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Dinosaur tracks in Alaska may help scientists grapple with climate change

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Science tells us that dinosaurs may not have done well with climate change, but they may have something to teach us. Scientists in Alaska are studying dinosaur tracks from millions of years ago, hoping to learn ways that humans might better handle climate change. Emily Schwing reports.

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EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: Paleontologist Tony Fiorillo stands over a chunk of damp sandstone along the remote coast of Alaska's Aniakchak Bay. It's at the base of the Aleutians, a chain of islands that extends west toward Russia and Japan.

TONY FIORILLO: There is a decided shape here.

SCHWING: The wind whips in our faces. Waves splash at our feet. We're here because Aniakchak's coastline is special. There are dinosaur footprints everywhere.

FIORILLO: Those toes - I think it's a theropod.

SCHWING: Theropods make up a group of dinosaurs that include tyrannosaurs. Over the last 20 years, only one other track like this has been found here. More than a hundred others belong to duck-billed, plant-eating dinosaurs called hadrosaurs, likely this tyrannosaur's prey. There are also footprints from an armored dinosaur and an ancient bird-like species.

FIORILLO: And so there's something really interesting going on here that we still don't understand. It's like, why are there so many tracks in a relatively short stretch?

SCHWING: Fiorillo is the executive director of Albuquerque's Natural History Museum. He first discovered a track here back in 2002. Since 2016, he's returned nearly every year, along with friend and colleague Paul McCarthy from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

PAUL MCCARTHY: There's a whole story here of sea level fall and rise, warm climate.

SCHWING: McCarthy specializes in the ancient mud and sediment these dinosaurs walked through.

MCCARTHY: And it gives us some sense of, you know, what a warmer Earth is like, and we certainly are headed there.

SCHWING: Seventy-five million years ago, it was warmer, with a climate, much like modern-day Portland or Seattle. It snowed very little and rained a lot. Even so, the environment was still colder than an ancient giant reptile might prefer. But they thrived anyway.

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SCHWING: As a group of sandhill cranes soars overhead, Fiorillo and fellow paleontologist Yoshitsugu Kobayashi turn their gaze toward a round, grayish rock. It's the cast of the very spot a hadrosaur once set foot.

FIORILLO: Stand there and look at that one, and tell me if you see anything.

YOSHITSUGU KOBAYASHI: You see only two toes or three?

FIORILLO: I only see two.

KOBAYASHI: Very good.

SCHWING: Kobayashi takes photos from various angles.

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SCHWING: He's a paleontology professor at Japan's Hokkaido University Museum. He'll use the photos to create a 3D image of the track. He says the fate of the dinosaurs offers valuable lessons in the face of modern-day climate change.

KOBAYASHI: People say that the dinosaur went extinct because of a long winter after impact - asteroid impact.

SCHWING: Even before that impact, Alaska's dinosaurs were living through a long, dark and cold winter months.

KOBAYASHI: So I guess the bottom line is that we just don't want to be dinosaurs. And we just want - have to find out how we can cope with keeping the environment as long as we can for next generations.

SCHWING: Somehow, dinosaurs were able to adapt as their climate changed. Kobayashi and his colleagues believe the footprints on this beach hold clues for how humans might do the same.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing at Aniakchak Bay.

(SOUNDBITE OF NELS CLINE'S "THE BED WE MADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.