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Effie the Woolly Mammoth: University of Alaska Museum of the North

The Discovery

In August of 1948, an unusual fossil was washed out of the much at a gold mine located on Fairbanks Creek, north of Fairbanks. It was the head, foreleg, and shoulder of a very young Pleistocene mammoth. It was nicknamed “Effie,” after the Fairbanks Exploration (FE) branch of the United States Smelting, Refining, & Mining Company. A carbon 14 date from Effie’s skin indicated that it died approximately 21,300 years ago.

Scientific Importance

The preservation of the skin, muscles, and connective tissue makes Effie the best preserved mammoth to be found in North America. These remains have furnished comparative material for the identification of blood stains on Alaskan stone artifacts that were used to kill and/or butcher mammoths. In addition, DNA analysis from Effie’s tissue will help us understand to what extent the breeding lines of mammoth have diverged from a common ancestor.

Preservation

Effie was in several parts when discovered. The mummy was the carefully embalmed, and the tears stitched together by University of Alaska scientists. The tearing was probably due to scavenging before burial. Effie would have been eaten almost entirely because the bones of such a young animal are soft and poorly ossified. The tip of the trunk was missing because it was eaten off. It is difficult to estimate the season of death because Effie lacked teeth, hair, and internal organs. Burial would have taken place during spring when snow was melting or possibly after a rare summer thunderstorm. It would have taken very little silt to bury this mammoth because it was so small. The skull and the rest of the skin were probably dragged away and not covered by silt, or the miners did not recognize the remains as they were washed away.

Age and the Circumstances of Death

Effie’s size is the only clue to its age. An elephant in its first year averages about a meter at the shoulder, and based on this, Effie probably died during its first year. Elephants lose about half of their young during the first couple of years, and this probably held true for mammoths as well. Few elephant calves are actually killed by predators as the mother is too good a protector. However, since the female has to nurse the calf through its first winter, her condition is critical. Any female who produces less than optimum amounts and quality of milk is likely to lose her young. In this case, the young would be more likely to catch some disease, have an accident, or simply starve.

Conclusion

Effie was probably not killed by a predator, but died from malnutrition or an accident. The carcass would have been protected by the mother for a few days, then abandoned. Scavengers such as wolves, wolverines, or lions would have moved in, tearing through the tough skin to get to the other, more choice parts. Effie’s death was not unusual. It was a natural and common part of the mammoth’s life history. The death of such a young animal had little impact on the mammoth population as the mother soon came into estrous and had another young a couple of years later. The gestation period of elephants is about 22 months, a trait fairly constant in proboscideans. Mammoths probably had similar gestation periods.

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Zooarchaeology

Zooarchaeology is the study of animals in how they relate to human activities in the past. Discovering middens or waste piles of bone and other debris can help determine the species of animals harvested in the past for food, shelter, clothing, or tools. Looking through the bones and identifying each and every one of them to the best of the zooarchaeologist’s ability can allow for an understanding of the breadth of diet in both the number and species utilized. If there is any depth to the midden, careful collection and separation layers can help identify a change in harvest activities over time. From these data notions of climate and environmental change can be created or corroborated with other data. 

The first order of business is to separate each bone into the appropriate class. This generally means mammal, birds, and fish. In more southerly regions than Alaska this could also require reptilian or amphibian categories. This is often done by gauging the porosity and texture of the bone. Mammal bones are usually more dense, bird bones are generally hollow, and fish bone have a woody texture.

Once separated a more intensive identification can me made In order to determine the genus or species of the animals present. Zooarchaeologists must have a comparative collection for animals thought to be found in their study area. Sometimes this can be done with an articulated skeleton, such as the juvenile sea lion seen above. Although generally more helpful is a comparative collection in which similar elements (femur, humerus, etc) are kept together labeled with an identification number that ties the bone to the known species of its origin.

Manuals can also be helpful especially when identifying specific features on the bone or when a representative sample of a suspected species is not obtainable. These collections can get rather large and can fill up an entire room, but after many hours of poring over both the known and unknown collections, the process becomes a bit easier.

