Another Hill Bites The Dust

Snow, rain and wind may break our bones, but will never defeat us. Every inch of shale we remove to uncover fossilised bones, is a small victory for science. New species and discoveries are hiding in the mountain and we are full of excitement. Excavating a 247 million year old bone bed can be challenging, but we will win the war against the mountain with our picks and spades. The expedition has reached its peak!

By Aubrey Jane Roberts

The good weather has left us, now we have the all too familiar fog resting around the camp. I had a leak in my tent last night. There is something quite funny about running around the tent in your woollen pyjamas in broad daylight (despite being 1 am), trying to find a leak. We can now finally use our heavy duty sailing suits, which keep us sort-of dry while digging deep muddy holes into the permafrost.

Photo 1Photo 1 – The fog is moving in on the camp, surrounding the team members during the walk back to camp. Photo: Aubrey Jane Roberts

Yesterday, we dug one of the largest quarries in the 11-year history of the expeditions. We hurled about 18 metric tonnes of rock around the quarry. Our goal is to excavate a bone bed (“Grippia” bone bed), which we started to take out last year. A bone bed is a large concentration of bone, which could have been collected up for example by an underwater current. In our case, the “Grippia” bone bed contains fossils which represent a large part of the vertebrate (animals with backbones) ecosystem ~247 million years ago. We have found fish, various shark teeth, marine amphibians and a large number of small bones belonging to an early ichthyosaur called Grippia, which is where the name of the bone bed comes from. In addition, we have discovered some quite large bones from the skull and limbs of a weird creature called Omphalosaurus. This strange marine reptile is a bit of a freak of nature, having a short snout and teeth erupting chaotically from all angles in the jaw. The body of Omphalosaurus is poorly known to science, as the bones are so porous and not often preserved. Lucky for us, our bone bed has excellent preservation and the bones have laid virtually un-squished for about 247 million years.

Photo 2Photo 2 – The excavation of the “Grippia” bone bed is shooting ahead. We have to take down part of the hill to get down to the bone bed layer. Photo: Jørn Hurum

The “Grippia” bone bed just seems to continue into the mountainside and we will follow it as far as our hands and backs can take us. It is on days like this, we think about the early scientific expeditions to the Arctic. One in particular is of interest to us, the expeditions of Swedish explorer Nordenskiöld about 150 years ago. He collected the first fossilised material from this region and formed the base of which we work on today. They overwintered here and every expedition was a fight for survival against sickness and the forces of nature. We are more fortunate today, with our fancy equipment, dehydrated food and good clothing. If you think what we do is hard-core, just think about what they had to do!

Photo 3 360Photo 3 – The 360 image of the excavation. 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).