Once these massive samples were safely at the University of Alaska, they were washed to screen out the clay. “And then what’s left is basically like a sand fraction – we look at every single grain of sand under a microscope for little bones and teeth,” says Druckenmiller, “This is a very slow, time-consuming process. It’s kind of just like panning for gold except for dinosaurs instead.” Over the course of a decade, he estimates that his team has looked at millions of sand particles in the search for these tiny fossils.
What the team found was extraordinary. “We didn’t have just one or two kinds of baby dinosaurs, we actually have evidence for seven different groups of dinosaurs, including plant-eaters and meat-eaters, small species and large species,” says Druckenmiller.
Importantly, the fact that the dinosaurs were nesting means they almost certainly weren’t migrating away when it got colder. Some common species of dinosaurs, such as the duck-billed hadrosaurs, needed six months to incubate their eggs – so if the mothers started sitting on them in the spring, it would be almost winter by the time they hatched.
To nest in the Arctic but avoid the winter with its months of darkness, these babies would have had to somehow immediately migrate thousands of miles. There just wasn’t enough time. “It defies logic. We’re pretty sure that these dinosaurs were year-round residents,” says Druckenmiller.
So what would life have been like for these polar dinosaurs? And how did they manage to survive?
An icy mystery
It was early March in the Late Cretaceous, at the open Arctic woodland that would eventually become the site of the Colville River. The bare branches of conifers and ancient gingko trees were just coming into bud, casting dappled shade over an understorey of ferns and horsetails below. Herds of hadrosaurs browsed absent-mindedly on the foliage, while male Pachyrhinosaurus, stocky relatives of triceratops, paraded their extravagant neck frills in the hope of attracting a mate – perhaps snorting occasionally through their long, bulbous noses.
Occasionally the relative calm might be punctuated with a chase and a squawk – a hungry Nanuqsaurus, or “polar bear lizard”, had managed to catch a scaly, beaky Thescelosaurus in its jaws. With blood dripping down the soft coat of snow-white feathers it’s sometimes depicted with, it could have looked remarkably like its modern namesake.
Nearby were a number of nests – possibly at communal nurseries, if the dinosaurs were like their southerly relatives – where the local residents incubated their eggs. Bird-like relatives of velociraptors, saurornitholestines, settled themselves over their broods and may have used their specialised teeth to preen their feathers.
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