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In Search of Svalbard Sea Monsters

Here be dragons!

On the remote island of Spitsbergen, deep inside the Arctic circle, the remains of some of the most fearsome sea monsters to have prowled the oceans have been entombed in rock for more than 150,000,000 years. National Geographic Emerging Explorer Jørn Harald Hurum and his team have been excavating the fossils for many seasons. Some of the finds have made world news (National Geographic: “T. Rex of the Ocean” Found in Arctic) and become the stars of National Geographic documentaries and magazine features (Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure).

The fossils and surrounding sediment are relics of a different Earth, when much of what is now the permanently frozen archipelago we call Svalbard was underwater, and dinosaurs and their relatives in the sea and air were on top of the food chain.

Knowing that Svalbard was once home to sea monsters was fascinating background and context for our recent Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition to the Arctic. While we were not to meet Jørn or visit his field site (in any event, we were a few weeks too early for the fossil hunters’ 2014 field season), many of us on the trip found marine fossils during one of the shore excursions. The fossils were not as exciting as fragments of sea monsters, but they did remind us of the immense age of the islands and how they were once home to entirely different animals to what we see in Svalbard today.

Lindblad-National-Geographic-Expeditions

David Braun was a speaker on a Lindblad-National Geographic Expedition: Land of the Ice Bears, An In-Depth Exploration of Arctic Svalbard.   

All posts in this series   Photo album

 

Hurum collected fossils and minerals in the Oslo region of Norway when he was a boy. “I felt very alone with my interest in fossils,” he said in  a lecture about his work. “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.”

Watch Professor Hurum presenting his Svalbard work at a National Geographic National Geographic Explorers Symposium:

Jorn Hurm
Jorn Hurm

Since 2000, Hurum has been employed at the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo where he works as an associate professor in vertebrate paleontology. He teaches paleontology and evolutionary biology and supervises masters and Ph.D. students.

After returning from our sojourn through Svalbard, I emailed Hurum to see if he could shed any light on the fossils we found, and to ask him about his work in the archipelago. He sent these replies:

During our recent visit to Svalbard on National Geographic Explorer, several passengers picked up small fossils (reported here). Why is Spitsbergen such a great place to find fossils?  

Svalbard is a part of the Barents Sea that was uplifted about 60 million years ago. Different sediments spanning the last 600 million years contain fossils. The northern parts of Svalbard are up to 3.2 billion years old. (Read more about the geology of Svalbard.I have not been to the locality you visited on your Lindblad-National Geographic cruise, but it sounds OK. Only the ammonite cannot be an ammonite as they did not exist in the Paleozoic; It must be an older coiled cephalopod.

How many seasons have you had in Svalbard, and what have been the biggest finds?

We just completed the ninth season hunting and excavating marine reptiles from the time of the dinosaurs. But I have had several other expeditions to Svalbard to look for dinosaur tracks.

What did you accomplish in your most recent Spitsbergen season?

The field party successfully located the four levels of vertebrate remains in the two formations and did surface-collecting. Approximately 700 fragments of ichthyopterygians, sauropterygians, bony fish, and sharks were collected. Two bonebeds (at Grippia and lower saurian ) and one locality with complete mixosaurids (at the upper saurian level) were found and documented for further excavation.

What do you hope to accomplish in future seasons?

The goal of the 2014 expedition was to do a sedimentological log of the Botneheia and Vikinghøgda formations on the slopes of the mountains of Botneheia and Marmierfjellet and locate fossil layers for excavation the following four years.

A better understanding of the geology, higher resolution of the stratigraphy and description of the taphonomy are crucial  for increasing our understanding of the formations. All of the discovered articulated specimens are from a high section of the Botneheia Formation. The association of fossils in the upper part of the Botneheia Formation demonstrates a special taphonomic environment. Issues like the high organic content in the sediment and abundant trace fossils (Thalassinoides), ammonoid biostratigraphy and a rich benthic fauna of bivalves (Daonella) needs further study.

New material of mixosaurid ichthyosaurs will help us to understand several  aspects of Triassic ichthyosaur evolution.  Even the validity of the Svalbard species Phalarodon nordenskioeldii has been debated for many years and is now considered a nomen dubium, due to non-diagnostic-type material. The problematic taxonomy of Phalarodon nordenskioeldii will be one of the main focuses of the project, with new material collected.

What part of your work has been funded in part by National Geographic?

National Geographic have supported my work at Spitsbergen since 2009 and every year since.

A lot of your work is done in the laboratory. What does that involve?

First of all, tons of patience. The bones are completely crushed by congelifraction, many times into millions of small pieces that need a lot of glue to be stabilized into something we can touch.

 

Svalbard camp site. Photograph by Jørn Hurum/NHM/UiO.
Svalbard camp site. Photograph by Jørn Hurum/NHM/UiO.

 

What is life like in the field on Spitsbergen? How often do you have to worry about polar bears?

It is a simple, good life. We take handpicked experts and we have one goal: find the bones! We pack enough food. There is no Internet or mobile connection. We always watch out for polar bears, but they usually just wander by on the beach.

The results of some of your work has ended up in popular media as films, articles, and web pages about sea monsters. What is your reaction as a scientist when you see your work come to life like that?

I love it! When you can relate your research to a non-specialist audience using normal daily language, you really know your subject as a researcher too.

 

The 2009 excavation team. Photo by Jørn Hurum/NHM/UiO
The 2009 excavation team. Photo by Jørn Hurum/NHM/UiO
Flipping the fossil in its casing. Photograph by Atlantic Productions.
Flipping the fossil in its casing. Photograph by Atlantic Productions.

 

You were inspired as a boy to become a paleontologist. What advice would you give youngsters today to follow in your footsteps?

Go for it! Even if there are not a lot of jobs, follow your dream when you can. Later in life you will not be among the bitter 40-year-olds because you did not try.

 

Artist's interpretation of the monster hunting ichthyosaurs. Artwork: Tor Sponga, Bergens Tidende
Artist’s interpretation of the monster hunting ichthyosaurs. Artwork: Tor Sponga, Bergens Tidende

 

Follow the work of Jørn Harald Hurum and his team on their National Geographic blog.

National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions to the Arctic

Land Of The Ice Bears: An In-Depth Exploration Of Arctic Svalbard

Lindblad-National Geographic, a Ten-Year Expedition of Inspiration and Discovery
In this National Geographic-behind-the-scenes interview, Sven-Olof Lindblad, founder and president of Lindblad Expeditions, talks about the impetus behind the Lindblad-National Geographic partnership, some of the accomplishments, and his thoughts of the future.

More about National Geographic Explorer.

Also from David Braun: National Geographic-Lindblad Expedition to the Galapagos (2012)

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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