One Lab, Three Women, and a Lot of Dead Sea Monsters

In 2012, the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group led by National Geographic Explorer Dr. Jørn Hurum finished off their final field season on Svalbard. After eight consecutive years, the project of locating and excavating marine reptiles from the Upper Jurassic has been a success. Nevertheless, the team is not as dead as the reptiles. Down in the dark basement of the Geological Museum there is a laboratory, where all the prehistoric sea monsters from Svalbard are brought back to life.


 By Aubrey Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

Oslo in the summertime is quiet, the trains don’t go as often, shops and even restaurants stay closed and most people are off on their holidays or visiting relatives (preferably in the southernmost part of the country). The city stays dormant all through the summer months, and those who do not leave stay out in the parks or sip iced coffees at street cafés. Being two young women in our best years, we however have other plans. How long does that tan last anyway?

Stacking Up

After yet another successful field season conducted by the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group, the Geological Museum, part of the Natural History Museum of Oslo, now has about 37 more or less complete specimens. It is beginning to get crowded in the basement. Jørn therefore has asked us to join May-Liss Funke, the full-time hard working research technician, to form a formidable triforce. The Troglofauna Summer Team of 2013.

May-Liss Funke, the full time research technician. (Photo by Bjørn Funke)
May-Liss Funke, the full time research technician. (Photo by Bjørn Funke)

Surely, after years and years of digging, it would be nice to shed some light on what really happened to the marine reptiles found on Svalbard. After all that work, are they just going to sit in the plaster jackets we encased them in, to dust and rust away? Fear not, for this Jurassic adventure in fossil preparation will continue for several years to come (ten, by our calculations).

In writing throughout this summer, we hope to give you insight into the process of not only finding and excavating a fossil, but what follows as well: the yearlong drying followed by opening of jackets and the painstaking hours of careful preparation and love before they are eventually described (that is, placed into the right species, or possibly named as a new one). Hopefully one day in a not so distant future, they will be displayed here at the Natural History Museum of Oslo.

Looking inside the lab, one wonders whether the fossils have come above ground or the researchers have gone under. (Photo by May-Liss Funke)
Looking inside the lab, one wonders whether the fossils have come above ground or the researchers have gone under. (Photo by May-Liss Funke)


Introducing the Cave Dwellers

We are two young and fun-loving students, with a passion for paleontology. Paleontology is the study of all prehistoric life. Aubrey just finished her master’s degree in Biology on the project, describing a new Svalbard ichthyosaur, and is starting on a PhD on Svalbard plesiosaurs. Victoria is completing an undergrad in Geology, and should start her master’s degree with Jørn next year.  Having two different aspects of paleontology, we are a great team in the field and in the lab. On Svalbard we were known as “Double Trouble,” “Chip ‘n’ Dale” or “Radio Wiman” (the mountain), as we never stopped talking/singing/dancing.

So, Jørn Hurum being a slightly experimental scientist has decided to lock us down in the basement for the summer along with a lot of dead reptiles. For the past two years, we have helped May-Liss with the preparation of the marine reptiles, but this year we got the opportunity to work full-time the entire summer. The best summer job in the world, as far as we are concerned.

Chip (Aubrey) to the left, Dale (Victoria) to the right. (Photo by Stig Larsen)


We will continue posting about our work throughout the summer, so there will be more on the magnificent marine reptiles from Svalbard soon.

NEXT: Read All “Sea Monsters 2013” Blog Posts


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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