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8 08, 2015

Alaska’s First Elasmosaur

By | August 8th, 2015|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Dinosaur Fans, Main Page|0 Comments

First Elasmosaur Specimen Found in Alaska

Alaska may be famous for many things, but in palaeontological circles it is the Dinosauria that usually grab the headlines when it comes to the largest and most sparsely populated U.S. State.  However, an expedition to the remote Talkeetna Mountains by scientists from the University of Alaska Museum of the North have discovered cervical vertebrae from a large plesiosaurid, an elasmosaur, the first marine reptile of this type to have been discovered in the most northerly part of the USA.

Life in Alaska some Seventy Million Years Ago

Elasmosaurs illustrated.

Elasmosaurs illustrated.

Picture credit: James Havens

Alaska’s First Elasmosaur

Elasmosaurus was one of the last and the largest of the long-necked plesiosaurids.  During the Late Cretaceous, North America was divided by a huge inland sea (the Western Interior Seaway), elasmosaur fossils have been found in a number of U.S. States as well as in Canada, this new discovery is significant as not only is it the first elasmosaur to be found in Alaska, it supports the theory that large marine reptiles lived at very high latitudes.

Although, Late Cretaceous Alaska was much milder than it is today, it would still have been cold with surface sea temperatures dropping to near freezing at times and for much of the year there would have been very little daylight.  This isolated fossil discovery provides evidence that large marine reptiles (the specimen is believed to exceed eight metres in length), did indeed live in the far north, and it tantalises palaeontologists who can speculate on whether this creature was a permanent resident or whether elasmosaurs were seasonal migrants.

An Extraordinary Long Neck

The most striking feature of the elasmosaurids were their extraordinarily long necks.  Approximately, fifty percent of the animal’s entire body length was made up of its neck.  These reptiles had over 70 cervical vertebrae, ten times the amount than in the neck of a human being (Homo sapiens).  Described back in 1868 from fossil remains found in Kansas, only one species is regarded as valid at the moment, E. platyurus.

The story of the first Alaskan elasmosaurid, began a few years ago.  Curvin Metzler a keen, amateur fossil collector who enjoyed hiking and exploring the slopes of the Talkeetna range found several fragments of fossil bone close to a steep hillside.  These were the first vertebrate fossils that he had found in the area and knowing that they could represent something important he contacted the Earth Sciences curator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, Patrick Druckenmiller and persuaded him to visit the location.

Patrick and a couple of colleagues duly visited in June and they were able to follow the bone erosion trail leading back to a section of strata in the hill where a good portion of the skeleton including some beautifully preserved, articulated cervical vertebrae lay exposed.

A Cervical Vertebrae (arrowed) Eroding out of the Surrounding Matrix

The red arrow points to a neck bone eroding out of the cliff.

The red arrow points to a neck bone eroding out of the cliff.

Picture credit: Patrick Druckenmiller/additional annotation by Everything Dinosaur

Exciting Discovery

Commenting on his discovery, Mr Metzler stated:

“I’m mostly interested in finding invertebrates, so when I saw the first vertebra I knew it was a bone from something. I didn’t want to disturb anything in the cliff so it was exciting to talk to Pat.  We are lucky to have someone in the State who works with fossils.”

Identifying the Last Resting Place of a Marine Reptile

Curvin Metzler (left), who discovered the Elasmosaur fossil and Patrick Druckenmiller examine the spot where bones were found sticking out of the cliff in the Talkeetna Mountains.

Curvin Metzler (left), who discovered the elasmosaur fossil and Patrick Druckenmiller examine the spot where bones were found sticking out of the cliff in the Talkeetna Mountains.

Picture credit: Patrick Druckenmiller

A New Species?

This could represent a new species, but it is too early to tell.  Although the team were able to collect a substantial portion of the exposed remains, there is probably more of the fossil specimen buried in the rock face, trouble is, there is more than ten metres of overburden on top and the fossil collecting season this far north is very short.

Undeterred Dr Druckenmiller explained:

“We got a good chunk of the animal but there is still more to excavate.” 

A field team will return to the site next summer to complete the extraction work.

Preparing Elasmosaurid Vertebrae in the Field

Wrapping the articulated cervical vertebrae in burlap and plaster to protect the fossils dring removal.

