Science museum showcases findings of dinosaurs and sea monsters

Dinosaurs and sea creatures alike lived in the Talkeetna Mountains before the first Alaskans set foot on land. The Talkeetna Mountain range is a hot spot for archaeologists and paleontologists because of its abundance of dinosaur fossils. The Alaska Museum of Science and Nature explores the era of dinosaurs, ice age mammals and the new addition of sea monsters.

A replica of the Troodon, a small, bird-like dinosaur found in the North Slope area over 70 million years ago, was created by local artist James Havens for an exhibit at the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature. Photo credit: Mizelle Mayo

The Alaska Museum of Science and Nature made its grand opening on Feb. 24, featuring six exhibits that let children and adults discover the bones of dinosaurs, the fossils of Alaska’s marine life, ancient birds, ice age mammals, rocks and minerals.

Before the museum established itself in Anchorage, the building was originally located in Eagle River. The first variation of the museum was called “The Southcentral Museum of Alaska History” in 1994.

In 2003, the former Midnight Sun Boat company warehouse on Bragaw Street was purchased for the museum space.

“It took us a while with a lot of grants from [the] Rasmuson [Foundation] and the state to turn the building into the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature,” Jinny Moore, board treasurer and volunteer for the Alaska Museum of Science and Nature, said.

Founded in 1989, UAA and UAF scientists wanted a place for the public to learn about the animals that roamed the land before us. From the Aleutian Islands to the North Slope and panhandle of Alaska, there have been many discoveries of artifacts and fossils that are still being found.

In 1994, a 12-year-old girl named, Lizzie May-Williams, went blueberry picking in the Talkeetna Mountains and found two bones that would ultimately discover the first Hadrosaur — a plant-eating, duck-billed dinosaur — in Alaska.

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“She brought them into UAA to the paleontologists and zoologists, and they go, ‘Well, it kind of looks like toe bones.’ The paleontologist said to go find more, and she discovered that dinosaur in the Talkeetnas. We named the dinosaur after her,” Kristine Crossen, a UAA geology professor and president of Alaska Museum of Science and Nature, said.

There have been many dinosaur bones found in places that scientists didn’t find them before.

“There’s a huge place in Denali National Park that has so many dinosaur tracks. They call it the ‘Dinosaur Dance Floor,’” Crossen said. “Dinosaurs were all the way up from the North Slope down to Denali National Park. We have a lot of dinosaurs in Alaska during the Cretaceous and Jurassic Period.”

According to the National Park Service, Denali National Park had towering forests that hosted various dinosaurs at a time when the park had a milder climate. There were wet winters and dry summers during the Cretaceous Period.

The museum has a replica of ‘Lizzie,’ the Hadrosaur and other replicas of dinosaurs and sea monsters created by James Havens, a local Anchorage artist. The replicas were made by Havens for children to have a hands-on experience. The real bones of each animal can be found safely displayed behind glass cases.

“These are brand new finds from the last couple of years in the Talkeetnas. Even though those are mountains now, those rocks have seashells in them. So, people knew that was an ocean in the past,” Crossen said. “They started finding all these fossils like Plesiosaurus and Mosasaurus. I didn’t know how many people in town knew what those were. We wanted something a little fancy, so we called them sea monsters.”

The new ‘Sea Monsters’ exhibit showcases archaic sea creatures like the plesiosaurus reptiles that resemble the mythical Loch Ness Monster, with its elongated neck and jagged teeth. There are also Mosasaurus reptiles that are similar in structure, with a crocodile-like head.

The Alaska Museum of Science and Nature is located on 201 N. Bragaw St. The museum is open Thursday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.