25 miles from the Arctic Ocean.
The discovery of the three-toed Cretaceous period dinosaur was made June 27 during a six-week field course of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Geology and Geophysics.
Paul McCarthy, associate professor of geology, was showing two undergraduate students, Susi Tomsich and Jeremiah Drawl, sedimentary rock that commonly preserves dinosaur tracks.
The three that day stayed close to the park road, which carries thousands of tourists by bus to park sites and past its abundant wildlife.
"It was either a wet day or a tired-leg day," McCarthy said.
McCarthy told the students to keep their eyes open because the outcroppings resembled rock structures that contained fossils elsewhere.
Tomsich spotted the track on the underside of a ledge.
"Something told me to look around and I did and I spotted this one," she said.
She pointed it out to McCarthy, who instantly recognized what she had found.
"Paul went, 'Woo-hoo!"' she said. "I'm mostly happy I looked where I looked."
"I gave a little howl," McCarthy said. "It was a big rush."
The track is 9 inches long and 6 inches wide.
The print looks like an oversized bird footprint, Fiorillo said.
From the size of the track, he estimates the meat-eater was 9 to 13 feet long.
"You are looking at a very large, birdlike animal except it has teeth and a tail and instead of wings, it has arms," he said. A rough comparison, he said, would be a scaled-down Tyrannosaurus rex.
The age was estimated based on fossil pollen present in the rock formation.
The track was nicely preserved, he said, probably a left foot.
"It's a perfectly good theropod track," he said. "There's no question as to who made it. It's not a plant eater."
Paleontologists do not know whether the theropod was young or old. Finding a second and third print might give an indication of the length of the dinosaur's stride and its height, Fiorillo said.