Prehistoric Sea Monsters Emerge From the Arctic Landscape

By Aubrey Jane Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

Professor Jørn Hurum and his team of thirteen are on a paleontological expedition in the Norwegian Arctic of Spitsbergen. We are on a mission to excavate marine reptiles, amphibians, sharks, and fish that lived in the sea that once covered Spitsbergen 240 million years ago.

Over the course of our two-week field season we have had three main excavations. Our major dig site this year was of the ichthyosaur “Cliff,” whose tail was conveniently disappearing into a hill. We decided to remove part of the hill (88 tons of rock) to get at it. When we turned over the last slab of shale we were struck with disappointment, as the only addition to Cliff’s tail after moving the hill were two vertebrae.

The tail of an ichthyosaur
Cliff, what a sad “tail.” The red ring marks the additional vertebrae found by moving 88 tons of rock. At least we found other ichthyosaurs in the process. (Photo courtesy of Christina Ekeheien)

Well, it would be scientifically inaccurate to call it a waste of time, as we found six other specimens in the process. These where not as spectacular as we were hoping for, but some of them are still of scientific importance.

At another location, what we thought was a bonebed of many creatures turned out to be a single large ichthyosaur. This was way bigger than we expected and part of the group spent the whole field season excavating it. The result was six plaster jackets full of bones.

Master student Christina is probably the only person to have done yoga on plaster jackets including a giant ichthyosaur.  We are all super excited about  preparing that ichthyosaur over the winter! Photo courtesy of Charlotte Sletten Bjorå.
Master’s student Christina is probably the only person to have done yoga on plaster jackets including a giant ichthyosaur. We are all super excited about preparing that ichthyosaur over the winter! (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Sletten Bjorå)

All in all we have had a fantastic field season. We have experienced all weather types, apart from snow. The latter is a relief as snow makes bones harder to find. Staying in an area only a boat ride away from town (Longyearbyen), we have had tourists and locals visiting us. Two of the guides even got together and brought us all burgers. This was amazing, as we live off soggily-rehydrated dehydrated food items, which despite many different labels promising different flavors, all taste the same.

Aubrey’s mother made us English fruit cakes and along with several other culinary experiments we have been doing just fine. After many years of field work the team is a tight-knit group. Many of the team are volunteers, and this has been their holiday. Therefore it is (doubly) sad that it is coming to an end.

Bilde 3 (2)
A part of the team devouring burgers brought by the Spitsbergen Travel guides. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Sletten Bjorå)

The second-to-last day of the expedition, we went scouting for new localities.

This is something we usually do every expedition, however we were not sure if we had time for it this year due to the vast proportions of material popping up in every excavation site. We set off to follow two of our bone layers to the next mountain, Vikinghøgda, a day’s hike away. We barely got halfway—there were just too many fossils along the way. Which means we found what we looked for and will have a lot to do next year.

A walk in the amazing midnight sun. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Sletten Bjorå)

The result of this year’s work include 880 pounds of loose sediment and bones, 54 bags of loose bones collected from the surface, seven small ichthyosaurs, six plaster jackets of a giant ichthyosaur, two plaster jackets of a jaw, and a partridge in a pear tree. We will definitely have enough to keep us occupied over Christmas and well into next year.

Funded by the National Geographic Society

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Meet the Author
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).