The problem with a known collection is that it always seems to be limited. There are always more species to be obtained. This is why zooarchaeologists are always out looking for more specimen to add to their collection. Generally this comes in the form of roadkill which often leaves broken or partial skeletons, but sometimes an animal is nice enough to have died unscathed. It’s those unknown causes of death when you wear gloves, boys and girls.

A special thanks goes to those listed below for allowing me access to these wonderful bones:

  1. Katmai National Park & Preserve (National Park Service)
  2. Alaska Consortium of Zooarchaeologists (University of Alaska, Anchorage)
  3. University of Alaska Museum of the North (Univeristy of Alaska, Fairbanks)
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SIZING ALASKA’S MASKED SHREWS - Lathrop High School Senior Kelly May is headed to the National Junior Science & Humanities Symposium in Ohio this month with a research project refuting an earlier study on the effects of climate change on Alaska’s shrews. For this year’s Alaska Statewide High School Science Symposium (ASHSSS), May repeated a study published in 2005 using masked shrew specimens housed at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

The original study, which concluded that shrews in Alaska are getting larger, was based entirely on data downloaded from the museum’s online database. The authors were not able to inspect each specimen. May believed that not accounting for age in the original research may have biased the results, so he tracked down each of the 650 specimens used in the original study.

Each shrew species has a unique tooth pattern. Since Alaska’s shrews can be difficult to identify, May first confirmed the specimens were the correct species (Sorex cinereus). Determining the age involved looking at the degree of wear on their teeth. Shrews do not hibernate and are active year round but they rarely live more than 15 months. Adults that survive a winter show significant tooth wear, while shrews born in the spring do not.

May learned that young shrews are significantly smaller than overwintered adults and that overwintered females are bigger than overwintered males. In contrast to previously published claims, this means that age and sex both need to be accounted for in studies of body size in shrews, according to the museum’s curator of mammals, Link Olson.

By analyzing juvenile and adult specimens separately and accounting for sex, May found that individual shrews are actually getting smaller but that more are surviving the winter, meaning that the proportion of (larger-bodied) adults in a given population is increasing. So although the two studies reached seemingly similar conclusions, May’s results shed new light on the underlying mechanism:  shrews aren’t growing to a larger body size, they’re just surviving winters better.

In June, May will travel to Philadelphia to present his research at the annual meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists. May plans to attend UAF in the fall.

DALL SHEEP SKULL - This photo was made from scans a team from the Idaho Virtualization Lab took when they came to Fairbanks over the summer. This is the skull of a juvenile female Dall sheep (UAM-15638) that was harvested in October of 1983. The skeleton was donated to the mammalogy department.

In August, the group of archaeologists and paleontologists scanned hundreds of bones from the museum’s collections for their 3D image database of every bird, fish, and mammal in the arctic. The Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project has worked closely with museums like the Smithsonian Institution and the Burke Museum in Seattle, but a few elusive species that couldn’t be found in those collections brought them to Fairbanks.

They took digital images of a bowhead whale skeleton, as well as the bones of polar bears, walrus, and other whales, like the narwhal.

The imaging team is now churning out photos created from those scans they took this summer. You can check their Facebook page for more examples.

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ANCIENT DNA HELPS DETERMINE TREESHREW SPECIES

Scientists at the University of Alaska Museum of the North are using ancient DNA from museum specimens housed at several U.S. museums to find out whether one particular species of treeshrew (Tupaia glis) is actually several different species.

Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, Mammals Curator Link Olson and his colleagues are using both DNA and skeletal evidence. Their work is featured on the cover of the current issue of the Journal of Mammalogy.

“We tested our own previous hypothesis based solely on DNA extracted from historic museum specimens up to 120 years old in the museum’s Ancient DNA Laboratory,” Olson said.

The scientists obtained skeletal data by X-raying the specimens to accurately measure the foot bones. “We found congruence between the two types of data and were consequently able to resurrect three species from synonymy, including the one gracing the cover. This served as a test case, and we anticipate many more treeshrew species will be rescued from taxonomic oblivion in the near future.”

The scientists hope their work will aid conservation and management decisions in Southeast Asia, one of the world’s hottest biodiversity hotspots that is undergoing rapid and accelerating rates of habitat destruction.

