A New Season for Superglue in the Sea Monster Lab

After eight years of excavations, a collection of sea monster fossils from the far north are being cleaned and brought to light in the lab. Several months have passed since the last update, and a lot of progress has been made on the project of putting the marine reptiles of Svalbard back together. We are warming up for a new summer of darkness down in the basement of the Oslo Geological Museum and a new field season on Svalbard. 

By Aubrey Roberts & Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

Last summer, we undertook the task of restoring two of Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group’s most exciting specimens of the oceans which covered the archipelago of Spitsbergen some 150 million years ago. One is the ichthyosaur “Mikkel“, a ferocious looking dolphin-like reptile, with great eyes perfectly adapted to hunting in deep waters. The other specimen, “Gully“, is a 7-8 meter long Loch Ness Monster-looking reptile, belonging to the group called the plesiosaurs. This specimen is one of the most complete and by far the largest of the long-necked plesiosaurs we have, and is also part of Aubrey’s PhD project.

Since then, both of us have been studying or travelling elsewhere; Aubrey has been in Southampton, England, and Victoria is currently exploring the geology of South America. But now and again we return to the Sea Monster Lab, to visit all the superglue, new tools, and moldy marine reptiles.

The plesiosaur “Gully” is just about finished. All the plaster jackets that encase the fossil are opened and are awaiting the finishing touches. However, the last 5 % of the preparation always takes the longest to do and is a lot more demanding as the details are fragile but important. This part we usually leave to the expert, May-Liss Funke, the research technician and head of the lab.

Not only does “Gully” have to be complete enough for preparation/description, it needs to be good enough to show the public. The remarkably clear and complete preservation (not to mention the striking resemblance to the mythical fauna of Scottish lochs) makes it ideal for putting on display.

Unfortunately not all of it is in top shape, so May-Liss developed a new speed-preparation technique: “Aubrey’s-PhD-in-boxes.” What remained of one of plaster jackets was incredibly difficult (impossible), so we divided the bone pieces and shale in boxes to be cleaned and glued bit-by-bit. And yes, we do have a system (although it may not look like it).


Aubrey stares at her "PhD-in-a-box". Photo: Jørn Hurum
Aubrey stares at her “PhD-in-a-box”. Photo courtesy of Jorn Hurum 

Beyond cleaning the rocks, describing these animals means extracting as much information as we can out of the dust and bones we have available. Especially as these are the sole representatives of new species.

Great news for us, the Natural History Museum in Oslo has just invested in a micro CT-scanner, allowing us to look inside bones without cutting them up and destroying them. This tool will hopefully prove to be extremely useful when preparing plesiosaur skulls as the bone elements are so thin and small and are the same color as the rock around. Therefore, a CT-scan prior to preparation could give us a “map” showing where the bones are located in the jacket. And as we just happen to have such a plesiosaur skull awaiting preparation, everybody involved in the project is getting more and more excited and impatient by the day. Technology is amazing!

Aubrey recently brought some fellow PhD students over from Southampton, to look at material in the collections at the museum. The boss Jørn quickly used the opportunity to get the foreign students assisting in carrying in the new jackets from storage. So now the plesiosaur “Britney” is a lady-in-waiting along with a couple of other exciting specimens outside the Sea Monster Lab.

Jorn and Aubrey cover the last bit of Gully in Plaster for storage. Southampton University PhD students, Liz Martin and Jessica Lawrence Wujek supervise the process. Photo: May-Liss Funke
Jorn and Aubrey cover the last bit of Gully in Plaster for storage. Southampton University PhD students, Liz Martin and Jessica Lawrence Wujek supervise the process. Photo courtesy of May-Liss Funke

We also have the pleasure to announce that we have received funding from National Geographic to return to Svalbard in August to search for marine reptiles from the Triassic period, even older than “Gully”! So, we now need to make a lot of space in the lab. This summer will be an exciting one and even better than last year (if physically possible)!

A photo of one of the field areas on Spitsbergen to visit this field season: DeGeer Dalen, taken from Botneheia. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts
A photo of one of the field areas on Spitsbergen to visit this field season: DeGeer Dalen, taken from Botneheia. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts
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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