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Following in the footsteps of Omphalosaurus

Eleven reptile hunters dug up about 18 tons of slate and piled it around one of their biggest excavation pits ever. The layer they dug into on Marimerfjellet between Flowerdalen and Sassen is called the Grippi layer. FOTO: Jørn Hurum, Naturhistorisk Museum

Following in the footsteps of Omphalosaurus

Reptile hunters again found gold among the rubble, but this season may be their last.

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Paleontologist Jørn Hurum sits at the bar at Spitsbergen Hotel running a hand through his longish hair. It's Saturday, one day since he and two hunters of prehistoric reptiles returned to Longyearbyen. They showered and managed a quick visit to Karlsberger Pub.

"Our clocks have been turned around, so we thought Karlsberger closed a bit to early," Hurum says with a chuckle.

Fat 'Donald-dolphin'

For the 11th consecutive year, the reptile hunters participated in an excavation in Isfjorden. This year's excavation was at Marimerfjellet, a part of Vindodden in Sassenfjorden.

This year's work was in a pit where bones were dug out last year, with participants estimating the fossils are 248 million years old.

"What I think is the coolest is that we found a jaw from an Omphalosaurus," Hurum says. "Reptiles have many bones in their lower jaw. I think we've found all the bones in this one and that we, for the first time, have put together a jaw. There is nobody in the world who has seen before; we know little about the animal."

Fossil scientists don't agree on whether the animal is an ichthyosaurs or not. Hurum compares it with a fat dolphin without a dorsal fin and with a Donald Duck-like beak.

They found the remains of sharks, marine reptiles, amphibians and bony fish. The specimens are not complete and could potentially be from as many different animals as there are bones.

A spiked fin they found on one shark was 26 meters long.

"That means that the shark was between five and ten meters long," Hurum says.

Life died out

One of the answers Hurum is seeking is how Earth recovered came after one of its greatest disasters.

Nearly all life died in a mass extinction 252 million years ago. By studying a bone layer that is four million years younger the researchers can piece together parts of the ecosystem.

"We can see what lived in these waters simultaneously," Hurum says. "Although this is four million years afterwards, that is a short time because the event was so powerful that the ecosystem had not managed to recover yet."

The reptile hunters now have 800 kilograms of bone material in their bags.

"Now we will wash bag after bag," Hurum says. "It will take a few years."

Last excavation

This year's excavation was probably the last in a project that started in 2004.

"We're not getting any further," Hurum says. "We have digged as far as we can. If we were going further we would have to use machines. This is the only material that is coming from there, but the GPS position is there so maybe someone will dig down again in 100 years."

Beyond that, Hurum says he has no plans in Svalbard.

"I've now been in an isolation booth for 11 years with the same view," he says. "I've looked at Tempelet now for 11 seasons."

Is he done researching in the archipelago?

"No, I will never be," Hurum says. "But I have no plans for excavations next year. In order to start a major excavation it must be sexy enough. We have not found anything to go further with."

Se bildet større

Patrick Druckenmiller and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash dig out a vertebra. Participants in the excavations have earned 12 master's degrees and four doctorates since the project started in 2004, with four more degrees on the way. FOTO: Jørn Hurum, Naturhistorisk Museum

Se bildet større

Jørn Hurum back in Longyearbyen after two weeks in the field. FOTO: Line Nagell Ylvisåker

Se bildet større

Late night with long shadows across the dig site and plastic bags full of bones. FOTO: Jørn Hurum, Naturhistorisk Museum

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