 

DIGGING DINOSAUR BONES –  When Katherine Anderson stepped off a small plane outside the village of Ruby in the summer of 2013, she didn’t know what to expect. She was there to meet an earth sciences expedition from the University of Alaska Museum of the North. A week prior, the crew had launched a flotilla of inflatable rafts on a hunt for dinosaur tracks along the Yukon River.

PHOTO ABOVE: Collection Manager Katherine Anderson holds a dinosaur footprint discovered along the Yukon River in the summer of 2013 on an expedition by the UA Museum of the North earth sciences department. Photo by Meg O’Connor

Although experienced in scientific field work, this was the first time Anderson had ventured off the road system in Alaska. What she and the others would discover was unique to the entire field of paleontology.  “I didn’t have a solid idea of what we were going to find but I certainly wasn’t expecting the amount of success we had. The sheer number of fossil tracks blew me away.”

The team discovered thousands of dinosaur footprints from a wide variety of species. It was the kind of discovery you would have expected a hundred years ago, evidence of an entire ecosystem of animals. There were ankylosaur footprints from the tanks of the dinosaur world, along with the first sauropod footprints found in the state. These were the long-necked giants that moved in herds.

Retired museum staff member Steve Bouta found this fossil on a scouting trip along the Yukon River in the summer of 2012. The following year, UAF students Katherine Anderson and Meghan Shay relocated the theropod footprint much farther down the river. It is now on display in the “Expedition Alaska: Dinosaur” exhibit at the UA Museum of the North. Photo by Kevin May

Anderson was particularly proud of relocating a track from a large meat-eating dinosaur, possibly a tyrannosaur. The fossil was discovered on an earlier scouting mission. She and her colleague Meghan Shay searched along a stretch of beach, comparing more than a dozen boulders to a picture.
Finally, they scouted a rock half buried in sediment. When they turned it over they discovered the fossil they were looking for, a footprint so distinct it could have been cast a few weeks ago instead of many millions of years. “We were very lucky to relocate such an amazing fossil. It even preserves a claw mark on one of the toes.”

That fossil is now on display in the museum’s special exhibit “Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs.” Visitors can see some of the tracks found along the Yukon River in the exhibit. And during the month of November, the museum is offering a series of hands-on programs exploring dinosaurs.

Educator Gabrielle Vance said kids will learn about recent discoveries, from pterosaur tracks in Denali National Park to marine reptile finds in Southeast Alaska, even a new species of duck-billed dinosaur that once lived on the North Slope.

“It’s amazing to me that when Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis was roaming around Arctic Alaska, that part of the state was even farther north than it is today,” she said. “It may have been warmer, but the seasonal darkness would have been even more extreme.”

Imagine traveling back in time 69 million years. This polar forest environment would have been teeming with dinosaurs and tiny mammals.
Telling the story of Alaska’s Age of Dinosaurs is more complex than ever, thanks to discoveries made in just the past few decades. There are even lots of options for picking a favorite.

“Troödon is my favorite North Slope resident of ancient Alaska,” Vance said. “This fast, solitary and sneaky carnivore walked on two legs and ate hadrosaur eggs and babies. Poor Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis!”

Called the “Coyote of the Cretaceous,” Troödon had a large brain relative to its body size and may have been as intelligent as modern birds.

The museum’s collections include fossil bones, teeth, tracks and even feces, or coprolites. These fossils help us understand what Alaska dinosaurs looked like, what they ate, where they went and how they moved.

For Anderson, her current position as the museum’s earth sciences collection manager is a dream come true. After pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology, she wanted to learn more about bones, including how they grow and what they look like under a microscope. “The only lab I could work on research about bones was a paleontology lab.”

That’s how she got hooked!

Now she studies the microstructure of bones to learn about the biology of extinct animals. Her research answers questions like “how did they grow?”

“I do this by studying very thin cross sections of bone using a microscope,” Anderson said. “I am interested in any animal that would have encountered immense physiological challenges and would have had biological strategies to deal with those challenges. This definitely includes Arctic dinosaurs.”

