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A Childhood Dream: Why We Go on Sea Monster Expeditions

It is summer in Oslo again, and the city falls into its very own state of tranquility. In the basement of the Natural History Museum, however, things are at their busiest. After eight years of excavating Jurassic marine reptiles from Svalbard, there are many mysterious prehistoric sea monsters to investigate. We have started the preparation...

It is summer in Oslo again, and the city falls into its very own state of tranquility. In the basement of the Natural History Museum, however, things are at their busiest. After eight years of excavating Jurassic marine reptiles from Svalbard, there are many mysterious prehistoric sea monsters to investigate. We have started the preparation of the fossils, and are getting ready for a new season of fieldwork in Spitsbergen, Svalbard.

By Aubrey Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

We want to welcome all new and old followers to our blog on the preparation and preservation (and resulting procrastination!) of ancient marine reptiles from Svalbard. These were sea-living reptiles that swam in the oceans when the dinosaurs roamed the land. This year we are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group, led by Associate Professor Jørn Hurum at the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway. Since 2004, we have had eight expeditions to the Norwegian Arctic Archipelago of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) and excavated 40 marine reptiles from 150-million years ago.

We are two students—Aubrey (PhD—Student) and Victoria (MSc—student)—that contribute to this blog.

It wasn’t only our 10-year anniversary this year, but the Natural History Museum in Oslo celebrated a grand 200 years! And what is the most interesting part of the collections we have gathered over the past couple-hundred years? Yes, your guess is correct. Bones!

Jørn, his daughter Ida and Aubrey carrying bones for the 200-year anniversary. (Photo courtesy Bjørn Funke)

Let’s Play Dinosaurs, Not Dolls

Nearly every kid has dreamt about becoming a paleontologist. Maybe these are more commonly known as “dinosaur-experts”(or simply, “like that guy Ross, from Friends”). And, often, when young minds are more fascinated by dinosaurs than dolls, adults find it charming and slightly amusing, but surely, they reason, also something that will wear off as soon as the kids hit puberty. However, some kids just don’t grow out of it (it is possible to like dinosaurs and boys!).

Now the two of us have ended up studying paleontology—the history of life. The question we often get is: Why? Why are old, fragmentary bones so much more fascinating than anything else you could choose to study? We have been discussing this for a while now, as it is a question we are often asked. First of all, use your imagination (or what we call “paleofantasy”). Imagine the world in some prehistoric time. On land there are dinosaurs, grazing herds of animals more than 35 meters long and which weigh more than 30 tons. Maybe they are trying out flowers, the new plant invention. The world consists of two giant continents, and the climate is much warmer than today. Far to the north there is a temperate sea, where massive aquatic lizards are on top of the food chain. Now, paleofantazise that you are watching a time-lapse from this sea. Animals live, have offspring, fight, get injured, get eaten and die. And, over time, evolve.

This is what we do every day. With a little bit of practice, and learning from all the great discoveries over the past centuries, we try to reconstruct a full-scale ecosystem, trapped in layers of old sea bed on Svalbard. How cool is that?

Aubrey as a kid. Notice the orca t-shirt and dinosaur cap. (Photo courtesy Andrew Roberts)

Introducing Britney

During the last field work season in 2012, 12 people removed over 40 tons of shale to find one of the most complete plesiosaur specimens from Svalbard so far. A plesiosaur is an ancient marine reptile that lived from 200–65-million years ago. They either had long necks and small heads, or short necks and large heads. “Britney” is the only long-necked plesiosaur excavated from Svalbard with a complete skull, possibly one of the best in the world from her time. She is therefore this summer’s preparation project. Britney got her name during her excavation, where the song “Dirrty” by Christina Aguilera soon became a hit (but we had the wrong artist.) If you are curious as to why, please have a look at one of the posts from the Spitsbergen Expedition 2012.

We are the girls tearing down that wall in the photos.

Now we have gone from mud and permafrost to careful preparation—that is, removing the dirt and rock surrounding the bones with small brushes and tweezers, so that we can see how they actually looked.

To the right, Britney as she was collected in the field. To the left, the opened body jacket with her shoulders followed by a lot of ribs. (Photo courtesy May-Liss Funke and Stig Larsen)

In the next post we will present this year’s new project and expedition. How much planning is really needed before you go out into the field?

Read More by Jørn Hurum

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Meet the Author

Jørn Hurum
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