Wrapping the articulated cervical vertebrae in burlap and plaster to protect the fossils during removal.

Picture credit: Patrick Druckenmiller

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur outlined the importance of this discovery, explaining that there were a number of Mesozoic aged formations in Alaska, many of which had yielded marine reptiles, but the rocks that had provided marine reptile fossils from this State were much older than the Talkeetna strata.

To read about the discovery of a Triassic marine reptile from Alaska: Thalattosaur discovered in Alaska at Low Tide.

A Geologically Younger Specimen

In the press release from the Museum, the strata is estimated to be around 70 million years of age (Maastrichtian faunal stage), whereas, most Elasmosaurus fossils from North America are associated with older Campanian faunal stage deposits.

A Model of an Elasmosaurus

Cretaceous Plesiosaur

Cretaceous plesiosaur – Elasmosaurus model.

Picture credit: Everything Dinosaur

Many models of Elasmosaurus depict this creature with a flexible, snake-like head.  This is inaccurate, Elasmosaurus had a very stiff neck, however, it still was a very effective hunter of fish.  The enormous neck enabled it to get up close to shoals before the bulk of the body came into view.  The sharp, interlocking teeth made an efficient fish grab.

Recently, Safari Ltd introduced an updated replica of Elasmosaurus, to view this model and others in the Safari Ltd range: Safari Ltd. Prehistoric Animal Models.

8 08, 2015

Alaska’s Very Own Loch Ness Monster

By | August 8th, 2015|General Teaching|Comments Off on Alaska’s Very Own Loch Ness Monster

Elasmosaurus Fossil Discovered in Alaska

The fossilised remains of a giant marine reptile have been uncovered by scientists in Alaska.  The fossils representing an Elasmosaurus, an animal that belongs to the plesiosaur family, were found by an amateur fossil hunter who was hiking in the Talkeetna Mountain range when he came across several fragments of fossilised bone that had fallen down from a hillside.  Realising their importance of the Elasmosaurus fossil, he recorded the location and contacted palaeontologists based at the University of Alaska Museum of the North who subsequently excavated the articulated remains.

Alaska’s Loch Ness Monster

Elasmosaurus had an extremely long neck.  It superficially resembles the mythical Loch Ness Monster (believed by some to be a plesiosaur).  No fossils of an Elasmosaurus have been found this far north before.

At Home in the Seas of the Late Cretaceous – A Model of an Elasmosaurid

Alaska's Loch Ness Monster - an elasmosaurid.

Alaska’s Loch Ness Monster – an elasmosaurid.

Picture credit: Everything Dinosaur

Elasmosaurus Fossils

At an estimated eight metres in length, the fossils, which include impressive cervical vertebrae (neck bones), represent a substantial marine creature, one that would be about the size of an extant female Orca (Orcinus orca), although about 50% of the animal’s body length would have been made up of that very long neck.  Humans have just seven neck bones (cervical vertebrae), whilst elasmosaurs had more than seventy.

Plesiosaur Fossils

Plesiosaur fossils.

Brandon with his plesiosaur fossils.  The Plesiosauria were geographically widespread during the Mesozoic.

Picture credit: Brandon Lennon

The picture (above), shows Brandon Lennon holding some plesiosaur vertebrae found on the famous “Jurassic Coast”.

A Significant Fossil Find

A spokesperson from Everything Dinosaur stated:

“This is a significant fossil find.  Ammonites and other invertebrate fossils are relatively common in the Talkeetna range, but to find the preserved remains of an elasmosaur is really special.  It is not known at this stage whether this specimen represents a new species of marine reptile.  In addition, it is hoped that a study of the bones and the matrix surrounding them will help scientists to obtain data that helps them to determine whether this creature was a resident or a transient, seasonal visitor to the seas this far north.”

Despite the very short excavation window, the scientists have managed to remove a substantial number of fossils.  It is hoped that a field team will be sent out next summer to further explore the area in a bid to find skull material which would aid the scientists immensely in their research.

Everything Dinosaur stocks a huge range of marine reptile models, including plesiosaurs such as elasmosaurids: Sea Monsters and Marine Reptiles.

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