Anderson is also interested in marine reptiles that lived in the ocean at the same time dinosaurs lived on land. These animals lacked several key characteristics that make a true dinosaur, including special openings in the skull, an upright stance and hips and legs built for running.

A thalattosaur fossil discovered near Kake in Southeast Alaska was excavated and shipped to the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Photo by Pat Druckenmiller

Anderson said her favorite fossil in the exhibit is the thalattosaur, a rare find discovered in 2011 near the village of Kake in Southeast Alaska. It is one of the most complete thalattosaur skeletons in the world.

Visitors to the special exhibit “Expedition Alaska: Dinosaurs” can also connect with ancient Alaska through art. They can pore over Ray Troll’s map of Alaska fossils, try their hand at drawing a dinosaur and immerse themselves in the world of Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis via James Havens’ mural located in the lobby. Don’t forget to look for a mammal in the painting.

At the special dinosaur edition of this month’s family day, visitors can see specimens that aren’t usually on display and perhaps catch a glimpse of the museum’s elusive life-sized dinosaur puppet, Snaps.

In the meantime, Anderson recommends that kids do something that will help them pursue a career in paleontology or any science:  be curious and never stop asking questions.

Still think anomalocaris was the top predator of trilobites? Whitey Hagadorn, the geology curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, will present research debunking that theory at a free public lecture Friday at noon in the museum auditorium.

Read all about his research in this story on Wired.com.

“We found that it’s extremely unlikely Anomalocaris could eat most trilobites,” said James Whitey Hagadorn, the research team’s leader and a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “It couldn’t close its mouth all of the way, its mouth was too soft to crush trilobite shells.”

(via Giant Vicious-Looking Ancient Shrimp Was a Disappointing Wimp | Wired Science | Wired.com)

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BISON BOB - One of the treasures featured at the museum’s first Night Out at UAMN event is an extinct steppe bison discovered by UAF scientists on an eroding riverbank last summer. The creature died almost 40,000 years ago during the last ice age. It was preserved in permafrost.

This isn’t the first time that’s happened. Blue Babe, a popular specimen on display in the museum’s Gallery of Alaska, was discovered in the 1970s by a Fairbanks gold miner. But Bison Bob’s skeleton is more complete, with hair that lay compressed under heavy arctic soil for so long it now looks almost felted.

Earth Sciences Curator Pat Druckenmiller says probably the most complete specimen of any Ice Age mammal ever found in Alaska. It is only missing a single shoulder blade.

“It is in immaculate condition, as if it died only a few years ago,” he says. “When an animal dies, predators/scavengers recycle the specimen so that practically nothing remains. All you might get are bits of solid bones. While thousands of Ice Age mammal bones have been collected in Alaska, 99.9% of them are just isolated individual bones that have been transported by animals or action of erosion. Bison Bob died for reasons we currently can’t tell, but was not scavenged. That is very rare.”

Earth Sciences Collection Manager Julie Rousseau is preparing some of the bones to go on display during tonight’s event. Visitors will be able to get answers to some frequent questions, like why the bones have a blue tint. (A: The blue mineral vivianite formed when the bones reacted with minerals in the silt.) Or whether bones preserved in permafrost are actually fossils. (I’ll let Julie and Pat answer that one for you.)

The steppe bison lived in Alaska thousands of years ago when the landscape was grassy, co-existing with mammoth, musk oxen, horse, and caribou. Even lions. The species was at least a foot taller than the buffalo we know today.

This BLM specimen will be an invaluable resource to researchers who will be able to study the materials collected from the bones.

This photo of the Transit of Venus was taken by Chris Cannon, who has worked in our education department for the past few years to bring a portable planetarium to kids across the state so they could see what’s in the sky. Now he’s working on a graduate degree, so he can document what’s known about cultural and astronomical references to Alaska.

ARTIFACTS RETURN AFTER A CENTURY – More than 3,000 artifacts collected 100 years ago near the North Slope village of Kaktovik are back in Alaska as a result of a collaborative effort among the community, archaeological researchers, ExxonMobil Corp. and the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

The artifacts excavated at Barter Island were preserved at the Canadian Museum of History after being collected by Diamond Jenness in 1914 as part of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. They are now on loan to the museum after a joint effort of several organizations engaged in fulfilling part of a cultural resources agreement outlined under ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson Project.

