Southeast Alaska has a new marine reptile fossil and it has a Tlingit name

Tlingit artist Robert Mills created this depiction of Gunakadeit joseeae in 2020. (Image courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute)

A fossil of a marine reptile in Southeast Alaska has officially been declared a new species and Tlingit elders have named it after a well-known creature in their traditional stories.

Nine years ago U.S. Forest Service geologist Jim Baichtal was walking with a group along the beach in the Keku Islands. The area is known for fossils that moved from the tropics in the Pacific Ocean to Southeast Alaska through tectonic activity.

It was a very low tide when they saw what looked like a black rockfish skeleton on a lighter gray background. Baichtal knew it was something special.

“We don’t have dinosaurs, we have Triassic marine reptiles,” Baichtal said. “That’s kind of our fossil here in Southeast Alaska.”

The fossil, about a foot and a half long, showed a reptile with a big tail like an iguana or alligator. But Baichtal needed an expert opinion.

“So, I set out on the outcrop and taught myself how to take a photograph on my old flip phone,” said Baichtal, laughing. “It’s the very first time I’ve ever taken a picture to send to Pat and describe to him what we were seeing.”

Geologist, Jim Baichtal (left) and paleontologist Pat Druckenmiller (right) lift out the slab of rock containing the reptile fossil in 2011. In February 2020, Tlingit elders named it after a well-known creature in their traditional stories. (Photo courtesy of Jim Baichtal)

Pat is Pat Druckenmiller, a paleontologist and director of the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He looked at the photos and recognized it as a Thalattosaur. He also noticed the unique pointy shape of the reptile’s head.

“We knew right away without a doubt that this was a new species,” Druckenmiller said.

But that was only the beginning of a very long process. They waited a month to remove the surrounding rock at the next low tide cycle. It took three years to remove the fossil from the rock in the lab. It took three more years to compare it to other similar fossils in the world in order to confirm that it was, in fact, a new species.

“We need to compare every single little gory detail of every bone to that of other species that are found elsewhere,” said Druckenmiller.

That meant trips to China where most of the Thalattosaur specimens are kept. In total, it took nine years for the fossil to be processed and peer reviewed before it was published as a new species, Feb. 4, 2020.

The scientists asked for permission to use a Tlingit word to name the new species. Dr. Rosita Worl, President of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, says they conferred with their Counsel of Traditional Scholars and checked in with elders in Kake near where the fossil was found. All agreed Gunakadeit was a good name. It’s likely the first time a fossil has been given a Tlingit name.

“I think this is part of the growing awareness and sensitivity about Tlingit culture so we very much appreciated that the scientists came to us,” Worl said.

“Gunakadeit comes from our oral tradition, so it’s already an existing name,” said Worl. She’s Tlingit and an anthropologist.

Worl says clans usually own names, but Gunakadeit is owned by all Tlingit people as part of their oral tradition. It’s a sea monster legend that helped keep kids safe.

“I just grew up hearing there was Gunakadeit, watch out, you know,” she said. “We were told these stories so that we would be careful and not wander off by ourselves and always stay within a group — otherwise you’re going to get caught by the Kushtaka or Gunakadeit.”

A second part of the name, joseéae, was added by scientists to honor the mother of Gene Primaky, who first saw the fossil along with Baichtal.

As for Gunakadeit joseéae, Druckenmiller says they can tell a lot about it just from looking at the bones. They used their pointy snouts to probe into little cracks and crevices in the reefs, searching out soft bodied prey.

“This animal had kind of an enviable lifestyle” Druckenmiller siad. “It lived in shallow marine environments, so coastal environments, on the edge of a tropical volcanic island.”

The fossil belongs to the State of Alaska because it was found in the intertidal zone. It’s currently on display at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks.

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