Photo by MARY LACATENA
Roland Gangloff, center, dinosaur hunter and curator at the University of Alaska Museum, rides in a boat along the Colville River, the richest dinosaur fossil ground in Alaska. With Gangloff, from left, are volunteers Barbara Gorman and Dan Reese.
Published: August 11th, 2012 09:57 PM
For 15 pivotal years, University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Roland A. Gangloff was the main dinosaur man in Alaska. Starting in the 1980s, he coordinated searches for fossils in places where none had ever been found, discovering or helping to identify fantastical creatures that roamed the Arctic millions of years ago.
Those discoveries helped create a revolution in paleontology and led scientists to reconsider long-held hypotheses — particularly concerning the range and adaptability of dinosaurs. Gangloff’s name popped up year after year as the author of scientific papers, the subject of magazine articles or in newspaper stories reporting what the latest digs had uncovered and how the finds were setting standard assumptions on their head.
Among the prehistoric Alaskans associated with Gangloff, either as discoverer or investigator, are duck-billed dinosaurs, horned dinosaurs, armored dinosaurs and the bone-headed herbivore named for him and the 49th state, Alaskacephale gangloffi.
(There’s also the “Nirvana dragon” found in Unalaska, more correctly called “Behemotops” likened to a sea-going hippopotamus — but that was a mammal, not a dinosaur.)
Getting one’s mind around the scope of his accomplishments is not easy. The formal papers contain words like “holotype” and “squamosal.”
Gangloff has just published a new book that consolidates much of the information and speculation he considers important. Happily, “Dinosaurs under the Aurora” (Indiana University Press, $40 hardbound, $19.24 on Kindle) is aimed at members of the public who want to know more but don’t have doctoral degrees.
“It’s not meant to be a catalog of finds and bones,” Gangloff said in a phone call from Sonoma, Calif., where he moved after retiring from UAF in 2003. “It was written to be of interest to the general reader.”
General readers will have the chance to hear Gangloff talk about Alaska prehistory and get copies of the book for themselves when he returns to Alaska this week.
Part of the book recounts the history of dinosaur discoveries in Alaska.
A Shell Oil Company geologist, Robert Liscomb, found tracks in the Colville River area, north of the Arctic Circle, in 1961, but didn’t know what to make of them. It would be another 22 years before they were identified as dinosaur tracks.
A field team from California revisited the area in 1985 and found more evidence of dinosaurs. In the winter of 1987 Gangloff relocated from his job at Merritt College in Oakland, where he’d taught for 20 years, and set up shop at UAF. He organized and led annual digs, notably on the North Slope.
“He was the lone paleontologist for a while,” said University of Alaska Anchorage professor emeritus Anne Pasch. But that changed quickly as more scientists became interested in Arctic dinosaurs. They regularly turned to Gangloff for insight and assistance.
“He identified the Edmontonia for me,” she said. That was an ankylosaur, a shelled dinosaur built like a tank, found in the Talkeetna Mountains. “He was always very helpful — and always a fun guy to work with.”
“He not only did research on the dinosaurs of Alaska, but he was very interested in education and did a lot to help teachers,” she added. He spoke widely to school groups and had teachers come into the museum and work behind the scenes. He joined with Pasch in taking students on a statewide tour of paleontological sites running from Cook Inlet to the Arctic Ocean.