Why Sea Monsters Depend on Toilet Paper

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

As with most other jobs, you cannot simply spend your time doing what you would most like to do. You also have to put in some administrative effort. After days of picking shale, brushing bones and gluing tiny fragments together into objects, the time has come when the one side of the fossil can’t really be improved much further. We have to prepare it from the other side.

However, even though the nearly-finished side is thoroughly stabilized with Mowilith (a type of removable glue), the other might still be mainly dust and fractures. It is almost impossible to get the plastic-solution to soak all the way through. To keep the bones from breaking when turned, we use the same technique as in the field. We plaster it, strengthened with burlap and metal bars, but to cover and protect the bones from the plaster; lots and lots and even more toilet paper is needed. The high quality toilet paper in the field is saved for the bones, and the team are reduced to using the cheaper brands for its actual purpose.

Humor in the field? Finding the lowest common denominator

When a couple members of the team are finished uncovering a specimen and want to make a jacket out of it, they call for reinforcements. If you ever visit the dig sites on Svalbard, try shouting out “TP-time!” from the top of your lungs. Preferably from down in a hole. Chances are good that three-four team members come running, roll out a pile of toilet paper and then start wetting it all over the exposed bones (or you). It is a time-consuming process as you need not one, but up to five layers. Spirits usually reach a high. It is just too tempting to make silly jokes and too time consuming  to try and avoid it.

“May I wet your toilet paper, Sir?” Pat Druckenmiller (left) and Bjørn Lund. Photo courtesy of Erik Tunstad.
“May I wet your toilet paper, Sir?” Pat Druckenmiller (left) and Bjørn Lund. Photo courtesy of Erik Tunstad.

Stocking up

There is a lot of “know how” involved in arranging an arctic expedition looking for giant reptiles around polar bears and smelly walruses. Ordering toilet paper beforehand, might not be your greatest worry. After an unfortunate episode with buying all the toilet paper for sale in Longyearbyen on one of the first expeditions, we now always bring it in from the mainland. Although the locals never complained.

Out replenishing our stocks. Yes, we did get some weird looks. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts
Out replenishing our stocks of high quality. Yes, we did get some weird looks.
Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts

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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