Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that elasmosaurs were marine reptiles, not marine mammals.
FAIRBANKS — No one has ever been able to find proof of the Loch Ness monster, but Curvin Metzler and Patrick Druckenmiller have found something even cooler in the unlikeliest of places.
On Wednesday, the University of Alaska Fairbanks announced the excavation of an elasmosaur from a site in the Talkeetna Mountains in Southcentral Alaska. The specimen is the first of its kind ever found in Alaska.
If that doesn’t sound more interesting than the Loch Ness monster, consider their similarities. The elasmosaurs had essentially the same body type as the Loch Ness monster — a large flat body with four large paddle-like fins and a long neck. Druckenmiller, the earth sciences curator for the University of Alaska Museum of the North, estimated the specimen found in the Talkeetna Mountains to be roughly 25 feet long.
The biggest difference between elasmosaurs and the Loch Ness monster is that the elasmosaur could only extend its neck straight out, not up like a swan. Also, the elasmosaur is real.
“I hate to use that analogy,” Druckenmiller said, “but unfortunately that’s what everybody says.”
The elasmosaur in the Talkeetna Mountains was discovered by Metzler, a fossil collector who lives in Anchorage. Metzler, who hikes the area frequently, first stumbled upon a vertebra from the skeleton in 2013 at the base of a 60-foot cliff. When he returned in 2014, he found two more in the same area.
That was when he noticed the vertebra had actually fallen from partway up the cliff face, leading him to believe their might be more somewhere in there. That’s when Druckenmiller and his team got involved. They made the several-hour trip down from Fairbanks to the discovery site to search for the source.
“That’s what’s exciting. Oftentimes, you go out to an area where someone finds bones and you never find the source,” Druckenmiller said. “Here, not only did we find the source but we were actually able to determine there’s the rest of the skeleton into the hill.”
Druckenmiller’s team was able to excavate about 15 vertebra from the base of the neck and the back, as well as part of the shoulder girdle, which Druckenmiller said was in beautiful shape. The amount of the skeleton the team was able to excavate was great, Druckenmiller said. Unfortunately, because of the specimen’s location halfway up the cliff, they were only able to retrieve the parts located within several feet of the cliff face.
Druckenmiller said he hopes to return next summer with more equipment to excavate down to the skeleton and hopefully remove the rest of it.
“There could be all sorts of surprises once we’re able to get in there and figure it out,” he said.
The rest of the skeleton might reveal important things about the specimen. While they’ve already identified the skeleton as an elasmosaur, Druckenmiller said they don’t know what species it might be. The elasmosaur distinction contains more than a dozen known species, any of which the Talkeetna skeleton might fit into, or it might be a new species altogether.
The elasmosaur is a family of marine reptiles that falls into the plesiosaur order. The elasmosaur discovered in the Talkeetna Mountains lived roughly 70 million years ago, according to Druckenmiller.
Two other types of marine reptiles — ichthyosaurs and thalattosaurs — had previously been found in Alaska, but the discovery in the Talkeetna Mountains marked the first time an elasmosaur had ever been found in the state.
The discovery dramatically increases the known range of the elasmosaur. Other specimens had been found throughout western North America. An example of one found in Montana is on display at the Museum of the North. Previously, however, the specimens unearthed closest to Alaska had been found in Alberta and southern British Columbia.
“That hugely expands the range of where we thought these things were living in the world. That’s pretty cool just to know they lived in Alaska 70 million years ago,” Druckenmiller said. “Until you find something like this you just never really know.”
While working to excavate the elasmosaur, Druckenmiller’s team found the vertebra of a mosasaur — a marine predator that could reach lengths of nearly 50 feet that some may recognize from its appearance in the recent movie “Jurassic World.” Druckenmiller said they didn’t find the source of the vertebra this summer, but it’s potentially in the hill somewhere near the elasmosaur.
Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: