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.
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.”
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!
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