A large, heavy package containing a fossil from the arctic oceans of the Mesozoic period is sitting in a storage shed behind the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks, waiting for scientists to unlock its secrets. Amy Mayer has the story of its journey there from a remote spot on Alaska's North Slope.
It's been 10 years since Roland Gangloff first heard about the nearly complete fossil in the Arctic tundra. And the University of Alaska paleontologist hasn't been able to stop thinking about it. He's heard it's an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile that lived about 230 million years ago. But he's not sure because until June, he'd never seen it for himself. "It's in a very remote area and you can only land helicopters there," he says.
U.S. government geologists found the almost three-meter long fossil in the 1950s. In 1968 another scientist visited the site, took some pictures and made notes about its location, over 100 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, on a ridge face above a meandering creek. It's hundreds of kilometers from the nearest road. Professor Gangloff looked into hiring helicopters to bring a crew to the site and haul the fossil back out. He gave up the idea when he learned that would cost more money than he had.
Enter the U.S. Army. Major Lissa Young commands the Chinook helicopter company at Fort Wainwright, near Fairbanks. She heard about the quest for the far-off fossil. "And I just started thinking about how I am the commander of this amazing resource that we could offer to the University of Alaska museum and asked to talk to Dr. Gangloff," she says.
She thought a partnership could be good for the museum and for her company. "I got a sense of all that he needed from us and it was well within my war fighting mission, and actually the conduct of this mission enhances my training because it allows me to do what we would call a "non-standard load preparation."
A Chinook's standard load is most often another army crew's regular gear, packed up and ready for flight. The Chinook crews know how much the pallets weigh, where their centers of gravity are and how they may shift in flight.
So transporting a group of civilians and a fossil packed in rock and plaster is a rather different kind of mission. The pilot let Mr. Gangloff sit in the jumpseat, on the edge of the cockpit, so he could look out the panoramic windows and search for the site himself.
"And as soon as I caught enough of the topography and that, what I'd seen from photographs and so forth I just said, 'that's gotta be it'. And it was dead on, [exactly where the Global Positioning Satellite data said it should be]," he says.
Wearing sturdy boots, and a baseball cap to shield his eyes from the sun, Mr. Gangloff welcomes our group of reporters to his camp. Across the creek from the ichthyosaur, a small collection of yellow, blue, gray and green tents sprouts up on the hillside. Two black Chinooks are parked nearby. The colorful tents and enormous aircraft seem to jump out of the uniform brown surroundings.
We're at Cutaway Creek, we're on the real north slope of the Brooks Range, all the rivers going eventually to the Arctic Ocean from here.
The arctic sky is bright blue, the sun is warm and the tundra stretches forever. Brown rolling hills with short, stubby plants and uneven ground are punctuated by creeks and rivers. Songbirds chirp in the distance, and raptors and bears lurk, only briefly revealing their presence. This land is part of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and may hold vast underground oil deposits.
Museum team member Kevin May excavates at various prehistoric sites in Alaska. He uses an awl and a small brush to chip the loose shale off the actual fossil. "We've got ribs stacked up all in here for at least two meters, along this dipping bed, here," he says. "The tail would be down there the head would be here"
In fact, there's almost nothing where the head would be. The ribs are easy to identify, but seeing the tail requires some imagination. The fossil hardly resembles the dolphin-like animal it once was.
The soldiers and the museum crew have created a workspace, a few tarps spread out on the ground below the fossil. They sit on upturned plastic buckets and talk about the project, the glorious weather and the flight up. Specialist Paul Gilbert is a helicopter mechanic for the army. But he says he's interested in geology and has enjoyed helping the scientists. "We've been taking the debris that they've carried down in buckets and then sifting through it, looking for fossilized bone, and then also we were up on the slope here looking at different rocks, looking for fossilized bones and just helping them out with whatever they need," he says.
The soldiers impressed Professor Gangloff with their creative approaches to challenges, such as what to do when the ground was too wet to land on. The Chinook hovered just barely above the tundra, while the team unloaded all the heavy gear. Then the pilot landed safely on the other, drier, side of the creek.
Professor Gangloff says that kind of innovation saves time. "If they had landed way up there [on the other side of the creek], we would have had to carry it all down from there. That would have probably taken another half day off our schedule."
And that schedule didn't offer much flexibility. The crew arrived at the site on a Monday and planned to leave on Friday. Thanks to mostly cooperative weather, the never-ending daylight of the arctic summer, and a relatively easy excavation process, the work went quickly. The team got the fossil packaged up in time to bring it home Friday, saving themselves a second trip to Cutaway Creek.
But while the army's job is complete, the scientists' work has just begun. Professor Gangloff says he doesn't even really know what he's got. "Until we prepare this, and we're talking about maybe 2000 hours of preparation time to get this thing in a shape to actually know what we have for sure, we won't know… it could have been misidentified by the first geologists," he says.
For now, Roland Gangloff and his colleagues at the University of Alaska Museum think they have one of the most complete ichthyosaur fossils ever found in the American arctic. They hope it will lead to greater understanding of this ancient marine reptile and how its extinction fits into the bigger picture of evolution and environmental change.