Rebuilding a Real Loch Ness Monster–“Gully” the Plesiosaur

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

Finally, we are ready to show some real science from the sea monster lab! Well, yes this is slow work. And painting and toilet paper can be more than slightly amusing. But alas, the sea monsters are the reason for us writing this blog, is it not?

If you have spent time going through the other posts, you are becoming a bit of an expert on how to prepare a fossil, sea monster style . Or at least you could pretend to, if you wanted to impress friends. Therefore, we will not repeat how this transformation of bone has taken place, but rather show you how beautiful “Gully” is becoming. A work of art.

A Walk-through of the Main Stages of Sea Monster Preparation

Unprepared jacket. Covered in shale as when unearthed in field.

The unprepared jacket of "Gully". The picking of shale has just begun.  Photo courtesy of May-Liss Funke.
The unprepared jacket of “Gully”. The picking of shale has just begun. Photo courtesy of May-Liss Funke.

After removing a couple of inches of shale, we start to see a flipper emerge. Notice the amount of finger bones.

The art of removing shale. Photo courtesy of May-Liss Funke
The art of removing shale. Photo courtesy of May-Liss Funke

All the loose shale is gone, now the cleaning process begins. In the upper part of the photo, part of the backbone lies next to what was once a massive flipper.

Moving into the final stages of preparation. Photo courtesy of May-Liss Funke.
Moving into the final stages of preparation. Photo courtesy of May-Liss Funke.

Why Are Flippers Important?

When it comes down to preservation, the propodialia or limbs of these majestic sea monsters tend to fare better during the fossilization process than the rest of the skeleton. The upper arm (humerus) and thigh (femur) bones are usually thick and robust and can withstand a lot more pressure than for example the thin bones of skulls can. Besides the fact that, they have four of them. The flippers of ancient marine reptiles have a number of differences between species and groups, which makes it possible to find out what species you have got. Or maybe it is something new to science? Though skulls are even better, they are hard to come by (particularly for plesiosaurs) and often poorly preserved. So, as we have no skull for “Gully”, its flippers are essential for rebuilding this “origin of myths”.

The last stages of preparation, the jacket has been turned and cleaned from the other side. Success!

Nearly perfect! Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts
Nearly perfect! Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts

Read All the “Sea Monsters 2013” Blog Posts.

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

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