150 years ago Otto Gustaf Nordenskiöld found reptiles in Flowerdalen. Now Jørn Hurum and his team are there to see if they can find more in the same area.
"It's quite fun that this year marks an anniversary," says Hurum, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo. He has just woken up the nine other members of the team, comprised of volunteers and researchers. While they are getting up, Hurum is taking care of journalists and tourists.
"We are very pleased with the outcome of this summer's reptile excavation," he says before starting to show off rocks containing fossils.
The team has found the fossilized remains of labyrinthodonts, ichthyosaurs and the mystical creature known as Omphalosaurus. This comes in addition to the results from Kvalvågen on the east coast of Spitsbergen, where Hurum and other researchers found dinosaur tracks about a month ago.
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The team also found two large beds of prehistoric fossils where there are many different bones. They will now examine the bones to find out which species they belong to. In addition, the team found a place where a complete ichthyosaurs is buried. They are hoping to excavate those sites next year.
"I think that it should be fine getting a permit since this is an area of free movement," Hurum says. "We like to follow the rules so that we can continue to dig."
The ichthyosaurs they found offers its own surprises.
"We are surprised that the ichthyosaurs we have found are so advanced," Hurum says.
This means the researchers must go back even further in time to find ancestors, because ichthyosaurs are older than commonly thought.
Hurum is hoping the area has good enough conditions for conducting excavations during next four years. Because of the permafrost, the period they can dig in is very short in Svalbard.
Much of what they have found remains a mystery. Now everything will be examined in the laboratory.
"We have found an animal we know but do not really know what is: an Omphalosaurus," Hurum says. "Researchers have long been puzzled by this mysterious beast."
The lizards they discovered come in many different sizes and shapes, which Hurum exhibits while the rest of the team enjoys the peace of eating breakfast.
"The largest is the size of whales, but most are probably from one and a half to two meters long," Hurum says.
The paleontologist has now participated in reptile excavations in Svalbard nine times. The last time they were here was in 2012, when they were excavating around Diabasodden.
"To go beyond Diabas is very exciting, because the mountains on the east side of Diabase are 80 million years older than those on the west side," Hurum says. The Triassic layer they are now studying is 230 to 240 million years old.
Compared to these figures, it is not long since Nordenskiöld was here in 1864 and found the first ichthyosaurs. Since 1908, there has not been a further discovery of reptiles in this area, as far as Hurum knows.
"It feels somewhat as if we are in an unspoiled area," he says. "And so it must remain."
There are six sleeping tents and a food tent in the camp, as well as trip wires and miscellaneous equipment. Before they leave, they will rake the mountainside so no one will see they have been there.
"You will not see a hole from a single tent peg when we are finished," Hurum laughs.
'Salamander from hell'
The researchers also found several rocks with fossils, called concretions. These are similar to eggs, but contain so much more.
"One of the concretions contains the head of a labyrinthodontia," says Hurum, before describing it as a "salamander from hell." The concretions are not opened, but will be taken to the lab for computerized tomography (CT) scanning.
"There we have x-rays that would kill a human," Hurum says. "We now have a whole head of an labyrinthodontia, which will be very exciting to examine."
In addition, he tells of the discovery of the ichthyosauria Phalarodon, which he describes as a blend of a dolphin and a crocodile about two meters long.
"We are talking about a lot of teeth here," he laughs.
Food determines the era
To discover which time period the fossils originate from, Hurum and the team are also examining the graves of many cephalopods. That species accounted for much of the nutrient intake of ichthyosaurs. The cephalopods here have shells that evolved considerably in a short time.
"We have to remember that for so long Spitsbergen was part of the seabed," Hurum says. Ichthyosaurs lived only in water, hence the name.
"These reptiles actually stem from creatures that lived on land, but went back to the water," he says.
Plagued by colds
For two weeks the team has lived with a water filter, polar bear hazard and a designated toilet rifle. Two had to go home early after catching a bad cold, which later also infected others in the group. Nevertheless, there were no signs those remaining were suffering any distress the day Svalbardposten was visiting.
"Only the really tough ones can go through the entire trip," says Stig Larsen.
He has been involved in eight of the tours since they started in 2004 and is one of the four volunteers who are participating.
Aubrey Roberts, a student who is on this trip for the third time, says she had no problems being out on the Arctic camping trip for two weeks.
"We would like to stay longer. As long as we have more chocolate and licorice we can manage," she laughs.
'Smell like seals'
There are only two women in the camp, Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash, who is also a student.
According to them it does not matter much that they are the only ladies. It is worse that they are the youngest.
"We are the bullied section," Roberts says. "Most of the others are twice as old as us."
Yet they are well taken care of and take satisfaction in carrying the heaviest loads.
"We may have less back pain than the others and have slightly different energy levels," Roberts laughs.
They also admit they can feel the freezing temperatures a little more than the others.
"When we are cold we begin to wrestle with the guys," Nash says. "The fat layer that forms on the skin after two weeks without a shower also keeps us warm."
They compare the camp to living in a refrigerator and say swimming would cool them down too much.
"But we smell like seals by now," Roberts laughs.
Lost sleeping pattern
The gang consists mainly of B-type personalities who like to sleep.
"We are happy getting up in the middle of the day and having lunch at eight o'clock in the evening," Hurum says.
Dinner they often eat in the middle of the night.
"Since it is so great here, we are happy going on hikes every day," Roberts says. "We have no clock to deal with."
"Is not this how we really are made to live?" Roberts asks.
She has been involved in three of the trips to Svalbard and has no plans to quit. On this sun-filled day none of the campers see any reason to go home.
"We will come for as many times as Jørn allows," she laughs.
Getting reptiles named after themselves
"All volunteers get a reptile named after them, since Jørn and the other researchers are not allowed to give them their own names," says Larsen, who had the Larseni reptile named after him. The reason for this is that researchers and the students get glory with the publication of articles about the reptiles.
During Svalbardposten's visit, however, there is one thought taking up most of the concentration of both.
"We annoy the others in the camp by whispering 'hamburger' in the ears of each other," Larsen laughs.
After 11 days of Real Turmat and filtered water, he misses food from the civilization.
Often they are awakened by tourists arriving for visits at noon. Tourists are, in fact, welcome through the trips Spitsbergen Travel organizes as fossil tours.
"All who are with us are keen to pass on what we find," Hurum says.
Therefore, they wish the tourists a heartfelt welcome, even when they are awakened by the visitors.
Thirteen-year-old Emil Ektor-Andersen from Malmö is among those visiting on this Thursday.
"I'm looking forward to getting back to school and telling about the 'dinosaur hunt' I've been on," he laughs.