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When flying dinosaurs roamed Denali National Park

Craig Medred

One of two newly discovered prehistoric birds from Denali National Park and Preserve has been named Magnoavipes denaliensis, which roughly translates into "damn-big flying Denali reptile" or something like that, according to the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas.

The bird was named by paleontologist Tony Fiorillo, the museum curator who has been spending recent summers up to his elbows in dinosaur tracks in Alaska.

"Magno Denali" and a smaller flying dinosaur, Gruipeda vegrandiunis, were uncovered over the course of the past four field seasons. Vegrandiunis is a new addition to the "Gruipeda" group. According to a press release from the Texas museum, Fiorillo combined the Latin words "vegrandis" and "unus" to create the new name which translates to "tiny one."

Magnoavipes denaliensis actually has no direct translation. The museum said the name denaliensis was created to honor the Koyukon Athabascan name for the area and pay homage to both the park and nearby Mount McKinley. Magna (or magno) is the Latin word for "great" or "large." Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America and the most obvious feature in the Denali Park, is also commonly called Denali by Alaskans.

The Denali area is best known for its mountain scenery and its wildlife, but what impressed Fiorillo were the well-preserved tracks of ancient birds he first stumbled upon in 2006.

"My team had been working a 50-mile transect through the heart of the park and we found abundant bird tracks," says Fiorillo. "When the first tracks were found, we were a little speechless because they were so well-preserved."

The discovery of those tracks led Fiorillo on a quest to research the birds that populated Alaska 70 million years ago. Denali Park had a remarkable diversity of birds during that time, Fiorillo said. Most of them have been documented elsewhere, he added, but his team did make an exciting discovery.

"Two types of tracks were a little different. One track type was very large, and though it is similar to the fossil bird tracks found from older rocks in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex -- Magnoavipes lowei -- there were enough differences to give these Denali tracks a new name."

Fiorillo said the rocks of Denali record "the richest record of avian biodiversity from a single rock unit anywhere in the world, (and) the fact that some of the forms of bird tracks we found in Alaska are also found elsewhere in the U.S. and Asia suggests that birds used Alaska as a seasonal nesting ground some 70 million years ago ... just like modern birds use Alaska today."

Fiorillo and his team of scientists plan to return to Denali this summer to continue their work. Previous discoveries by Fiorillo are detailed in two issues of Alaska Park Science, available here and here from the National Park Service

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com