Changing Planet

Bone Rush in the Arctic

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

We struck gold! Well, bones. The gully where we found the remains of a mega ichthyosaur on day three has shown itself to be fossil-rich. The same is also true for the neighboring gully, and we have located several skeletons of marine reptiles weathering out. Searches of the area have yielded at least six prospective ichthyosaur skeletons, along with a special layer of rock in which they are common. The site for next year’s camp has been decided.

Pat, marking the specimens with bright, pink tape to make them more visible on the pictures from the site and easier to locate later. (Photo by Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

Now, we have accomplished what we came for. To find a fossil rich site safe to excavate, and with yet another week to go, we can turn our attention to other things. So, we went looking for plesiosaurian ancestors. Early plesiosaurs from the Late Triassic are few and far between, but we are on the look-out for them none the less. To find one would be a groundbreaking discovery. We aimed our search towards the rocks above all the ichthyosaurs, with little to show for it. Team Ichthyosaur is in the lead. However, with so much time left, we are not giving up!

Aubrey telling Victoria, “where em’ plesiosaursian be at”. Photo courtesy of Patrick Druckenmiller.
Aubrey telling Victoria “where em’ plesiosaurians be at”. (Photo by Patrick Druckenmiller)

As the days now don’t have to focus around finding a good site, we went for a full-day prospecting trip down the valley to see what we might find. Shortly after leaving the valley for the wind-blown hills of Isfjorden, Øyvind stumbled upon several giant vertebrae, even bigger than the previous ones we have found. Even though we ran around trying to locate a possible specimen without any luck, this means that there was a bounty of giant ichthyosaurs here 230-million years ago.

Here there’be monsters. Tommy holding the massive vertebrae. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts.
Here there be monsters—Tommy holding the massive vertebrae. (Photo by Aubrey Roberts)

It’s day six in the field and life in camp is good. Apart from a couple of colds, we are all happy campers. In this year’s low altitude camp, it is a lot warmer than we are used to. Still, the strong glacial winds down the valley require us to take some familiar precautions, like crushing our soda cans after finishing them, so that they don’t blow away. New this year is the wall of shame and fame for successfully crushed or failed cans.

Inside the mess tent with the wall of shame and fame. Photo courtesy of Aubrey Roberts.
Inside the mess tent with the wall of shame and fame. (Photo by Aubrey Roberts)

Life in the Flower Valley is good, and with another year of excavations to look forward to, spirits are high!

The camp from afar. Photo courtesy of Hans Arne Nakrem.
The camp from afar. (Photo by Hans Arne Nakrem)

Read More By Jørn Hurum and His Associates

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
  • lelia storms

    Enjoying your finds want to say Thank You for sharing I love excavating but I’m a dedicated mother of 3 please continue to share I feel like were there….education…discovery is awesome

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