Nanuqsaurus (meaning “polar bear lizard”) is a genus of carnivorous tyrannosaurid theropod known from the Late Cretaceous (early Late Maastrichtian stage) Prince Creek Formation of the North Slope of Alaska, USA. It contains a single species, Nanuqsaurus hoglundi, known only from a partial skull.
Nanuqsaurus has been estimated to have been about six meters (twenty feet) long, about half the length of Tyrannosaurus rex. This diminutive size was postulated by Fiorillo and Tykoski as being an adaptation to its high-latitude habitat.
Nanuqsaurus bears a particularly shaped ridge on its head indicating the carnivore was related to Tyrannosaurus rex. The length of the reconstructed skull, based on the proportions of related animals, is 60–70 cm (24–28 in).
Classified as a tyrannosaurine, Nanuqsaurus is diagnosed by: a thin, rostrally forked, median spur of the fused parietals on the dorsal skull roof that overlaps and separates the frontals within the sagittal crest, frontals with a long, rostrally pointed process separating the prefrontal and lacrimal facets and that the first two dentary teeth are much smaller than the dentary teeth behind them.
In 2006, at the Kikak-Tegoseak Quarry, in North Slope Borough in the north of Alaska, fossils were found of a medium-sized theropod, with an estimated skull length of 600–700 mm (24–28 in). These were first referred to Gorgosaurus and later to Albertosaurus. After preparation in the Perot Museum of Nature and Science (Dallas Museum of Natural History) it was recognised these represented a species new to science. The holotype, DMNH 21461, has been found in a layer of the Prince Creek Formation, dated at 69.1 million years. It consists of a partial skull with a lower jaw, which were found very close together. It contains the nasal branch of the right maxilla; a partial skull roof including partial parietals, frontals and a right laterosphenoid; and the front of the left dentary. The specimen is from a fully mature individual, as it has a smooth nasal contact.
Nanuqsaurus was first described and named by Anthony R. Fiorillo and Ronald S. Tykoski in 2014. The type species is Nanuqsaurus hoglundi. The generic name is derived from the Iñupiaq word for “polar bear”, nanuq, and the Greek word sauros, meaning “lizard”. The specific name honours the philanthropist Forrest Hoglund, for his work on philanthropy and cultural institutions.
According to paleontologists, about 70 million years ago northern Alaska was a part of an ancient subcontinent called Laramidia and experienced cold weather and long periods of darkness and light, in addition to seasons in which food was not readily available. Prey availability likely would have increased suddenly during the summer, but then declined in the dark winter, leaving predators with little to eat.
The shape of its skull suggested it had an inflated area of its brain devoted to smell, which suggests the animal relied heavily on scent to hunt its prey, similar to Tyrannosaurus rex. The heightened sense of smell in tyrannosaurines suggests that it is more likely that they actively hunted prey instead of scavenging carcasses.