Were Duck-Billed Dinosaurs Found in Alaska Warm Blooded?

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In late September of this year a report was published on a new species of Hadrosaurid dinosaur (commonly and hereafter called duck-billed dinosaurs) dubbed Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis (“ancient grazer” in the language of Alaska Inupiat Eskimos). The newly discovered species is considered to be closely related to Edmontosaurus but has a few anatomical differences, especially in the skull, and most noticeably in the mouth area. The discovery, a cooperative effort between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Florida State University, took place in the Liscomb Bone Bed of the Prince Creek Formation along the Colville River more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) northwest of Fairbanks. The findings were published in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, an international paleontology quarterly journal.

What Were the Findings?

The Liscomb Bone Bed in the Prince Creek Formation is composed of supposedly non-marine sandstones, conglomerates, coal and mudstone layers, along with some marginal marine deposits. It has been the subject of numerous paleontological digs since the 1980’s and has yielded thousands of disarticulated (not connected to each other) bones of mostly juvenile duck-billed dinosaurs. Many of the bones were originally assigned to Edmontosaurus but recent analysis of skeletal features has proven that they belong to a different genus and species. Most of the bones are in excellent condition, showing little evidence of weathering, predation, crushing, or trampling. In addition, some adult duck-billed dinosaur bones and teeth, as well as some troodontid, thescelosaurid, and tyrannosaurid teeth have been found in the bonebed. Additionally, bones of birds, small mammals, and some fish have been found.

What Are the Evolutionary Interpretations of the Data?

The researchers have concluded that the bonebed is a mass-mortality burial ground, caused by flooding rivers due to rapid snowmelt. “It appears that a herd of young animals was killed suddenly, wiping out mostly one similar-aged population to create this deposit,” Pat Druckenmiller, earth sciences curator at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks, is quoted as saying in a USA Today article. According to the standard geological interpretation, the Prince Creek Formation is dated to about 69 million years old, using the 40Ar/39Ar dating method, and represents a forested coastal flood plain where the average daily temperature was about 43°F (6℃). This interpretation has led to some interesting hypotheses regarding the ecology of the area and how these dinosaurs coped. According to a report in Science Daily, "The finding of dinosaurs this far north challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur's physiology," said FSU Professor of Biological Science Greg Erickson. "It creates this natural question. How did they survive up here?"

So what hypotheses have been proposed? Well, according to paleopedology and paleobotanical evidence (ancient “soil” and plant studies), earlier researchers concluded that the Arctic coastal plain where the dinosaur remains are found had coniferous woodlands with some flowering plants under the forest canopy, and that it experienced both dry and wet seasons. No ectothermic (“cold-blooded”) terrestrial vertebrates have been recovered from the formation, causing researchers to conclude that the climate was too cold for most terrestrial and amphibious ectotherms and that the dinosaurs found there were by default either mesothermic (able to moderately raise their body temperature) or endothermic (“warm-blooded”).

What Does the Data Show When Stripped of Evolutionary Assumptions?

What has been found is a catastrophic burial of perhaps hundreds of creatures. The animals were obviously buried in a flood of some kind, and the assemblage (though mostly of one species of juvenile Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis) also contains other dinosaurs, terrestrial vertebrates, and even fish. Like the animals, the trees and other flora are interpreted as living (and being buried there), but again, this is only an assumption. Both the animals and the plants may have lived elsewhere in a warmer climate and have been washed into this area by the same flood that buried them. If these duck-billed dinosaurs did not live in this region but were washed in from a more temperate area, the hypothesis that they were warm-blooded has much less merit. That the bones are disarticulated but in good condition and show little signs of erosion or predation indicates a rapid burial, and argues against a river flood. The fact that most of the bones are from a juvenile herd also is inconsistent.

Geologist Dr. Andrew Snelling, commenting on the Acta Palaeontologica Polonica article, stated,

So why a herd of young animals? That is not how they would have lived. Normally one would expect them to be in family groupings, so any herds would have had numerous family groupings and so a spread of ages of the critters. This “herd” of young Hadrosaurs suggests they had been separated from their parents. Were these younger ones more agile and so had escaped the Flood waters longer than their parents, who had died elsewhere? A global Flood perspective allows different questions to be asked. The evidence certainly indicates that they were washed in. They may have simply fled there, or more likely landed there when there was a temporary drop in the water levels due to tides or subsiding tsunamis, or both. Remember we do not know that these dinosaurs lived here. We only know they are buried here because that’s where we find their remains.

How Does the Data Fit Into a Biblical Worldview?

We’ve discussed the flaws in radiometric dating numerous times, including the 40Ar/39Ar dating method (variant of the K-Ar dating method) used to date the Prince Creek Formation. The hypothesis of mesothermic or endothermic dinosaurs in this formation is also dependent upon the interpretation that the plants and animals were buried in situ (in place) and not washed in, and is more driven by the standard interpretation of birds evolving from dinosaurs than from hard data.

The most likely scenario based upon Scripture is that the pre-Flood world was a single continental landmass with much more tropical temperatures, but still containing some seasonal variations and a massively diverse flora. When the fountains of the great deep broke open (Genesis 7:11) at the onset of the Flood, this continental landmass was torn apart. As the floodwaters rose, there would have been inundations and recessions, with low-lying areas being covered first. As Dr. Snelling mentioned above, this gives us a much more reasonable explanation for the observed data. As the Flood progressed, fleeing juvenile dinosaurs were separated from their parents and then overcome and buried by the rising floodwaters, and other plants and animals were washed into this mass grave along with them.

This accords well with what we observe—there was no time for predation of the animals to have occurred, nor erosion of the bones upon the subsiding of the proposed local river flood; and a local flood is much more likely to leave some of the bones articulated. Additionally, the bones are so well preserved and, as the journal articles states, even unpermineralized, that this again argues for an event which took place thousands—not millions—of years ago. The observational evidence of this Alaskan dinosaur graveyard fits much better with the biblical account of the Global Flood.

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