PHOTO ABOVE: From left, UA Museum of the North Archaeology Curator Josh Reuther and Kaktovik resident Marie Rexford examine ivory and bone artifacts in the Barter Island collection. Photo by Kelsey Gobroski

Members of the Kaktovik community have worked closely with archaeologists to examine the artifacts, learn from them and involve their children in an effort to support future collaborations with researchers. Matthew Rexford of the Native Village of Kaktovik said this partnership is especially important for the community’s youth. “Starting them when they are young will be really helpful in deciding what they would like to pursue in their life. So, I think looking to our past to learn from, it is key,” he said.

PHOTO ABOVE: These arrowheads, on loan to the University of Alaska Museum of the North from the Canadian Museum of History, were collected by Diamond Jenness in 1914 on Barter Island, Alaska. Photo by Kelsey Gobroski

A story in the Alaska Dispatch News tells about the items on loan to Alaska and the plans for using them in Alaska.

The artifacts are at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, on loan from the Canadian Museum of History, and are being examined, cataloged, photographed and otherwise recorded.

That means use of high-quality digital imaging, 3-D reproduction and other technology to replicate the artifacts, said Josh Reuther, curator of archaeology at the Museum of the North.

“Our whole intent was to make sort of a virtual collection,” he said. Compared to having the items back in Alaska for good, “it’s kind of the next-best thing,” he said.

The items, including ulus, arrowheads and harpoons, were excavated at semi-subterranean house sites. Such living quarters held a wealth of artifacts, Reuther said.

“It’s not that unusual to have that many artifacts, especially in a site like this,” he said.

The oldest artifacts are believed to date back at least 500 years, though analysis is still being done to better determine ages. The newest are believed to be from the early 20th century, or possibly just a few decades before Jenness’ arrival, Reuther said.

The Barter Island collections represent a remarkable period from before and just at the beginning of contact with Euro-American whalers and explorers, Jason Rogers of Northern Land Use Research Alaska said. “There are a wide variety of artifacts that represent changes in material culture, including antler arrowheads and ivory harpoon heads with iron points, as well as copper and slate ulus.”

PHOTO ABOVE: A comb made of bone, excavated from Barter Island in 1914 by Diamond Jenness. Part of the Canadian Museum of History collection on loan to the UA Museum of the North. UAMN photo by Kelsey Gobroski

The collection represents a way of life that extends back 1,000 years, what archaeologists refer to as Thule culture. Josh Reuther, the curator of archaeology at the UA Museum of the North, said there is much to learn from it. “That is why we wanted to bring it back, even for just a short time.”

The collection arrived in Fairbanks in October 2014 after an agreement was finalized to loan the artifacts to the museum. Since then, in-depth documentation and analysis of the artifacts has been ongoing, enhancing previous work completed by Jenness and other researchers in collaboration with North Slope community members.

“These collections made by Jenness in 1914 were some of the first real scientific archaeology ever done in Alaska,” Reuther said. “The materials would have likely been lost to erosion or destruction through development. Now more than 100 years later, the preservation and study of these collections is providing new insights into the unwritten history of this region.”

For more information, visit the museum’s press release.

Photo above: Athabascan beadworker Lilly Pitka of Fort Yukon, Alaska made these dog blankets in 1926. Dogs would be decorated with fancy blankets like this during special times of year, when families would come in from traplines in wilderness areas of the state to gather together in celebration.

ALL ABOUT THE DOGS – Dog sledding, or dog mushing, has a long tradition in Alaska. It was used by early residents as a means of transportation. Today, rural residents still rely on dog teams to hunt and travel in remote areas, as do hobbyists who enjoy exploring the backcountry with their highly-trained athletes.  

Alaska also hosts a variety of big-name races. Thousands of fans follow along as mushers spend days competing in long distance wilderness events like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. There are also sprint mushing races that are run through the streets of the state’s largest cities.

