Eyes of Desire—A New Jurassic Ichthyosaur From Spitsbergen

If looks could kill and not teeth, then this ichthyosaur would have been dangerous. As this is not true, with its large eyes and tiny teeth, this ichthyosaur appears kind of cute—hence its nickname, “Mascot.” However, it has now been formally named Janusaurus lundi by Aubrey and her supervisors on the 1st of August (2014) in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

By Aubrey Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

Janusaurus lundi is one of the oldest ichthyosaurs the team has excavated from the Upper Jurassic (147-million years ago; Early Volgian). The specimen consists of a skull, shoulder, partial paddles and hip bones. It may not be the most beautiful or complete ichthyosaur in the world, but “Mascot” has a few very strange differences from other ichthyosaurs, such as a weird hip bone and braincase. Janusaurus lundi was named after the mountain on which it was found, “Janusfjellet”, and a volunteer on the project, Bjørn Lund.

A reconstruction of Janusaurus lundi. (Image courtesy of Aubrey Roberts)

The Schwarzenegger of the Jurassic Svalbard Seas

“Mascot” or Janusaurus lundi may be small, but it had massive shoulders for its size; a real broad-shouldered “Schwarzenegger” of the seas. Why were the shoulders so massive and robust? We don’t know, but maybe more specimens could yield an answer. Every new species described in science answers some questions, but tends to ask more.

The shoulder bones of Janusaurus lundi. A happy ichthyosaur. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts
The shoulder bones of Janusaurus lundi: A happy ichthyosaur. (Photo by Aubrey Roberts)

The eyes, however, which are the size of a small dinner plate, were probably used to find prey in deep, dark water. Ichthyosaurs have the world record for vertebrates (animals with a backbone) in eye size compared to body size. Animals with large eyes can hold more photoreceptive cells than small eyes, which is why scientists believe large eyes are a good indicator that they had great vision.

A Prolonged Preparation

Aubrey, along with May-Liss Funke, the research technician at the museum, did most of the preparation of “Mascot”, which in total took about 2,000 hours and an entire year to finish. The skull in particular was very fragile and broken down to millimeter-size pieces as it was exposed on the surface. In fact, the team didn’t know the skull was there till we found it in the lab. When you look at the picture from the field (below), you can see that it is hard to see any skull at all.

The skull of "Mascot" from the field. Can see it? Don't worry we couldn't either. Photo courtesy of Espen Knutsen
The skull of “Mascot” from the field. Can you see it? Don’t worry, we couldn’t either. (Photo by Espen Knutsen)

The main plaster jacket including the shoulder, paddle and skull took the most time to prepare. We removed the shoulder bones and the paddle one by one, then decapitated the skull from the body. We prepped the skull from both sides and the entire left side (which was exposed on the surface) was eroded away. This gave an interesting view of the inside of the skull and lower jaw, which you don’t usually get. So in other words, loss is not necessarily a bad thing.

A view of the preparation of the skull of “Mascot”. “A-D” are the first preparation stages. “E-F” are the turning of the jacket. “G” is the exposed side of the skull, and decapitation. “H” is the finished skull. (Photos by Aubrey Roberts)

Family Trees for Ichthyosaurs

Janusaurus lundi is a member of a particular family of ichthyosaurs called “ophthalmosaurids.” This group of ichthyosaurs lasted from the Middle Jurassic to the Early Cretaceous, when ichthyosaurs became extinct. This family was spread worldwide during this time, and on Svalbard we have several different species. The two other species described are Palvennia hoybergeti and Cryopterygius kristiansenaeJanusaurus differs from these other species in a number of ways, but a family tree analysis (called a phylogenetic analysis) shows that the ophthalmosaurids on Svalbard are more related to each other than to any other species. That is interesting because it could suggest that the Svalbard ichthyosaurs were endemic, meaning that they were only found in that area.

A "family" tree over the ophthalmosaurid ichthyosaur family. The Svalbard ichthyosaurs are marked by a red square.
A “family” tree for the ophthalmosaurid ichthyosaur family. The Svalbard ichthyosaurs are marked by a red square. (Image from Roberts et al. 2014 PLOS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103152)

The description of Janusaurus lundi was written by Aubrey as her Master of Science thesis at the University of Oslo.

 So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Well, now we are heading off to Svalbard to go and look for more ancient marine reptiles. We will have blog posts throughout the expedition, so keep following!

The camp on Svalbard from 2011. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts
The camp in Svalbard in 2011. (Photo by Aubrey Roberts)

Read More By Jørn Hurum and His Associates

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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