Modern Polar Explorers on the Hunt for Ancient Sea Monsters

Planning an archaeological expedition is tricky business. Planning a two-week expedition, without water, electricity, and with satellite phones as your only communication device can be even trickier. Add the world’s largest aquatic predator to that, and you are ready for Svalbard.

By Aubrey Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

The crew we are part of has by now become world experts on arctic excavations. They are called the Spitsbergen Mesozoic Research Group and are led by Associate Professor in vertebrate paleontology (that is, dead animals with a spine), Jørn Hurum. The term “Mesozoic” denotes the time period from about 252- to 66-million years ago. Or, in summary, the reign of the dinosaurs. Over the past 10 years they have been excavating marine reptiles from the Late Jurassic, some 147-million years ago. Though the excavations are over, we are continuing the work in the lab, scraping and gluing the old reptile bones together. This year, however, the team will return to the field on Spitsbergen for a new project, the Triassic.

A reconstruction of Middle Triassic fauna including ichthyosaurs (number 14/15) and plesiosaurian relatives (12/18). (Illustration by Nadine Bösch and Beat Scheffold; Creative Commons in the PLOS ONE paper Scheyer et al. 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088987)

Nearly 100-million years older than the Late Jurassic, this is in fact a bigger time gap than between us and “T-Rex.” At this time the region that was to become Svalbard was a shallow, temperate sea and full of life. That there are Triassic marine reptiles to be found on Svalbard has been known since the late 1800s. Actually, the earliest discoveries of ichthyosaurs from the Triassic were made by the explorer Nordenskiöld during his expeditions in 1864 and 1868. These were some of the first marine reptiles from the Triassic to be collected and described. Some decades later in the early 20th century, paleontologist Wiman went on several expeditions excavating and describing more ichthyosaurs. After that, although a bit simplified, let us say that not a lot happened. Until us!

Us in our, well… normal attire, with aprons. Victoria to the left, Aubrey to the right. (Photo by Geir Barstein)

So this year is the 150-year anniversary of the first Nordenskiöld expeditions, and the (approximately) 100-year anniversary of the Wiman expeditions. Since then, we have learned a lot about these prehistoric top predators. Especially those in the Jurassic, who were perfectly adapted to their aquatic life style. So, what we want to know is this: what kind of reptile would choose to leave solid ground to start wallowing in the big oceans instead?  

Equipment testing north of Oslo in 30-degrees Celsius. Were we hot? Yes. (Photo by Bjørn Funke)

There is a big time gap (not geologically) between us and these first explorers. First of all, we are now allowed to go even though we are girls! Yay! Also, the equipment we have access to has greatly improved and made field life both more comfortable (Gore-Tex) and safe (satellite phones and helicopters). That does not mean we always know how to use it. As city dwellers, a bit of practice is needed before we head into the vast plains of permafrost. And even though we wouldn’t have been allowed to go on an expedition 150 years ago, we can still dress like the old explorers did (in tweed).

We have big shoes to fill. We are going to the Triassic layers of Svalbard to see if we can find any specimens complete enough to come back next year and excavate. This year we will be fossil hunters, not fossil collectors.

What’s more, this year the group will consist of two subgroups. One team will look for the aforementioned we-know-they-are-there ichthyosaurs. The other will look for the how-fantastic-it-would-be-if-we-found-any plesiosaurian ancestors. The first team is ten of the earlier participants of the Jurassic expeditions, big guys who have done arctic fossil hunting several times before.

The tough guys. (Photo by Erik Tunstad)

The other team, well… that is us. And we are not really sure if the plesiosaurs are even there (well, we did find a vertebrae in 2012). So, of course, this year’s project will be affected by a slightly competitive spirit, as the results of what we find determine whether there will be any further expeditions at all.









Not T-Rex, but Gore-Tex!
Not T-Rex, but Gore-Tex! (Photo by Bjørn Funke)

Read More From Jørn Hurum and His Team

Changing Planet

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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