In the earliest days of tourism in Alaska, visitors found depictions of men and their dogs to be extremely compelling. They sought to bring home reminders of these people and their trusted companions of the trail. Many of these items were created by Alaska Native artists as souvenirs.

Luke Saganna carved this hunter and dog team (below) sometime around 1984 in Barrow. It is carved from caribou antler and has sinew tow lines and harnesses.

The museum’s history & ethnology collection features thousands of items that depict the Native cultures of Alaska. Many of them feature dog-related carvings or depictions. Jotham Seppilu is a Yupik artist from Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island. He carved this piece from walrus ivory.

This year in Alaska, the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had to move its restart location from Willow, near Anchorage, to Fairbanks in the Interior due to a lack of snowfall. That’s more than 500 miles away from the ceremonial start location in the state’s largest city. And it means an extra day for mushers to scramble to get ready for the race. Fairbanks officials expect hundreds, if not thousands, of race-related visitors for the event.

Some of them might be in search of something to commemorate the experience, such as souvenirs or artwork like this piece of mineralized walrus ivory carved by Greg Stradiotto in 1984.

Even though this has been a relatively mild winter temperature-wise, many mushers and visitors will be sporting head gear like this marten fur “trapper-style” hat used extensively in Alaska. The flaps can be worn down or up, depending on the weather.

This depiction of a dog team and driver was commercially produced and marketed to tourists.

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Fairbanks Film Premiere – After all the planning, hundreds of hours spent imagining whales as characters with distinctive markings and personalities, working with film narrators and scientists and observers, after the coordination of funders and experts and community members, the months of rendering on computers tucked away in offices, it’s time. Arctic Currents: A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale, the museum’s new animated film, is ready for the big screen.

This 25-minute film tells the story of the annual migration of bowhead whales. The species spends its life searching for food among the ice floes of Arctic waters. They are elusive, and yet are a major influence on the culture of the Inupiat and Yupik people. Bowhead whales live a long time, as many as 120 years and perhaps much longer.

The film takes its narrative and title from the 2013 calendar edited by University of Alaska Fairbanks oceanographer Steve Okkonen, a teaching tool designed to portray the science and natural history of bowhead whales. The museum made the film using scientific data, photographs for inspiration, and lots of creative license.

Narration is presented in English, Inupiat, and St. Lawrenece Island Yupik. You can read about the creation of the film on our blog. A free screening will be presented on Friday, Jan. 16 at 5:30pm at the museum. The film will also be available for download and as a DVD.

Congratulations to the talented team behind the film:

Narrated by Chris Koonooka, Fannie Akpik, and Pausauraq Jana Harcharek
Writer/Director: Roger Topp
Producer: Steve Okkonen
Animation and Modeling: Hannah Foss
Sound Recording: Kelsey Gobroski

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A DAY AT AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG - A crew from the University of Alaska Museum of the North returned to the Noatak National Preserve in Northern Alaska this summer to continue research into several sites where rock art has been found at stone-ringed communal houses.

Archaeologists working in the 1960s and 70s found boulders at three different lakefront sites. The rock art remained on location, undisturbed for almost 40 years, until a team from the UA Museum of the North and the National Park Service assembled to create a permanent record.

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The narwhal brought them here. A group of archaeologists and paleontologists from Idaho State University are at the UA Museum of the North this month, scanning bones for their 3D image database of every bird, fish, and mammal in the arctic.

The Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project has worked closely with museums like the Smithsonian Institution and the Burke Museum in Seattle, but a few elusive species that couldn’t be found in those collections brought them to Fairbanks. The UAMN has a bowhead whale skeleton, including a skull on display in the Gallery of Alaska, as well as the bones of polar bears, walrus, and other whales, like the narwhal.

The narwhal lives year-round in the arctic. Closely related to the beluga, male nawhals feature a long, straight tusk that is actually an elongated upper canine tooth. This specialized predator feeds on deep water fish at depths of up to 1500 meters under the ice.

Now that the imaging team has had a chance to see the range of specimens included in the museum’s mammal collection, they are planning future grant-funded projects to document them.

