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How to Pull a Sea Monster Out of a Rock

In 2012, the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group led by National Geographic Explorer Dr. Jørn Hurum finished off their final field season on Svalbard. After eight consecutive years, the project of locating and excavating marine reptiles from the Upper Jurassic has been a success. Nevertheless, the team is not as dead as the reptiles. Down in the dark basement of the Geological Museum there is a laboratory, where all the prehistoric sea monsters from Svalbard are brought back to life.

By Aubrey Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

Moisture from the permafrost and condensation on the walls of the shipping container mandate that the plaster-covered fossils dry for a year before cleaning begins. (Photo courtesy Magne Høyberget)

Moisture from the permafrost and condensation on the walls of the shipping container mandate that the plaster-covered fossils dry for a year before cleaning begins. (Photo courtesy Magne Høyberget)

So, what is our goal for the summer, apart from not getting sun-burnt?

As mentioned in an earlier post, there are now two PhD projects under way on our fantastic marine reptiles. A PhD project is basically a 3-to-4-year major study on, well, pretty much anything. One of the two projects is on the description of new species of ichthyosaurs (dolphin-like reptiles), the other is on plesiosaurs (Loch-Ness-Monster-like reptiles). The way we describe new species is by observing and describing every bone in a specimen and comparing it to other already known species.

Prepare for This!

To be able to observe and describe a specimen, they have to be prepared first. This is where we come in. The specimens are in special plaster jackets we make in the field with several layers of toilet paper which are then covered by burlap and plaster. When the jackets arrive at the Geological Museum in Oslo after being excavated, roughly a month has passed. The container in which they are transported is damp and condensation lines the walls. The fossils themselves are still moist from permafrost, thawed ice, and on occasion are covered in mold. Because of this, they are allowed to dry for about a year before they are opened.

Then starts the thrilling task of removing the turned-back-to-shale sediment that encapsulates the bones. This is done with dentist picks, small brushes, spoons, tweezers, and sometime small bores with pressurized air, called “vibro-hammers”. And also, lots and lots of glue, ranging from the high viscous types to the ones almost as fluid as water.

Aubrey holds the various trappings of the lab workers on the project. (Photo courtesy Victoria E. Nash)

Aubrey holds the various trappings of the lab workers on the project. (Photo courtesy Victoria E. Nash)

Writing on plaster identifies "Gully" as the fossil inside this jacket. Below, power tools help open the jacket containing "Mikkel." (Photo courtesy May-Liss Funke)

Writing on plaster identifies “Gully” as the fossil inside this jacket. Below, power tools help open the jacket containing “Mikkel.” (Photo courtesy May-Liss Funke)

The Ultimate Achievement

Preparing a middle-sized specimen (4m) can take one person up to 12 months to complete.

Our slightly crazy goal for the summer is to complete two specimens by the end of September: a plesiosaur nicknamed “Gully” and an ichthyosaur nicknamed “Mikkel”. We need to finish these specimens quickly so the PhD students can begin their description work. As PhD students have a maximum of 3-4 paid years on their projects, we have to help them meet those deadlines.

Surprise

“Gully” is a plesiosaur body spread out over nine square meters. It includes four beautiful paddles, shoulder bones, and a fantastic backbone. “Gully’s” body appears to have undergone gastric explosion, which means that after the animal died its body started to rot and gasses built up in its stomach. This created such pressure that it exploded, spreading all the ribs and vertebrae around in this area.

“Mikkel” is a near complete ichthyosaur and we hopefully have the entire reptile from snout to tail tip. However, as we never fully uncover the specimens in the field, we do not know for sure what we have. It is always a surprise, as sometimes we find a skull or a limb that we did not know was there. So now the suspense is building as we bring out the saws and open the plaster jackets of “Gully” and “Mikkel”.

Everyone lends a hand opening the jacket of “Gully”. (Photo courtesy May-Liss Funke)

Everyone lends a hand opening the jacket of “Gully”. (Photo courtesy May-Liss Funke)

 

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