Kids’ Art Arrives to Brighten Up the Sea Monster Lab

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 Engelshiøn Nash

One of the most exciting experiences when digging up fossils must be when you realize that you do not have only a few pieces of bone, but an entire animal. The remains of “Mikkel” – an ichthyosaur excavated in 2010 – showed such promise in the field that the group decided to keep him for detailed excavation in the lab. Sadly, he turned out to be more mud than bones.

For the past week few weeks we have tried to find out exactly how much of this specimen is left in its shaly grave. It has been a painstaking process – some will remember the skull that was not there – but along the way, we have also made some very intriguing discoveries.

Mikkel - almost complete. At the far end of the jacket, the remains of the skull start. At our end, the tail begins.
Mikkel – almost complete. At the far end of the jacket, the remains of the skull start. At our end, the tail begins. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts
Shaley bones, without tweezers and dental picks work would be impossible. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts
Without tweezers and dental picks work on such shaley bones would be impossible. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts

Male or Shemale?

The only way to tell male ichthyosaurs from female ichthyosaurs is if you find a pregnant ichthyosaur, which then by definition is female. These are rare and important finds, although more common in the Lower Jurassic of Germany. Always in hope of finding pregnant ichthyosaurs, we have our fingers crossed for Mikkel. Ichthyosaurs are reptiles, but like dolphins and whales they give birth to live young (not eggs!), tail first. This is to prevent the baby from drowning before it is born, as they are air-breathers like us. Always on the lookout for baby bones, we pick through the clay and dust with needle-like precision. We even have a name-change ready for “Mikkel”, if he turns out to be a she: “Michaela,” after the famous Dr. Michaela Quinn on our favourite morning tv-show, “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.”

A pregnant ichthyosaur from Germany fossilized, possibly during birth. Photo courtesy of Jørn Hurum.
A pregnant ichthyosaur from Germany fossilized, possibly during birth. Photo courtesy of Jørn Hurum.

Recruiting the Future

As the project is still far from ready to be part of a museum exhibit, many people are not aware that this kind of research is being conducted in Norway (or anywhere, for that sake).

After we started blogging about our project, several people have contacted us. We have even had visitors down in the lab! A young paleontology enthusiast, 8-year-old Mikkel came to visit “Mikkel” the ichthyosaur. Mikkel and his sister drew us very nice pictures of marine reptiles and the excavations on Svalbard, including one of an ichthyosaur giving birth!

We have hung them up in the lab with the other paleo-inspired art we’ve done, and but we would appreciate more contributions! If you have an artistic bend, send your picture to May-Liss Funke, Sars gate 1, 0562 Oslo, Norway. All drawings prehistoric are welcome and will be hung in the lab!

The drawings from the paleo-enthusiast Mikkel and his sister. 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