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Sea Monsters of the North: Day 11-Skull Discovered at Last!

NG Emerging Explorer Jørn Hurum is currently on Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic Circle excavating the remains of ancient marine reptiles worthy of the most fantastic Norse legends. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from him and his team, and catch up on his previous expedition for more.

 

By Erik Tunstad

We found the head! And at the same time solved a 150-year-old mystery! What an ending–not only for this year’s season, but for the whole project of the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group!

The buildup was perfect.

The long necked plesiosaur we’ve nicknamed “Britney” was found last Sunday, and the digging started on Monday. At the beginning it didn’t stand out, except for giving a faint hope that somewhere, deep in the rocks, there could be a skull.

On Thursday we started to expand the already fair sized quarry by chain saw. At that point, the mud had already been bothersome for several days, and it would only get worse.

Saturday, Jørn asked us to tear down the mountain side. Since this is our final field season in Spitsbergen, this was absolutely our last chance to find the skull of a plesiosaur.

Sunday was horrible between the cold wet weather and the backbreaking labor of digging.

As other team members completed their excavations, more and more of the group’s attention turned to this extraordinarily big hole we had been digging–all the way up at the top of the slope.

Final Push

I went there with Pat this morning. Determined, he started breaking away shale like never before. We others sat there waiting. The wind was freezing, we hunched together–the excitement was tangible.

A couple of hours before lunch, we had 43 neck bones exposed. Just how many cervical vertebrae this animal could have, no one knew–but if it were to be a Colymbosaurus, we should end at 46. Unfortunately, no one had ever seen the skull of a Colymbosaurus.

Then we hit a downer: Pat noticed a layer of rock on the right side of the crater–and he didn’t find it again on the left. There must be a fault going through the hole –one side of the crater once upon a time having been displaced in relation to the other. What if the fault goes through the neck and at some point separated the head from the rest of the body–and transported the head deeper into the mountain? Or even worse; transported it up, where it became exposed and eroded away?

At five p.m. the chain of cervical vertebrae ends. And there is no sign of anything else, either.

The atmosphere hits rock bottom. Oh well, that’s that. I get up and take a few finishing shots of Pat and the others, deep down in the permafrost.

Reaching the end of the neck and finding no skull, everyone's body and spirit finally crash in disappointment. Photo by Erik Tunstad.

 

Well, it was a good try, someone says. Better to try and fail, than not to try at all and live in doubt, says another. Oh well…sad. I start to massage warmth into my limbs and prepare for the trip down to the mess tent, but then I see Pat is still picking in the shale, not at the end of the neck, but slightly to the left of it.

What is it?

“I don’t really know,” he answers. “There IS something there, but I don’t know what.”

First I think he is kidding. I can’t really see anything other than shale. But he doesn’t give up. He picks and brushes, itches his nose, enthusiastic.

Pat rises from his work and asks for a second opinion. Photo by Erik Tunstad.

Down in the hole again. Pat works on, even faster now. A bit confused, eager, disappointed, eager, disappointed. What in the world could this be?

At the end he gets up, pins and needles in his legs, leans against the rock wall and says, “Can someone take a look at this–and tell me if I am seeing something–or am I just fooling myself?”

Julie, who has been assisting him all day, gets down on her knees. YES, it is bone.

After a while the rest of us can see it to: The snout of a plesiosaur!

It can’t be!

The head must have been torn off and turned–for the snout is pointing the opposite way of the neck–but it is laying just a few centimeters from the rest of the animal.

The strong line at the top of the photo, and the triangular shape pointing to the left stand out to the well-trained eye as the skull of a plesiosaur. Photo by Erik Tunstad.

 

Mystery Solved

Thereby the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group has solved a 150-year-old mystery: Throughout the excavation Pat has believed it to be a species in the genus Colymbosaurus–several traits of the anatomy suggest this. Colymbosaurus is known from finds in Great Britain far back into the nineteenth century. No one on the other hand, had ever seen the skull of such a plesiosaur.

