A “Totally Weird” Dinosaur

A couple of summers ago, David Tomeo was exploring a creekbed in Denali National Park, preparing for a field seminar on the park’s dinosaurs he would help lead a few weeks later. With a trained eye for the impressions dinosaurs pressed into mud millions of years ago, Tomeo walked to a large boulder in the middle of a landslide.

“Right in the middle of it, a four-toed track stood out,” said Tomeo, program director for Alaska Geographic at the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali Park.

Tomeo snapped a picture of the track and sent it to Tony Fiorillo, a dinosaur hunter from the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas who often travels to Alaska.

A therizinosaur track in Denali National Park discovered by David Tomeo. Photo by David Tomeo.

Fiorillo was intrigued. The track looked like that of a therizinosaur, a tall, feathered meat-eater with sickle-like claws that extended a few feet from the three fingers of each hand.

“Therizinosaurs are totally weird,” Fiorillo said. “These guys are unlike any predatory dinosaur you’ve ever seen. From head to feet, they are different.”

Fiorillo later visited the site with Tomeo and conferred with other dinosaur experts. Therizinosaurs had been recorded in Mongolia and paleontologists found the bones of a closely related creature in Utah, but Fiorillo had never seen the evidence of one himself.

After removing his doubts about the track, a process that took several years, Fiorillo recently co-authored a paper in which he reported on the first record of a therizinosaur from Alaska.

The eclectic therizinosaur, which walked Denali about 70 million years ago, probably made it to Alaska via the Bering Land Bridge. The dinosaur joins the ranks of discovered prehistoric creatures that seemed to have lived in great numbers in a warmer (but just as dark in winter) Alaska of long ago.

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Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute. He has been a freelance writer for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the Anchorage Daily News, Mushing magazine, The Kenai Peninsula Clarion and others.

In addition to his writing skills, Ned has experience in the great outdoors. During the summers of 1993 and 1994 he was a back country ranger for the National park Service in the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, a 100-mile buffer zone around the Yukon and Charley Rivers between Eagle and Circle, Alaska. He has worked for the State of Alaska as a wildlands firefighter. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, he worked for Veco as an oil recovery technician.

Ned earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1990.