Back In Black – Shales

Professor and Emerging Explorer Jørn Hurum and his team, has returned to the Norwegian Arctic to search for fossils of ancient marine reptiles. We are back in the black Triassic rocks for two weeks to find some sensationally new finds of animals that lived in the seas over 240 million years ago.

By Aubrey J Roberts

The group is on Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago 78 degrees north, land of the polar bear. This is the third year we have returned to Flowerdalen (Flower Valley) for two weeks in field. No shower, dehydrated food (dry-tech) and unpredictable weather. You may ask yourself, why would anyone want to go to an inhospitable place to camp and work? Well we are palaeontologists (study of fossils) and Svalbard is bountiful when it comes to fossils. We are searching for marine rocks Triassic (~252-205 million years ago) marine reptiles along with any other fossil animal we can find. The type of marine reptile we are focusing on are ichthyosaurs; a dolphin-shaped reptile that could come in any size. From small mixosaurs at about 3-4 feet to shastasaurs 10-70 feet. So we need to be prepared for small to large-scale excavations.

360 Photo 1Photo 1: Spherical image of the inside of the mess tent taken with our new 360 camera. Photo: Jørn Hurum.

All good things come in new seasons, and this will be the group’s 11th field season in the Arctic. There are also 11 team members this year, a mix of academic professors, volunteers and students. We all live in a tented camp. Our camping equipment has to be able to take all weather conditions. With no trees and very little vegetation, Svalbard is a windswept place. Despite it being the height of Arctic summer, we need to be prepared for snow. As this happens at least once every year when we are in the field. The last couple of years we have been incredibly lucky with the weather, but we must maintain constant vigilance.

Photo 2Photo 2: Aubrey and Tanja huddle in a shallow hole to escape from the every constant wind. Photo: Jørn Hurum

For the first couple of days, the weather has been good, but quite windy. When we set up the sleeping and mess tent, we have to cover the sides with heavy rocks to stop them blowing away. We have a tripwire system to warn us while we sleep of curious polar bears. A short walk from camp we have dug our toilet facility; a creation of pallats, a toilet seat and a deep hole. We have our ever-trusty toilet gun (marked with red tape), which functions as an occupied/vacant sign and polar bear protection while you are on your own.

photo 3Photo 3: The toilet facility made by Stig and Øyvind, a good place for some alone time. Photo: Aubrey J Roberts

The second day we went on a 14 hour hike to one of the neighbouring valleys (Ledalen), for the geologists to log (measure and interpret) the Triassic rocks. We need to have good control of the layers of rocks, so we know where to look and what age the fossils we find are. The team set up a rope, so the geologists could access the rock section safely and take samples. Meanwhile the rest of group spent the afternoon cracking open nodules (balls of hard rock), which often contain fossils of exceptional preservation. It is kind of like Christmas Day for us paleontologists, where the nodules are presents that can hold surprises. We found a few beautiful ammonoids (squid that live in snail-like shells) and a skull from a marine amphibian. Not a bad finds, for the first full day in the field. What will we find today?

Photo 4Photo 4: The geologists collect samples and measure the layers of rock, while Stig and Aubrey (left) collect nodules. Photo: Jørn Hurum

Changing Planet


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).