Summer of 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

The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard harbors one of the greatest dig sites for marine reptiles ever explored. Why is that? No one knows for sure.
What we do know (and you do not have to be an experienced scientist to realize this) is that with such an abundance of remains of marine reptiles, there’s no need to keep anything but the best specimens. We transport them from the field with a helicopter and then they are transported to the mainland by boat in shipping containers. To excavate every fossil we spot would soon turn very, very expensive. There’s also the consideration of how much effort would be required from those trying to glue all these ancient reptiles back together.
The Project
So, what types of creatures have we dug up since the project began in 2004?
Well, we have excavated two groups of marine reptiles (not dinosaurs!): ichthyosaurs, the fish/dolphin lookalike reptiles that had giant eyes and fish-like tails, and plesiosaurs, the long-necked Loch-Ness-Monster-type reptiles that swam about using four long paddles. There are also specimens of another type of plesiosaur called pliosaurs, which have short necks, giant heads, and teeth the size of cucumbers–real ocean dragons. Members of this last kind are simply called “Predator X.”
The Results So Far
After eight expeditions resulting in so many specimens, the amount of preparation work is phenomenal. So far, it has resulted in four Masters and a PhD on the marine reptiles alone.
As there are two new PhD students on the project (Aubrey included), the specimens that are to be included in these projects have to be cleaned into pristine condition to be scientifically described. This is the main reason for the superhuman marathon we’re involved in to complete as many specimens as possible throughout the summer. This however is not the only reason–we also simply need to clear some room in storage. So the three of us are working long hours this summer to complete as many specimens as possible, to free up space for finds from future expeditions.
The Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group
Excavations on Svalbard? Marine reptiles? If this is the first time you have heard talk about the project of excavating marine reptiles, or indeed that such projects exist on Svalbard or elsewhere, it is possible to read the field blog published here on National Geographic last year. It consists of eleven short articles of the day-to-day activities of the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group’s “Sea Monsters of the North” 2012 expedition. Here, life in the field, marine reptiles, and the process of excavating them are vividly described and richly illustrated.
As for this year’s blog, it is still in the making and we will continue posting throughout the summer. Please feel free to comment, we will be happy to elaborate on any chosen topic.


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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