Colymbosaurus’ closest relatives are found in the genus Kimmerosaurus.

Yet, no one has ever found the body of a Kimmerosaurus. It is only known from skulls. Could it be that Colymbosaurus and Kimmerosaurus were the same animal? And that for some reason or another the body and head were always found separately? It has been suggested–but there is no certain answer.

Until lunch today.

An apparent bone crest at the top Britney’s skull shows how with wishful thinking, one can tell that she is of a different genus than Kimmerosaurus. Britney is not a Kimmerosaur–and we now know what the skull of a Colymbosaurus looks like.

To begin with it is tiny, surprisingly tiny: 20 centimeters long, for a five-meter-long body.

“I have never worked with a skull this fragile,” says Pat. “I haven’t found the teeth yet, but I believe they are small and needle-like.”

So, what kind of animal is this? How did it live? Pat contemplates the answers, they will bring a lot more sense to the Upper Jurassic ecosystem of Spitsbergen.

With such a small head and teeth–what did our Colymbosaurus eat? Probably invertebrates in the open waters, like squid. The fossils in the area show vast populations of ammonites and belemnites–quite small squid with either an inner or outer shell, probably too hard for Colymbosaurus. But the belemnites had relatives without inner shells. Therefore they haven’t been fossilized. However their characteristic tentacle hooks have been found in rock layers, although in small amounts.

Could Colymbosaurus have lived off these?

A pliosaur attacks a plesiosaur. Painting by Raul Martin (National Geographic Magazine Dec. 2008).

Such large hooks scientists only find in the Jurassic boreal seas in the north–at Andøya, Svalbard, Greenland, and Siberia. Could the seas here in the north have been ecologically separated from the oceans in the south–and could that be the reason why there are so many new species up here, including the predators like plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs?

Jørn, Pat and others start to create an idea–so far just hypothetical–of how the ecosystem was up here.

Pat keeps speculating:

In the Upper Jurassic this sea was at 60 to 65 degrees north. Little is known about the water temperatures, but this can be tested through isotope analysis. It’s possible it was cold, even covered with ice at times. This far north, there would have been seasonal variations in the climate–maybe even with intense growth periods in the spring and summer due to the sunlight.

So, the squids could have migrated here during those periods to eat smaller animals living off plankton.

The plesiosaurs, like Britney, could have followed the squids. The ichthyosaurs could have done the same. These were, with their bigger teeth, probably more generalized predators–but squid could have been an important food source for these too.

The short-necked plesiosaurs, the top of the food chain up here, could have followed the ichthyosaurs and long-necked plesiosaurs here.

Still, we haven’t found fish here. Why not? Where there is water, there is fish. Or maybe not?

There are many unanswered questions. Others have described recent ecosystems without fish. Are we looking at such a situation here?

“We have an unfamiliar, slightly strange ecosystem from the north. We are working on it–and the conclusions are to follow,” Pat proclaims, and continues digging.

It is way past midnight. I’m alone in the mess tent. The rest of the team members are working on removing the traces of 14 days of hard work.

Far up on the hill, a lonely silhouette is picking and brushing. He won’t give up for several more hours.

Re-energized by his discovery, Pat keeps working till the wee hours. Photo by Erik Tunstad.

 

 

Read More From the Expedition

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 1

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 2

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 3

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 4

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 5

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 6–Mountain vs. Chainsaw

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 7

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 8

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 9

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 10

All Posts From Jørn Hurum

 

Comments

  1. Russell Rahman
    NY
    August 29, 2012, 8:46 pm

    Impressive enthusiasm! Congrats!

  2. Minecraft Raft
    August 28, 2012, 7:43 pm

    Great work on this amazing discovery! Thanks for sharing this. I am currently designing a Minecraft level using this sea monster skull concept. It was very inspiring.
    http://minecraftraft.blogspot.com

  3. Sônia Regina da Silva
    Rio de Janeiro Brasil
    August 24, 2012, 3:48 pm

    Amazing work. Congrtulations !

