OVILLA – Fifteen-year Ovilla resident, paleontologist and curator at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas, Dr. Tony Fiorillo has been busy the last decade, mainly in Alaska, and specifically uncovering not only what he says are thousands and thousands of dinosaur tracks, but more recently fossil bird footprints. 

These footprints resulted in an academic paper published last month entitled, “Bird tracks from the Upper Cretaceous Cantwell Formation of Denali National Park, Alaska, USA: a new perspective on ancient northern polar vertebrate biodiversity.”

Since 2006, when Fiorillo actually made the discovery, to 2009 when he presented his results, until now he said, “Pretty much since 2006 it has been crazy the way every year the discoveries are just so incredible – there are just hundreds upon hundreds. The fossil bird tracks we found, if you drive the park road (Denali National Park) you are driving right through the heart of some of the best fossil finding country out there.” 

Fiorillo found the two fossilized bird tracks as well as five other species dating back 70 million years in the middle of the park within a 25-mile transect that he and his team had been excavating.

The birds all lived at the same time, according to Fiorillo. And, “of these seven – five we were able to figure out these look like bird tracks that people have described from other places,” he said. “But there were these two tracks that were a bit different and ironically I suppose – one was really big and the other one was really small.”

The small one Fiorillo said was named Gruipeda vegrandiunis.

“We combined a couple of Latin words for small one,” he said, adding by “small” he means sandpiper size.

As for the larger bird, Fiorillo said the tracks equal a bird about 30 percent bigger than a sandhill crane.

“Given that we were in a park staring at the biggest mountain in North American we decided to name the larger bird Magnoavipes denaliensis,” he said.

As for his findings, Fiorillo said overall it not only emphasizes what is already known about ancient biodiversity during the time of the dinosaur, but also that there were at least these seven types of birds flying around with these dinosaurs in addition to the flying reptiles.

“The other thing that is really interesting is Denali is a place that is pretty far north now and it was back at the time these animals lived too,” he said. “It wasn’t something like these birds were living off the coast of California and then got hijacked by plate tectonics and moved to Alaska, these birds were northern birds.”

Combine that with everything else scientists already know and Fiorillo points out, “It tells us something too about ancient polar climates being able to handle and support a great deal of biodiversity.”

Heading back up to Alaska this summer, Fiorillo believes there are definitely more birds and dinosaurs to be found.

“The most abundant place for finding fossil bird footprints is actually South Korea,” Fiorillo said. “This is remarkable bird diversity and to have it all come from one rock unit is unmatched anywhere on the planet. Hopefully, the story will keep unfolding.”