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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.

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.