Mega-Ichthyosaur Discovery on Svalbard

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.

By Aubrey Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

It’s day three of our expedition, and we had our first visit from tourists. Doing outreach here in the field is a great way to show people our work. Although we mostly had fish fossils at that time, they illustrate the processes of fossil formation and excavation.

Even (11) crosses the river to our camp on the makeshift bridge, via an aluminum ladder. (Photo by Engelschiøn Nash)

Among the group were Aubrey’s parents, celebrating her father’s birthday. They also brought us a fancy English fruit cake. It was devoured quickly by already-missing-normal-food campers.

On our way up the hillside, Stig made the first significant discovery of the Spitsbergen Mesozoic Research Group; a fantastic ichthyosaur tail, perfectly illustrating the tail of primitive Triassic ichthyosaurs. In later ichthyosaurs, the tail vertebrae bends steeply downwards and cartilage forms a lunate, fish-like tail. In their more primitive ancestors, the tail bend is not as strong and the spines on the vertebrae form more of the tail, giving the ichthyosaur a more eel-like look.

The ichthyosaur tail. Photo courtesy of Øyvind Enger
The ichthyosaur tail. (Photo by Øyvind Enger)

After lunch (at 7 p.m.), we went for a walk further up the valley, towards the glacier. Here, we discovered bright-blue bones on the surface of an otherwise black slope.

Pale, blue bones are laying scattered by the wind. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash.
Pale, blue bones are laying scattered by the wind. (Photo by Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

After just a couple of enthusiastic hours, we found loads of bits and pieces of several ichthyosaurs. Some bones must have belonged to typical, small-size ichthyosaur. But one of them, was a Triassic mega-ichthyosaur! As usual, we only found bits of its tail.

Paddle bones from the mega-ichthyosaur. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash.
Paddle bones from the mega-ichthyosaur. (Photo by Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

We had to go back for dinner around 11 p.m., to continue looking tomorrow. Although some of us might have wanted to stay a while longer, we move in groups as we always have to carry firearms in case of polar bears. And according to some of the tourists who visited us, they spotted one just across the fjord a couple of days ago.

One big fjord for man. A small swim for polar bear. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash.
One big fjord for man. A small swim for polar bear. (Photo by Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

Not all of us were out crawling slopes for bits of ribs. Hans Arne and Oyvind Hammer walked over the mountains and far away, to explore new areas and learn more about the area’s geology. According to Hans Arne’s GPS, they were out for a total of 3 hours and 19 minutes, while they were standing still for 3 hours and 15 minutes—typical geologists. So many pretty rocks!

Rocks. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash.
Rocks. (Photo by Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

Read More By Jørn Hurum and His Associates

Changing Planet

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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