Changing Planet

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 2

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 bit nerve wrecking to be excavating marine reptile fossils for the first time. It is after all the real thing, what museums are based on. Not like the rocks I used to fill the kitchen cupboards with as a kid…. Always a source of great frustration for my mum. Cambrosilurian bryozoes and trilobites, much older than Svalbards reptiles.

But a lot less valuable, I hope. They had this strange ability to disappear in thin air.

What I am digging out now, on the other hand, is to be preserved for all time. Maybe even a whole skeleton, or at least contribute to scientific work­? Or at the very least, equipped with a catalogue number.

I feel humble when I bend down on my knees next to Victoria, and start examining the black muck of moist shale and permafrost. Some place down there, there could be a bone from the plesiosaur she and Lena has already spent a day looking for.

But which of the 340 000 tiny fragments, more or less stuck together and of the same color are we looking for?

This is Victoria’s first time on the expedition as well, though she has already got a summer of experience preparing at the Paleontological Museum in Oslo. She is looking for organic shapes. Color nuances. Differences in hardness.

Feel it in your fingers. If it breaks, its shale.

She has already uncovered about ten small bones. They are unsystematically spread over an area of half a square meter, which doesn’t look promising.

Victoria She has already uncovered about ten small bones. They are unsystematically spread over an area of half a square meter, which doesn’t look promising. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.

This animal was probably dead some time before it was buried. Teared apart and moved around.

Jørn is here, inspecting. He says we should continue digging a bit more, and if we don’t find more, we will wrap the bones in tin foil and bring them with us.

A bit nervous, as I mentioned earlier. My knees on a sitting mat, bum in the air and equipped with a spoon. Gently scraping the surface, carefully removing the mud. A millimeter at a time.

After a couple of hours I realize that Victoria has placed the newbie in a safe area, with minimal risks of doing anything wrong. But I am happy. Starting to get the grip of it. Still, a bone would be nice.

Stomachs start making noises around the hillside, and slowly several reptile diggers descend in muddy, full-body digging suits towards the food tent down in the camp. The sight brings me to think of kindergarten.

But still, the break passes without crying or fighting with food, and a short hour later we are all back in our quarries.

It is closer than fifty meters between them. In one, Tommy is continuing on the skull he found yesterday. Higher up and to the left, Krzystof is brushing on a fossilized log. Beneath us, Jørn and Pat have made an exciting discovery. A series of ribs are protruding from the hillside. There can be more further in …

Jørn and Pat have made an exciting discovery. A series of ribs are protruding from the hillside. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.

And there you are, like birds on a steep cliff. Shouting news to each other. Walking over to the neighbors to see how they are doing. Or having a break, with a can of Coke and a view to satisfy a busload of tourists.

Sometimes you pause and realize there you are, like birds on a cliff, with a view to satisfy a busload of tourists. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.

Certainly not bad, but as mentioned earlier, a bone wouldn’t be bad either.

Several hours pass before I notice something. A slightly different sound, something a bit harder … the neck vertebrae of a plesiosaur. Amazing! Nothing to write home about, not compared to what the others have found. But still …

Victoria hits the same long neck about the same time as I do, and not long after we have uncovered a series of beautiful bones on their way out of the permafrost. Where is the head? Still in the bedrock? Under Victoria’s knees? Or gone forever?

Promising, Jørn says, very promising.

His own discovery, the ribs of an ichthyosaur, ended up being only that: ribs, meaningless to collect. That’s another disappointment, together with the ichthyosaur from yesterday which turned into bone meal when we touched it.

The more experienced among us starts examining the hillside once more. We have lost some promising projects, and need new possibilities.

They walk systematically back and forth, back and forth. Follow the slope a hundred meters east, then one to two meters down, the opposite direction. And then back again, and again and again. All the way back to the camp. Experienced eyes that see bones where others see mud.

We have uncovered more specimens here in a few hours, than the rest of the world will produce the next couple of years. Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum.

A couple of hours later we have got two new plesiosaurs and one new ichthyosaur. There is no other place in the world where you can find these fossils so close to each other and so quickly, Jørn claims.

We have uncovered more specimens here in a few hours, than the rest of the world will produce the next couple of years, Pat says.

The ichthyosaur is even lying with its flippers crossed over its chest. Can this be the remains of the world’s first religious ichthyosaur?, he wonders.

Or one of the great Jurassic killers? Till now we can only see flippers and shoulders. Where is the rest?

More to come!


Read More From the Expedition

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 1

All Posts From Jørn Hurum



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

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