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Two more diaries from the group who made the first ascent of Denali arrived at the museum recently. They will be displayed during our upcoming special exhibit, Denali Legacy: 100 Years on the Mountain


“I was ahead all day and was the first ever to set foot on Mt. Denali.” – From the diary Walter Harper dated Saturday, June 7, 1913.


“Today stands a big red letter in my life as our party of four reached the summit of Mount McKinley.” - From the diary of Robert Tatum dated Saturday, June 7, 1913.

 

Walter Harper was a young Athabascan man. Robert Tatum was a young missionary from Tennessee. They were both proteges of the charismatic Episcopalian Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, who organized the expedition.

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Using the Past to See the future of Pacific walruses - Thousands of specimens housed at the University of Alaska Museum of the North will be used as part of a $1.7 million grant to study population trends in Pacific walrus. Curator of Mammals Link Olson likens the collection to a “vast library.” The books are the specimens themselves—some thousands of years old—collected over the past century by naturalists, archaeologists, biologists and subsistence hunters.

Olson, together with Tara Fulton from the University of Alberta, will use cutting-edge  technology in the museum’s Ancient DNA Lab to extract minute quantities of DNA from walrus specimens going back two millennia, providing insight into the overall genetic health of the species.

The Ancient DNA Lab, built as part of the museum’s expansion, is the only dedicated lab of its kind in the state of Alaska and one of the only ancient DNA labs in a museum in which the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has never been conducted, allowing for a facility that’s uncontaminated by copies of the genetic code.

Since the lab’s completion, Olson has been able to leverage several NSF grants to study, among other things, the genetics of Southeast Asian treeshrews, South American primates, and now walruses—all using material tens, hundreds, and even thousands of years old.

The Pacific walrus project brings together scientists from the U.S. and Canada with expertise in genetics, archeology, chemistry, ecology, and ethnohistory to study the marine mammals, whose sea ice habitat has been markedly receding in recent years. Pacific walruses are critical to subsistence in many coastal villages.

Nicole Misarti of the UAF Institute of Northern Engineering and Lara Horstmann-Dehn, an assistant professor in the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, will obtain stable isotope, trace element, and hormone data from the same specimens to look for shifts in feeding ecology and foraging location as well as any associated stress responses.

Anne Jensen, an archaeologist and senior scientist at UIC Science LLC in Barrow, will collect additional walrus samples from archaeological repositories and help the team interpret their findings in a broader cultural and historical context, as will the numerous Alaska Native organizations participating in the study.

In addition, a translator will search through hundreds of interviews archived at the UAF Rasmuson Library that contain traditional ecological knowledge of Pacific walruses. Even high school students will have a chance to participate in the project through the Rural Alaska Honors Institute program at UAF and in Barrow.

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ANCIENT OSTRICHES OF ALASKA!

Last week, paleontologists published a paper documenting the occurrence of a new group of dinosaurs in Alaska. Earth Sciences Curator Pat Druckenmiller says ornithomimosaurs looked like ostriches.

Ornithomimosaurs (or-nith-uh-MIME-uh-sores): a group of mostly toothless, medium-sized meat-eating dinosaurs (theropods) that bear a strong resemblance to living ostriches

In the past two decades, researchers have uncovered thousands of dinosaur specimens on the North Slope that are housed at the UA Museum of the North.

Druckenmiller has been working with Florida State University paleontologist Gregory Erickson to document the collection. Their NSF proposal, “Collaborative Research: Arctic Dinosaur Paleobiology-Hypothesis Testing Through Cross-Latitudinal Comparison” was funded last year with $150K to support two years of field work and research on the North Slope.

Erickson wondered whether there were any specimens from meat eaters in the museum’s collection. He was excited to see the bone pictured above. After much preparing of thin sections to determine age and other factors, the researchers narrowed the species down to a new occurrence in Alaska.

Here we determine the taxonomic identity of a theropod metatarsal that was discovered in the Upper Cretaceous Prince Creek Formation on the North Slope of Alaska. Its morphology and size are most consistent with a metatarsal IV of an ornithomimosaurian or a juvenile tyrannosaurid.


Druckenmiller and Erickson will continue to assess the museum’s collection to find out what range of species once roamed the dinosaur-rich fields of Northern Alaska.