Exploring Alaska’s Fossils

Mastodon Fossil
Image credit: From the Dr. Daniel S. Neuman Collection, ASL-P307-0030, at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections. Photo caption reads: “Mastadon Head Found in Alaska in 1904- Buried 42-Below the Surface”

Hello Readers,

To celebrate National Museums Day this Saturday, we’d like to bring special attention to  Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline, the Alaska State Museum’s summer exhibit as part of a traveling exhibit from the Anchorage Museum. Featuring illustrations by beloved Alaskan artist Ray Troll and bone fragments from long-extinct megafauna like woolly mammoths (Alaska’s official state fossil!) and dinosaurs, this exhibit highlights Alaska’s prehistoric past in a way that is fresh and engaging. 

Below are a few items from Alaska’s historic newspapers that mention Alaska’s pre-Ice Age climate based on its fossil finds:

fossil 3
Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 13 Feb. 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1922-02-13/ed-1/seq-3/>
The Fossil Flora of Cape Lisburne, Alaska: Peculiar and absorbing interest attaches to the study of the fossil floras of the Arctic regions, for they indicate climatic conditions very unlike those now existing there. In place of the present snow and ice and the scant, almost perpetually frozen soil which supports but a handful of depauperate plants, the conditions from at least late Paleozoic to middle Cenozoic geologic time--many millions of years ago, before the development of mammals--made possible, at least during certain periods, an abundant and luxuriant vegetation, consisting of ferns and palmlike plants that could grow only in a mild and probably frostless climate. Although these lands are now so inhospitable, and hence but rarely visited, an astonishing amount of information concerning their fossil floras has been accumulated, and to this knowledge Alaska has contributed its full quota, says F. H. Knowlton, a paleontologist of the United States Geological Survey, in a short paper on the "Jurassic Flora of Cape Lisburne", just published as Part D of Professional Paper 85. The fossil plants described by Mr. Knowlton were collected by A. J. Collier, a geologist of the Survey, while engaged in the study of the coal resources of the Cape Lisburne region. The coal deposits are extensive and are the only mineral resources of the region known to be of commercial importance. A little mining has been done by vessels short of fuel, which occasionally lie off shore and load on a few sacks of coal. This, however, is a rather dangerous practice, as there is no harbor. Cape Lisburne is the bold headland which marks the northwestern extremity of a land mass projecting into the Arctic Ocean from the western coast of Alaska between latitudes 68 degrees and 69 degrees. It lies 160 miles north of the Arctic Circle, about 300 miles directly north of Nome, and is the only point in Alaska north of the Bering Strait where hills above 1,000 feet in height approach the sea. The Jurassic section to which the name Corwin formation has been given is said by Collier to consist of shales, sandstones, conglomerates, and coal beds. Fossil plants occur in the shale beds wherever they have been examined. This formation reaches the enormous thickness of over 15,000 feet and contains 40 to 50 coal beds which range in thickness from 1 to 2 to over 30 feet, ten of them being 4 feet thick and suitable for mining. The various beds aggregate at least 150 feet of coal. Mr. Knowlton correlates the Jurassic flora of Alaska with that of eastern Siberia and concludes that the land connection between North America and Asia at this early period of the world must have been practically continuous. In reviewing the character and geographic range of Jurassic floras, especially as developed in Arctic and Antarctic regions, he states that the wide areal distribution of of Middle and Upper Jurassic floras has long been one of the marvels of plant distribution. The living flora of today, of course, affords many individual examples of wide distribution, such as those found throughout the Tropics of both hemispheres, and others, chiefly weeds, that have, largely through human agencies, spread widely over temperate lands, but altogether these plants form but an insignificant part of of the whole flora, whereas in Jurassic time a large percentage of the whole flora was practically world wide in its range. Even Cape Lisburne is by no means the northern limit of this nearly tropical vegetation; it has been found, preserved for all time in the rocks, 180 miles northeast of Cape Lisburne.
Image credit: The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 23 Feb. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014189/1914-02-23/ed-1/seq-2/>
Fossil 2
Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 17 Oct. 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1922-10-17/ed-1/seq-1/>

It’s certainly hard to imagine an Alaska without ice, isn’t it?

Be sure to check out Cruisin’ the Fossil Coast this summer at the Alaska State Library in Juneau!


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