Researchers Melt Polar Dinosaur Mysteries

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 25, 2002
Most of us think of dinosaurs as roaming grassy plains and savannas in semi-tropical temperatures. But dinosaurs ranged all over the planet, and a small group of scientists is working to build the fossil record and introduce the world to the dinosaurs that lived at the top and bottom of the world.

The first indication that there even was such a thing as polar dinosaurs came in 1960 when footprints were found at Spitsbergen, an island that lies about half way between the coast of Norway and the North Pole. Since the initial discovery, the study of polar dinosaurs has slowly gained momentum.

"The biggest misconception we face is that people don't know they even exist," said Thomas Rich, a paleontologist at Museum Victoria, Australia. "Yes, the dinosaurs lived in steaming swamps and howling deserts, and on the plains, but they also got to high latitudes, and did very well, thank you very much."

Questions about polar dinosaurs abound: Did the animals migrate to warmer climes during the worst of the winter, did they hibernate, or did they remain active close to the poles even during the coldest part of the year? How cold was it? It's not that easy to establish a region's mean annual temperature 150 million years ago.

Writing in a recent issue of the journal Science, Rich and colleagues sum up the evidence known so far and conclude that the dinosaurs living in the polar regions were quite well adapted to their environment.

Frozen Australia

One of the puzzles polar dinosaur specialists face is establishing how cold it was, at what time period, where. The supercontinent Gondwana began to break up around 200 million years ago, creating new, smaller land masses—Antarctica, South America, Africa, India, and Australasia. During the Cretaceous, 145 to 65 million years ago, the world climate was warmer than it is today, and the continents were still shifting; southeastern Australia lay within the Antarctic Circle.

Rich and his wife Patricia, a vertebrate paleontologist at Monash University in Victoria, Australia, and co-author of the report, have uncovered dinosaur fossils from about 105 to 115 million years ago, buried in sediment layers marked by ice wedges, permafrost, and hummocky ground. By looking at fossil pollen samples from sediment layers laid down over thousands to millions of years, they have been able to get an environmental snapshot of southeastern Australia during that time period.

"The mean annual temperatures (MAT) ranged between -6 to +3 degrees Celsius (21 to 37 degrees Fahrenheit)," said Rich. "For comparison, the MAT for Fairbanks [in Alaska] today is -2.9 degrees Celsius."

Roland Gangloff, a paleontologist at the University of Alaska Museum and co-author of the report, points out that mean annual temperatures are an average for the whole year. "If the temperature drops below -3 degrees Celsius in the winter, you're in frigid temperatures, and looking at everything that goes along with that," he said.

What goes along with frigid temperatures are ice and frozen ground, long periods of darkness, and a reduced food supply.

Almost half of the dinosaur fossils found in southeastern Australia are hypsilophodontids, small, speedy dinosaurs that ran around on two feet. The smallest probably stood somewhere between 18 inches to two feet (40 to 60 centimeters) tall, said Rich. Hypsilophodontids flourished for 100 million years and have been found all over the world, but were still somewhat rare—except in Australia.

"We think there are so many here because they were well-adapted—maybe pre-adapted—to the high latitudes, and they came here and thrived," said Rich.

There are several characteristics that made the hypsilophodontid well suited to polar conditions. Their optic lobes are enlarged compared to dinosaurs found closer to the Equator, which would enable them to see better in the dark. Thomas and Patricia Rich estimate that the polar dinosaurs living in southeastern Australia spent about three months a year in darkness.

"But it wasn't complete darkness; remember the moon," said Rich. "During that time of the year you see the moon from half full to full, back to half full, so you do have some light."

There has been some speculation as to whether polar dinosaurs lived in the high latitudes during the warmer months, and then either migrated to warmer climes or perhaps hibernated through the colder months.

The researchers think both scenarios are unlikely. The bones of most dinosaurs show lines of arrested growth, meaning that at some time, probably annually, their growth slowed significantly. This is not true for the hypsilophodontids, which implies they remained active year round, and didn't hibernate, said Rich.

Migration is also unlikely, they say.

"When you're talking about migrating long distances—the caribou, for instance travels around 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles)—you're talking about an animal the size of a horse or a cow. The hypsilophodontid is a very small animal; if they flew, that would be one thing, but for a little animal on foot, it's too far and doesn't make sense energetically," said Rich.

Alaska's North Slope

The dinosaurs on Alaska's North Slope wouldn't need to hibernate or migrate because the temperatures were much warmer than they are today. Researchers estimate that from about 90 million to 65 million years ago, temperatures on the North Slope probably ranged from a maximum of 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) to a minimum of 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit (2 to 8 degrees Celsius).

However, it was cold enough that a lot of animals seen at slightly lower latitudes are missing from the North Slope fossil record.

"When you look at the vertebrate composition in the Late and Middle Cretaceous on the North Slope, you're not seeing the total vertebrate record that you see with dinosaurs in Montana and Alberta," said Gangloff. Truly cold-blooded animals like lizards, newts, turtles, and crocodilians, which are superabundant farther south are missing, he said. The lack of these fossils could provide some clues to dinosaur physiology.

"The concept of cold-blooded versus warm-blooded has been so oversimplified that it makes physiologists grit their teeth and want to bite someone," said Gangloff. "The range of dinosaurs is huge; a sauropod is 70 feet (21 meters) long; you have other dinosaurs that are the size of birds."

Rather than thinking in black and white—an animal is either cold-blooded or warm-blooded—physiologists think in terms of an animal falling into a range between being physiologically endothermic (body temperature is controlled internally) or ectothermic (body temperature is controlled by external factors). It's likely that there are wide metabolic variations among dinosaurs, and polar dinosaurs can begin to shed some light on the issue.

Future Finds

Establishing a polar fossil record is not easy; the logistics required to hunt for fossils in the isolated corners of the Earth are far more costly than at mid-latitudes. But there is tremendous potential in the Northern Hemisphere for more work to be done, and the researchers are anxious to take the next step.

"We've established that dinosaur fossils found in polar regions are not a fluke and that dinosaurs were capable of adapting to a huge range of environmental conditions," said Gangloff.

One way to learn more about polar dinosaurs is to tunnel into the permafrost using the same tunneling machines used for gold mines, underground subways, and for oil.

Understanding how dinosaurs adapted to a climate that was quite a bit warmer could give us an idea of our own future, said Rich.

"If we're going to muck about with the environment, and make the Earth a much warmer place than it is today, studying extinct biotas will give us some kind of indication about the world we'll be passing on to our grandchildren," he said.

Recent National Geographic News stories on dinosaurs:
Study Paints New Picture of Dinosaur's Nose
Skeleton of New Dinosaur "Titan" Found in Madagascar
"Tidal Giant" Roamed Coastal Swamps of Ancient Africa
"Feathered" Fossil Bolsters Changing Image of Dinosaurs
Oddly Angled Teeth Make Masiakasaurus Stick Out

Additional dinosaur resources from National Geographic:
Paul Sereno: NG explorer-in-residence and dinosaur hunter
Wanted: Albertosaurus
Dinosaur Eggs
Destinations: Dinosaur National Monument


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