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Three Levels of Arctic Sea Monster Fossils Revealed

By Aubrey Jane Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

It’s hard to tell that it’s breakfast time, since the sun doesn’t actually set here this time of year, but breakfast time it is. And breakfast has already been inhaled. Some people have made porridge, others prefer biscuits with jam. We have been in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard for a few days now and the excavations of ancient marine reptiles have started. Moral is high, and despite being halfway through the expedition we are not ready to go home just yet.

We are the Spitsbergen Mesozoic Research Group led by NG Emerging Explorer, Professor Jørn Hurum from the Natural History Museum in Oslo. The group consists of volunteers, students and a couple of academics. Since 2004 the group has spent two weeks of August excavating prehistoric marine reptiles in Svalbard. This year we have returned to Flowerdalen (Flower valley) in central Spitsbergen, to excavate the marine reptiles we found during prospecting last August. Our subjects of interest are from the start of the Triassic period, about 250-235 million years ago.

Group picture, from the bottom left; Achim Reisdorf, Jørn Hurum, Stig Larsen, Ole Frederik Roaldset, Bjørn Lund, Øyvind Enger. Top left; Aubrey Jane Roberts, Charlotte Sletten Bjorå, Lene Liebe Delsett, Victoria Engelschiøn Nash, Christina Ekeheien, Lena Kristiansen og Inghild Økland. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash
Group picture, bottom row from the left: Achim Reisdorf, Jørn Hurum, Stig Larsen, Ole Frederik Roaldset, Bjørn Lund, Øyvind Enger. Top row from the left: Aubrey Jane Roberts, Charlotte Sletten Bjorå, Lene Liebe Delsett, Victoria Engelschiøn Nash, Christina Ekeheien, Lena Kristiansen og Inghild Økland. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

The Oldest Layer

Last year we located several bone beds; this is a layer of rock containing an exceptional amount of bones. We are well on the way to excavating three of these bone beds. The Grippia-level is the oldest of the three, about 245 million years old. Here we found several large pieces of a jaw from a weird reptile called Omphalosaurus, that no one really knows what is. This is master’s student Christina’s task.

Grippia level. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash
The Grippia level site provides a great view of land and sea. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

The Middle Section

A couple of million years younger is the Lower Saurian-level. Here we find massive paddle bones and vertebrae from early ichthyosaurs, small shark teeth, fish bones and mystery bones. Victoria is going to describe this bone level for her master thesis and describe what sort of fauna lived here at that time. The mystery bones are particularly interesting.  We thought we had collected all of the bones on the surface of this locality last year, but a few “nights” (midnight sun) we were surprised to find about 45 pounds (20 kg) more. We don’t think we can ever clean out that hillside.

Excavating in the cold and wet. Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash.
The team excavates in the cold and wet. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Engelschiøn Nash)

The Youngest Fossils of All

The youngest layer is the Upper Saurian level, about 238 million years of age. Last year volunteer Stig Larsen found a pocket of large bones pouring out of the mountainside. Master student Ole Frederik is going to describe this layer, under the supervision of sedimentologist Achim Reisdorf. This is Ole Frederik’s first meeting with geology, being a biologist by training. Careful planning of the excavation took place.

A crash course in geology for a biologist. Photo courtesy of Charlotte Sletten Bjorå.
A biologist gets a crash course in geology. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Sletten Bjorå)

Another layer of the same age is found on the next hill. We knew which layer of rock we had to get down to to find bones, so we just picked a section and started to dig. This may seem sort of random, but the rocks are so rich in fossils, that we were pretty much guaranteed to find something. After a couple of days of  digging, Victoria struck a skeleton. A tail of an ichthyosaur coming out of a mountain, so all we had to do was move it. We had the help of the jackhammer «Bruce», and managed to cut the hill down close to the skeleton. Now all we have to do is remove the last few inches of rock. We are full of excitement and anticipation!

The group is now spread out in the different excavations, with enough bones for everyone. Even the botanist Charlotte, who specifically asked to be placed to dig in an area with no bones, found a vertebrae. After a minor nervous breakdown, she had to calm down by reading in her floral literature.

Funded by the National Geographic Society

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