Scientists embark on a Yukon River expedition to track down a trove of dinosaur footprints

two paleontologists
Tony Fiorillo and Yoshitsugu Kobayashi measure and record a dinosaur track at Aniakchak Bay in the Aleutians in 2022. (Emily Schwing/KYUK)

A team of scientists was in Fairbanks this week making final preparations for a three-week expedition. The goal of the trip is to locate and document a treasure trove of dinosaur tracks discovered along the banks of the Yukon River a decade ago.

“When I started this project 24 years ago, I think the number of dinosaur sites known from Alaska you could count on one hand, maybe with a couple of extra fingers,” said New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Executive Director Tony Fiorillo. He’s an expert on dinosaurs in Alaska’s Arctic and subarctic.

After dozens of field seasons along the Aleutian chain and on the North Slope, Fiorillo will explore new territory along the middle section of the Yukon River.

“We’ve got a geologic map. We know where the rocks of interest intersect with the river, and that’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to let the geology and paleontology determine what happens while we’re on the river,” Fiorillo said.

Back in 2013, a team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks reported finding thousands of tracks from at least two dinosaur species somewhere along the Yukon River between the villages of Ruby and Kaltag. It’s unclear if anyone has been back since, and it’s also unclear what the people who live along the river know about them, which is a question Fiorillo also wants to answer.

“These communities may actually have something just because they’re up and down that river. And those people see stuff, and they’ve had to have seen stuff, and maybe they have an explanation. What does that mean to them?” Fiorillo said. “And so if these communities have those stories, and if they’re willing to share them, I would love to hear them.”

Fiorillo is joined by Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, a paleontologist with Japan’s Hokkaido University. Paul McCarthy, a paleopedologist, or expert in ancient soils, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is also on the team.

The rocky outcrops the team will target are from the Cretaceous Period and are up to 100 million years old. They also hold fossilized plant material, small clues that can help the team piece together the story of the dinosaurs that once roamed the Interior. The expedition will cover up to 250 miles of the middle Yukon over the next three weeks.

Editor’s note: Emily Schwing is traveling with this group of researchers for the duration of the project. Her flight from Fairbanks to Galena was covered by funding for the project. 

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