  4. Thomas K.A Brookman
    Cape Coast,Ghana
    August 23, 2012, 6:21 pm

    It so amazing… I congratulate your team for adding another history to my life. Thanks for your discovery!

  5. peta kearney
    nz
    August 23, 2012, 6:05 pm

    Very impressed with your enthusiasm. It’s this kind of contribution that makes our world interesting, knowledge of our past brings value to our existence and hope for our future. Thank you.

  6. jamila
    meknes.morrocco
    August 23, 2012, 9:36 am

    i like this channal

  7. Charles R Sears II
    San Francisco,Ca
    August 22, 2012, 1:04 pm

    Amazing…I congratulate your team on withstanding the elements to bring us discoveries such as this. We all need to know about the history of the planet we call home. I call all archaeologists heroes as you constantly amaze me with your discoveries and truths of where we come from…whether it be a discovery of a prehistoric creature such as yours or of a lost civilization. Each discovery tells us more about both the Earth’s history and our own. Thank you for being there and bringing them to us.I value what you do.

  8. Holly
    August 22, 2012, 10:31 am

    I believe the body and head of the Colymbosaurus is always found separate, is that the structure is adjoined by a spinal column that has a weak connection. Because the bones of the body are better connected to the spinal column than the skull, the force of the ocean’s movement, over time, would disconnect the axis or atlas from the skull and the two parts would drift apart.

  9. Holly
    USA
    August 22, 2012, 10:21 am

    Why couldn’t the reason for only finding skulls be that the other bones were spongy bones and just didn’t stand the test of time. Or perhaps the skull were the only bones in the creature. The only bones in a shark are the teeth. The rest of the “skeletal” structure is cartilaginous. This would be a very likely hypothesis.

  10. Jørn Hurum
    August 22, 2012, 9:55 am

    hi, if you want to know more about the project watch “Death of a seamonster” made by National Geographic last year.
    http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/videos/death-of-a-sea-monster/

  11. Priya Vijayan
    Adelaide
    August 22, 2012, 7:01 am

    This is great news indeed! Awesome and well done!

  12. jeffrey portman
    United Kingdom
    August 22, 2012, 6:32 am

    Wow! What a great discovery!

  13. David W Wooddell
    Adelphi, MD
    August 22, 2012, 5:58 am

    Exciting to read this tale, congratulations on your discovery!

  14. OGI
    Bulgaria
    August 22, 2012, 3:57 am

    Great discovery,
    btw it is fun to notice that the pliosaur painting by Raul Martin have a little mistake – the ripples above the two dinosaurs are no bigger than 15 inches. The environment for the collage is made by a photograph taken maybe 6 feet underwater or less.

  15. Sarah Thornton-Smith
    Perth Western Australia
    August 21, 2012, 11:01 pm

    Just wanted you to know that my son Max, who is six years old is overjoyed that there is evidence of sea monsters – of all the prehistoric creatures, the sea monsters has captured his imagination a lifetime over! He is sure he will be a paleontologist when he has completed his studies and looks at Pat’s perseverance as his ongoing inspiration! Thank you.

  16. Erik
    London, United Kingdom
    August 21, 2012, 9:33 pm

    Very interesting. Congratulations to the excavation team. Another puzzle is put in place, but plenty more to complete in the giant jigsaw of dinosaurs.

  17. Alis Jacob
    Port Melbourne Australia
    August 21, 2012, 9:24 pm

    it is these finds and the passion that precedes that gives world hope….and excitement shared. On’ya Pat…!!!!

    live long and prosper, you’re an inspiration

    cheers

    Alis

  18. Annette LaCount
    Petoskey,Mi. USA
    August 21, 2012, 9:06 pm

    Fascinating article. What an awesome team. Thank you for sharing this remarkable event. Look forward to updates.

  19. agaba charles
    uganda
    August 21, 2012, 2:04 am

    very intereting thanks keep on.