A Headache of a Sea Monster Skull

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

It is finally time to start on part of the summer’s big project, preparing the ichthyosaur “Mikkel.” We jump into the deep end and start with the skull. Ichthyosaurs, being reptiles and a more ancient family of vertebrates than us humans, have several more bones in their skulls.

Where ours merge together to form larger bones, in ichthyosaurs they are mainly flat and overlap each other (like a well-made lasagne).  When paleontologists describe ichthyosaurs, the skulls are important to separate species from each other. The shape and size of the skull bones and where they meet and overlap each other is a key part of any scientific description. This is why it is vital to preserve all aspects of the skull: to get the most information out of the fossil.

With so many crumbling bones lying on top of each other, it is easy to brush away the particle-sized broken top layer to reach those that are better preserved. These fragile bones are usually better preserved the further down you go, and many before us have simply mistaken the upper bones for being dust. This will not happen to us (hopefully).

Sketch of the typical ichthyosaur skull with all of the different bone elements represented by colors. Drawing courtesy of Aubrey Roberts.
Sketch of the typical ichthyosaur skull with all of the different bone elements represented by colors. (Drawing courtesy of Aubrey Roberts)

 Mysterious “Mikkel”

“Mikkel’s” first jacket was meant to include part of a skull, the rest of which was lost in the field, due to various mini-faults and the bad condition of the specimen (practically dust).  So the field team packed in what was left in the area into a medium size jacket weighing about 60 kg (132 lbs.), leaving the rest to us.

Aubrey and May-Liss spent 6 months preparing the skull of an ichthyosaur nicknamed “Mascot,” which Aubrey described for her master’s degree. Therefore, in anticipation of the long haul, we decided that finishing “Mikkel’s” skull was definitely worth a bottle of champagne on our reward chart.

Field photo of “Mikkel;” a near-complete ichthyosaur, with a lot of personality. With the team members Linn Novis, Bjørn Lund and Tommy Wensås for scale. (Photo courtesy of Jørn Hurum)

 May-Liss started in one end and Victoria in the other, making their way to the middle. Armed with teaspoons and dentist picks, we went to work scraping away the shale literally grain by grain. Really slow work, but exciting, at least at first.

Hours passed. Still we found absolutely nothing. As you know, we did not expect it to be quick and dirty, but usually you find some fragments and work it from there. Here, except for some bones in the end of the jacket, unearthed in the field, we were still at nothing. Two days passed.

The Skull That Was Not There

After Victoria and May-Liss painstakingly removed the shale-dust teaspoon by teaspoon, there was little to be seen. The jacket was practically empty.

All that work for nothing!

Ah, but lo and behold a small piece of the snout was at the bottom of the jacket, along with a couple of teeth. It was not much, but we still get a bottle of champagne, as what has been agreed on the chart is set in stone and cannot be undone. YAY!

: To the left: Victoria is unhappy with her lack of bones in her section of the “Mikkel” skull jacket. To the right: Aubrey stabilizes the remains of “Mikkel’s” snout with superglue. Photos courtesy of Aubrey Roberts.
To the left: Victoria is unhappy with her lack of bones in her section of the “Mikkel” skull jacket. To the right: Aubrey stabilizes the remains of “Mikkel’s” snout with superglue. )Photos courtesy of Aubrey Roberts)

Treasure Jackets

As mentioned, we do not always know what is in the jackets we bring home. Sometimes we get more than we anticipated, sometimes less. This is what makes the job exciting; it is really like a treasure hunt every time we open a new specimen.


NEXT: Read All “Sea Monsters 2013″ Blog Posts

Changing Planet

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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