Spitsbergen Expedition: Animals Big and Small

2011 Emerging Explorer Jørn Hurum is currently leading a fossil-finding expedition to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, continuing the work that has yielded many spectacular fossils through the years (Giant “Sea Monster” Fossil Discovered). Follow the expedition here on Nat Geo NewsWatch.

Day 6

Just as the team was finishing breakfast  and getting ready to head out to the Konus valley dig sites this morning, a white dot moving on the shore down from camp caught our attention: a polar bear. The crew rushed up the hill with weapons, flares, binoculars, and cameras to follow the movements of the animal. The bear seemed curious and walked up and down the beach for a while, then finally retreated in the next valley. With this threat so close, the nightly bear watch has now been extented to daytime. If the wind turns, the bear could be in camp in a matter of minutes.

The polar bear may seem distant in this photo (closeup shown inset) but in a matter of minutes it could be in camp. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.


Most of the crew nevertheless walked out to the three new quarries in Konus valley. As more bones are revealed from the shales, the team excitement grows. Ancient animals, plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs, are coming alive under our picks and brushes. Protective plaster jackets are made over the exposed skeletons. A couple more tons of rocks are dug out of each quarry. The excavation work is going on at full speed.

Excavated fossils of plesiosaurs (picture the Loch Ness Monster) and ichthyosaurs (dolphin-like reptiles) are covered in protective plaster. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.


A smaller scale excavation also took place near camp, as Magne discovered a small concretion layer with 9 beautifully preserved sea urchin fossils. The rounded urchins may only be 15 cm in diameter, but their presence here is impressive as only a few echinoderm fossils are known from the Mesozoic arctic.

150-million-year-old sea urchins are exposed in the shale near camp. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.
A false-color image highlights the round shapes and characteristic radial symmetry of the sea urchins. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.


During the past two field seasons, multiple echinoderm fossils were collected by the team from Janus mountain. It now constitutes the best known collection of Mesozoic arctic echinoderm fossils in the world. The day was thus a general amazement of encounters with animals, extinct or alive, big or small.





Meet the Author
Jørn Harald Hurum was born in Drammen, a city on southeastern Norway. Since childhood he has collected fossils and minerals in the Oslo region. Since 2000 he has been employed at the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo where he works as an associate professor in vertebrate paleontology. At the University he teaches paleontology and evolutionary biology and supervises masters and Ph.D. students. One recent outreach effort brought him on stage before a general audience interested in his Arctic island project excavating fossils of ancient sea monsters. “There was a four-year-old in the front row and he couldn’t stop asking questions, really good questions” Hurum remembers. “This little boy was so excited to know there was somebody else who understood the things he was wondering about. He made my whole day! As a child, I felt very alone with my interest in fossils. Finally at age 13, I discovered there was a museum in Norway that actually employed people to study paleontology. I started corresponding with those scientists and it was such a relief, such an inspiration. I hope I can give some of that spirit back to the next generation.” Learn More About Jørn and His Work