Hunting for the Bones of an Ancient Sea Monster

As it turns out, the Jurassic Park films are not entirely accurate. Aubrey Jane Roberts, a National Geographic Young Explorers grantee and professional dinosaur hunter (aka paleontologist) loves the films but laments the fact that they have not kept up with modern paleontological findings. And she should know—she is part of an expedition team that has unearthed bones which could potentially push the evolutionary date of plesiosaurs back 20 to 40 million years and change our understanding of the evolution of this unusual group of marine reptiles.

Roberts describes the plesiosaurs as “a full-flippered Loch Ness monsterlike animal … a group of marine reptiles with unique adaptations for aquatic life … [that] ruled the world’s oceans, while the dinosaurs roamed on land.” However, the origins of this impressive creature are unclear. Until 2012, the earliest remains of a plesiosaur appear suddenly in rock layers from the Late Triassic age, roughly 200-235 million years ago. But what of their existence before that period? From what form did they evolve? Who are their ancestors?

Paleontologists have found few links between plesiosaurs and any common ancestor. In 2012, a team member of the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group at the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum, of which Roberts is a member, found a vertebra of what appears to be a plesiosaur from the Middle Triassic age. This finding indicates that the plesiosaur quite possibly roamed the seas 20 to 40 million years earlier than previously thought.

To a layperson, this adjustment of chronology might register as merely an interesting tidbit of trivia. But for paleontologists this kind of discovery throws the scientific community an ecstatic curveball. These are the types of discoveries that they live and work so hard to unearth. Paleontologists, as the ultimate enigmatologists, strive to solve Earth’s historical puzzles.

“The feeling of finding something that is spectacular is amazing,” Roberts relates. “Just turning over a rock or lifting up a piece of shale and finding something underneath makes your heart leap. It’s an amazing feeling that you found something that no one has ever seen before, just you.”

But unearthing such treasures does not come easily. Roberts is returning with the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group to see if they can discover more plesiosaur fossils to corroborate the 2012 expedition’s findings. Just accessing the dig site is an expedition. Spitsbergen, Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, is situated in the far north of the Arctic Circle. The region is extremely remote; the team travels by boat into the archipelago and then treks over arid mountainsides to arrive at their campsite. Their equipment has to be transported in by helicopter.

Once situated, camp life is bare-bones (pun intended). The team uses wet wipes instead of showering. A toilet is built over a hole in the ground to serve as the latrine. Two or three people share each tent. Although daily life might seem simple, it is not without a taste of the extreme. Precautions have to be taken to guard against possible polar bear attacks. “We don’t cook,” Roberts says. “We live off dehydrated meals, which we rehydrate with hot water … the no-cooking policy is to avoid as much as possible the smell of food, which could attract nearby polar bears.” Roberts even holds a Norwegian hunting license, which is necessary for protection against polar bears during the expedition.

The team works hard. Twelve-hour workdays are not unusual as the sun circles around the camp, hugging the horizon, never setting. Circadian rhythms get befuddled, as the team often wakes around noon and works well past midnight. “Luckily for us in the Arctic,” Roberts relates, “there’s not a lot of grass, there’s not a lot of vegetation, no trees so we can spot all the bones pretty easily.”

Svalbard is particularly well suited for paleontologists to find something spectacular because few teams have excavated there before. Roberts is particularly well suited to be a part of the excavation team. As a young girl she loved dinosaurs, and her passion has only deepened since. “I love paleontology because you always find something new. There’s always something new to discover. We know so little about the history of life that there’s always new scientific discoveries popping up all the time, new dinosaurs, new prehistoric animals.” Now if only the next Jurassic Park makes sure to add feathers to its raptors.

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PRODUCER/EDITOR: Sharon Pieczenik
ONLINE EDITOR: Carolyn Barnwell
GRAPHICS: Chris Mattle