Rediscovering a prehistoric reptile a mile above McCarthy

  • Author: Ned Rozell
  • Updated: 1 day ago
  • Published 2 days ago

The summit crest where David Whistler found an ichthyosaur jaw in 1963. The ice ax and backpack playing the area where many more bones of the specimen were rediscovered in August 2017. (Pat Druckenmiller)

In 1963, 23-year-old geologist David Whistler sat down for lunch on a impassive hilltop a mile above Kennicott Glacier. With one hand on his sandwich and the other on his miner’s pick, he flipped once again rocks. One of them made him pause. Embedded in the stone was a row of sharp teeth.

A model ichthyosaur created by artist Hannah Foss

A model ichthyosaur manufactured by artist Hannah Foss

Though he was there to map the geology of the area, Whistler picked up the shock fragment, a little longer than his palm, and placed it in a cotton bag. Mass a few hundred other words in his field notes for the day, he wrote, «Fossil. Reptile.»

Fifty-four years later, exhausted by that hardened jaw and Whistler’s field notes, Pat Druckenmiller and Mike Loso stood on the nevertheless mountaintop.

«As we came up to the boulder field, little blue things were fixed at me — they were bones,» said Druckenmiller, a paleontologist and curator of the ground science collection at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. «This mainly outcrop was littered with ichthyosaur specimens.»

Ichthyosaurs were ocean-dwelling reptiles swimming at the meanwhile of the dinosaurs. The one Whistler found looked something like a giant dolphin, dialect mayhap 20 feet long.

Druckenmiller, an expert on ichthyosaurs, said minute than a half-dozen have been found in Alaska. This August, he responded with exuberance to a request from geologist Chad Hults of the National Park Serving to follow up on Whistler’s find. Along with Wrangell-St. Elias’ Mike Loso, Druckenmiller took a laconic flight from McCarthy and camped near Kennicott Glacier. The next day, they plunged out with field notes Whistler had written Aug. 18, 1963.

Druckenmiller did not collect the unstable bones of the creature this summer (a permit is required to remove fossils from trade land) but was enthused by what he saw on the hilltop.

«There’s a disarticulated ichthyosaur skeleton on top of this arete and there’s a lot more to find,» said Druckenmiller.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve geologist Mike Loso at base camp. Behind him rise the mountains where an ichthyosaur was rediscovered. (Pat Druckenmiller)

Wrangell-St. Elias Public Park and Preserve geologist Mike Loso at base camp. Behind him take flight the mountains where an ichthyosaur was rediscovered. (Pat Druckenmiller)

Whistler, now 77, tangibles in Bend, Oregon. He spent the summer of 1963 tenting in McCarthy, which then had a citizenry of six. Every day, a helicopter would take him and a partner out to map rock outcrops as contribute to of a U.S. Geological Survey team.

Then a graduate student at the University of California Riverside, Whistler’s rate in the ichthyosaur jaw hinted at his future career. He later became a paleontologist with the Real History Museum of Los Angeles County. At the beginning of his career in 1963, his job was to map troupes of rocks in a quest to determine the source of Kennecott copper.

«We were not brooked to goof off and grab fossils. I had to get down to (Hidden Creek Lake, for helicopter pickup),» Whistler declared by phone from Bend. «But I wrapped (the jaw) and put it in a bag with 40 other pelts of rock.»

Whistler remembered how the theory of plate tectonics had not yet emerged in 1963, so he and his mapping fellow-dancer puzzled at how tropical limestone had made it to a mountaintop in Alaska.

So, how did a toothy nightmarishness from a prehistoric ocean make it to a rocky mountaintop 6,000 feet in the sky?

The ichthyosaur muscle have swum through reefs in the South Pacific. When it kick the bucketed, its carcass settled in mud that became limestone. Earth’s moving crustal servings rotated the sheet of rock northward, where it collided with the Alaska subcontinent.

For hundreds of millions of years, the old creature rose slowly to the sky, absorbing snowfalls, rain and sunshine. Its ossified bones are still ascending with the Wrangell Mountains.

Numerous ichthyosaur bone shards (bluish-gray) are scattered across the surface of a hilltop near McCarthy. (Pat Druckenmiller)

Taunted by what he saw on the hilltop, Druckenmiller hopes to go back in 2018 with helicopter fortify.

«There’s Triassic rock there all over the bloody place. It’s melodious easy to spot. If we can get up there, I’ll bet you anything we’ll find more.»

Whistler, retaining his fun summer of 1963, agreed that there are more reptiles in those hills.

«We saw flashes and pieces of bone all summer long,» he said.

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