Excavating Gully, a Real-Life Loch Ness Monster

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

Now to the second sea monster of the summer, “Gully” the gigantic plesiosaur. An animal so large that it took two field seasons to excavate.  How long do you think it will take to prepare such a beast?

Body Parts Gone Astray

We, “the tri-preparator team,” have started on this second sea monster, brought in from the field in so many plaster jackets that even we have forgotten where they all are. The ever-the-optimist Jørn thinks that it will take us a couple of months to prepare “Gully,” however we have learned through experience that we always have to multiply this number by three. Jørn-time is not usually accurate and he obviously overestimates our abilities.

The fossil we call Gully, when it emerged in the field. (Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts)

Getting Through All That Plaster

As you can imagine, after the jackets have been left to dry for in some cases several years, a lot of dust is involved. We use a mechanical hand-held jigsaw to cut open the jackets, using a vacuum cleaner to remove the dust. In the field, we add metal rods to the jacket to stiffen it up for transport. To cut through these can be tough, leaving our hands red and raw from the heat emitted from the saws. When the lid is finally cut, we lift it off with crowbars and screwdrivers. Always eager to see what has not been seen since the field, we get cracking on the first stages on the preparation.

Cutting em jackets MLKF
Cutting’em jackets. (Photo courtesy of May-Liss Funke)

Friday Night

If you followed Jørn Hurum’s blog throughout the field expedition of 2011, you may remember this pretty massive plesiosaur nicknamed “Gully” (read the original posts).  The first jacket of “Gully” was meant to be an entire hind paddle and a section of the backbone. Excited by the memory of the fantastic condition of the fossil, we set off preparing it right away despite the fact that it was a Friday evening. We were so hyper in fact that we used our bare hands to uncover the first part of the puzzle, which revealed the best plesiosaur paddle we have so far.

The preparation of Gully begins, with a glass of champagne in hand
The preparation of Gully begins, with a glass of champagne in hand. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts

Big Project = Manpower Needed

This is however not the only jacket of “Gully”, which comprises of 9-10 jackets of various size. So now we have the honour of preparing the beast (the biggest one we excavated) and trying to locate all the jackets in the midst of marine remains in the basement of the Geological Museum. This is not an easy task, especially when they are all stacked on top of each other.

Since the two of us together barely weigh the same as one grown man, lifting the up to one-tonne jackets is kind of hard for use. Therefore, we need reinforcements in the shape of Jørn Hurum and PhD-student Krzysztof Hryniewicz, to flex some muscle. We do however lend a hand, whenever needed.  Avoiding crushed fingers and toes is another matter entirely and it is not unusual to end up with a bruise or two.

Manpower lift
Manpower: Behind every successful young woman, stands a strong man (to lift things). (Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts)

And of course, once we (or our helpers) have found and lifted all of these blocks of plaster and stone, we still have the main task to complete… the painstaking revelation of the fossilized bones deep inside. All in a day’s work!

NEXT: Read All “Sea Monsters 2013″ Blog Posts

Changing Planet

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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