Changing Planet

How to Put an 18-Foot Sea Monster Into the Limelight

The complete 150-million-year-old ichthyosaur, Gamla, is now on display at the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway. It is the most complete Arctic ichthyosaur found from that time. (Photo Courtesy Jørn Hurum)

Since its excavation in 2009, the ichthyosaur, “Gamla,” star of the National Geographic Channel documentary, “Death of a Sea Monster,” has been kept in the basement of the Geological Museum in Oslo. Now for the first time, it is being put on display in an official exhibit in the Zoological Museum at the Natural History Museum in Oslo.

The exhibit is a “best of” the Geological Museum in Oslo, as the building is now shut for renovation. The exhibit will also include the famous Kongsberg silver and the much debated early primate fossil Darwinius masillae from Messel.

Research Technician May-Liss Funke, puts the final ribs in place. Photo courtesy of Bjørn Funke
Research technician, May-Liss Funke, puts the final ribs in place. (Photo by Bjørn Funke)

The star of the show though is “Gamla,” a near-complete (missing the end of the tail) fossil ichthyosaur, Cryopterygius kristiansenae. Gamla and her kin thrived in the seas while the dinosaurs ruled on land. This specimen is the most complete ichthyosaur excavated by National Geographic explorer Jørn Hurum and his team from the Late Jurassic on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen (150 million years ago). It was prepared by and named after Lena Kristiansen, and May-Liss Funke and I later conserved and readied for display.

The custom-made case for Gamla was sponsored by the DNB Savings Bank Foundation and was designed and made by 10 Tons in Denmark. May-Liss, her husband (amateur paleontologist, Bjørn Funke), and I worked long hours for a full weekend, along with employees from 10 Tons to move the specimen into the case.  The 18-foot (5.5-meter) ichthyosaur was not an easy specimen to lift, so a special cover was designed and built for the occasion.

The finishing touches on the ichthyosaur "Gamla", while the T. rex "Stan" photo bombs the picture. Photo courtesy of Bjørn Funke
The team puts the finishing touches on Gamla, while Stan the T. rex photo bombs the picture with his snout in the upper right. (Photo by Bjørn Funke)

It is not every day we get to prepare fossils under the steady gaze of a Tyrannosaurus rex, but based on the photographs, our T. rex, “Stan,” wanted to be part of the construction. He photo-bombed nearly every one. Walking around, we had to watch out for his snagging claws and teeth.

The room was particularly dark, giving it a bit of a “Night at the Museum” feeling, especially with museum visitors looking on from the balcony while we slowly but surely added each block of the ichthyosaur into the display case.

The different parts of the ichthyosaur getting ready for the transfer into the case, with "Stan" the T. rex standing by. Photo courtesy of May-Liss Funke
The different parts of the ichthyosaur lie ready for the transfer into the case, with “Stan” the T. rex standing by. (Photo by May-Liss Funke)

The support for the specimen consisted of paraloid pellets, which stick together after adding ethanol. Colored glass sand was added for aesthetic purposes. With all that preparatory work, a total of close to 300 hours over the course of four months was used to get the specimen ready for display.

NEXT: Pictures and Stories From “Sea Monster” Excavations

Aubrey Roberts is a graduate student in paleontology, working with National Geographic Emerging Explorer Jørn Hurum and grantee Gareth Dyke. She writes from the field and the lab with a new take on very, very old things. Her main field of work focuses on ancient marine reptiles from Svalbard (Norway).

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