Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: December 22nd, 2020

Designation thought to be first time Tlingit name given to a fossil

February 4, 2020

(Scientific Reports Paper) (UAF Press Release)

A new species of thalattosaur, a marine reptile that lived more than 200 million years ago and was recently discovered, has been given a Tlingit name.

The species was found near Kake in 2011 by staff from the U.S. Forest Service’s Tongass National Forest and later identified by scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). It was named Gunakadeit joseeae on the recommendation of a panel of traditional scholars and the approval of Tlingit Elders from Kake.

Gunakadeit is a sea monster of Tlingit oral traditions that brings good fortune to those who see it.

A paper about the discovery was published today in the journal Scientific Reports. Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) got involved in 2015 after Patrick Druckenmiller, the paper’s lead author and director and earth sciences curator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North at UAF, contacted the institute about potential naming opportunities for the species, which is the most complete thalattosaur ever found in North America and has given paleontologists new insights about the thalattosaurs’ family tree, according to a statement released by UAF today.

SHI took the matter to its Council of Traditional Scholars, which is comprised of knowledgeable Elders and clan leaders. The council agreed that the species could be named Gunakadeit and noted it was an appropriate name. The panel deferred final concurrence to Ruth Demmert, who sits on the council, and the people of Kake.

Demmert later reported that she talked to nearly 40 Kake Elders, who uniformly agreed that the creature could be named Gunakadeit. She further reported that the Elders were quite pleased with this consideration and the recognition of Tlingit oral traditions.

It’s thought to be the first time a Tlingit name has been given to a fossil.

The last part of the whole name—​Gunakadeit joseeae—was named for Joseé Michelle DeWaelheyns, the mother of Gene Primaky, who discovered the fossil.

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Amy Fletcher, SHI Media and Publications Director,; 907.586.9116

Caption: Photo courtesy of University of Alaska Museum of the North. This fossil of Gunakadeit joseeae was found in Southeast Alaska. About two thirds of the tail had already eroded away when the fossil was discovered; Artwork by Robert Mills ©2020. Gunakadeit, a sea monster of Tlingit legend, brings good fortune to those who see it. For more images and high-resolution versions, contact Marmian Grimes at


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