Sea Monsters of the North: Day 1

NG Emerging Explorer Jørn Hurum is currently on Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic Circle excavating the remains of ancient marine reptiles worthy of the most fantastic Norse legends. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from him and his team, and catch up on his previous expedition for more.


By Erik Tunstad

It’s a good start, a skull after four hours. Possibly one of the largest too.

We knew there were several plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs in the mountain slope behind the camp. They were registered at the end of last year’s field season. The plan for this year’s first day was to examine which fossils were the best candidates for opening a quarry. This could be the last season for the Spitsbergen Jurassic Group, and therefore we should make sure that we bring home the best specimens.

And it’s looking good. Tommy started working right after breakfast. The only thing visible was some rib ends. Nothing spectacular, just a pile of rocks.

“A couple of hours passed before I realized this wasn’t ribs,” says Tommy. Direction and shape rather suggested that he was working on the underside of a skull.

“My only thought was, this is too good to be true!”

When excavations began, the only thing visible was some rib ends. Nothing spectacular, just a pile of rocks. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.


“A couple of hours passed before I realized this wasn’t ribs,” says Tommy. Direction and shape rather suggested that he was working on the underside of a skull. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.

And so the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group 2012 got a flying start, the skull of a fair sized ichthyosaur.

One hundred meters and 20 million years further down the hill, expectations are through the roof. Here Pat and Jørn are working on the ichthyosaur the stumbled upon on last year’s final day. This animal lived earlier in the Jurassic, which makes it interesting to Pat, one of the world’s leading experts on these marine reptiles.

“Knowledge is always interesting,” he says. “We know a series of specimens from Tommy’s layers, much less from down here.”

Jørn marks a perimeter around the central finding, Pat defines sections within the circle and Stig, Bjorn and myself help pick away loose rocks from the surface. Those containing bone fragments are put in plastic bags, the rest is laid aside. Soon we see a dark, earth-colored circle growing from the center.

After a couple of hours we are left with the treasure itself, but sadly Pat and Jørn are let down. The skeleton, encased in solid rock, has almost become powder, and seeps out when we try to remove the rocks.

Jørn marks a perimeter around the central finding, while Pat defines sections within the circle. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.

“We hope the inner parts are more intact. What we are looking for are parts we can use. We think we have got a shoulder we can use, and one half of the lower jaw was of good quality,” says Jørn.

Pat on the other hand claims to have seen worse specimens prepared and described before, so the paleontologists agree on packing the animal in boxes and bringing it home.

“But I guess I am a bit disappointed. I had great expectations for this one,” says Jørn.

The first day of digging on the expedition has its ups and downs. The entire day before was spent making camp, a challenge in its own right, 400 meters up the mountain side. The substrate had to be evened out, and a thousand details (fireplace, storage for food, trip wires for polar bears, gun rack, sleeping tents) had to be fixed before we could go to bed.

And last but not least, we of course needed to set up a latrine with a scenic view over at least five glaciers. No wonder Stig was grinning.

With stunning views even at the latrine, no wonder Stig is grinning. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.


Read More From the Expedition

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 2

All Posts From Jørn Hurum


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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