The Hunt for Triassic Sea Monsters in Svalbard Is On

The hunt for fossils in the far-flung reaches of Svalbard is on! Jørn Hurum and his associates ply the arctic waters and snows of Svalbard to dig up some of the northernmost dinosaur fossils in the world. Their findings, particularly of ichthyosaurs, are some of the most unique on record. At last, their new fossil-hunting season has begun.

By Aubrey Roberts and Victoria Engelschøn Nash

Monday Evening: The group has just finished dinner. Yesterday, we left Longyearbyen by arctic rubber boats. Still, the choppy sea led to one boat leaking and when the other boat suffered from an engine failure, we were happy to disembark.

Isfjorden by boat, with the Temple mountain in the background. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts.
Isfjorden by boat, with Temple Mountain in the background. (Photo by Aubrey Roberts)

The walk to the camp was short and beautiful. We even spotted reindeer on the way.

Short and beautiful, though not very dry. Photo courtesy of Stig Larsen.
Short and beautiful, though not very dry. (Photo by Stig Larsen)

Upon reaching the camp site, the first guys (who arrived a couple of hours earlier by helicopter) had already put up the food tent and dug the toilet. In the process Øyvind also discovered what was to be the Spitsbergen Mesozoic Research Group’s first Triassic find. Even though we know these guys, we were still slightly surprised to see how they chose to employ it (see picture below).

Newest field fashion! Ichthyosaur cutting boards. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash.
The newest field fashion! Ichthyosaur cutting boards. (Photo by Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

The base camp of this expedition is located in Flowerdalen (Flower Valley), just off Isfjorden. Scenic and green, it is one of the historic sites visited by Nordenskjöld some 150 years ago in the search for fossils. It is one of the most southern camps the group has ever had, and the presence of dirt and flowers adds a certain touch of charm, not to mention the comfort of moss.

The view from Flowerdalen. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash.

The first day of prospecting we had fantastic weather. Eight-degrees Celsius and sun! We discovered the presence of mosquitoes on Svalbard for the very first time. That, and with everybody being excited about this new project, we all wanted to start immediately. There was but one problem—a glacial river separating us from the field site.

Team exercise: Building bridges. (Photo by Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

Eventually, we ascended up the mountainside, slowly scattering into smaller groups. We didn’t find a lot. Not suprising, being used to the bountifulness of the Jurassic on Svalbard. So, as spoiled children often do, we went for something more rewarding (psychologically). The “fish level!”

A complete fish skull. Photo courtesy of Stig Larsen.
A complete fish skull. (Photo by Stig Larsen)

It is called the fish level, unsurprisingly, due to the vast concentrations of, well, fish. Or at least bits of fish, trapped in round, hard nodules of rock. Armed with hammers, the whole group combed the area trying to smash as many as possible to see what secrets they held. But we didn’t only find fishy stuff, we also found a temnospondyl skull: a Triassic long-snouted salamander-like amphibian. An unexpected find!

Tomorrow we will continue searching the area further afield for the illusive marine reptiles.

The view from the field site, our camp and the Flower glacier. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts.
The view from the field site; our camp and the Flower Glacier. (Photo by Aubrey Roberts)

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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