Sea monster search draws MSU scientist to land of polar bears

Dec 15, 2006
Sea monster search draws MSU scientist to land of polar bears
Student Linn Kristin Novis, left, and Pat Druckenmiller discuss their findings during an expedition to the Arctic. (Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum, University of Oslo, Norway).

The search for ancient sea monsters sometimes calls for extreme paleontologists. Pat Druckenmiller, for one, flew 800 miles away from the North Pole, rode a boat across an icy fjord and jumped into the sea to reach the shore where no one lives except polar bears and reindeer.

Then the Montana State University scientist hiked, rifle in hand, across an Arctic island to map the remains of 28 sea reptiles that are 150 million years old. The biggest, a predator nicknamed "The Monster," had a skull as long as seven feet and a body as long as 40.

After pitching his tent in the tundra, Druckenmiller helped set up a trip wire system to scare polar bears away from camp. Then he ate fat -- lots of fat -- to keep warm.

"We ate and ate and ate. I ate the fattiest sausage I could find. I ate nothing but fat," said Druckenmiller, who traveled to the Arctic last summer with a team of Norwegian-led scientists. A slim expert in prehistoric marine reptiles, Druckenmiller said he likes winter camping, but this was August, for goodness sake.

When he accompanies the team next summer, he expects to use boiling water to free the fossils from their black shale graveyards and chemical additives to keep plaster from freezing, Druckenmiller said. Paleontologists mix plaster when they're ready to remove fossils. They dip burlap into the plaster and lay it over the bones so it forms a jacket. When the plaster is dry, the fossils are stable and ready to move.

He also hopes to see polar bears next summer, but from a safe distance.

"To collect marine reptiles, we have to live in the presence of a marine mammal -- polar bears," said Druckenmiller who didn't encounter any last summer, but was prepared.

Polar bears roam around in the town of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen. Many of the town's residents knew about fossils in the area, but students from a small local university found the fossils that prompted the University of Oslo Natural Geological Museum to investigate in 2004, Druckenmiller said. After uncovering the complete skull of an ichthyosaur and parts of two plesiosaur skulls, the paleontologists planned a return expedition in 2006. They are currently planning to go back in August 2007.

"The site we have chosen for next year's excavation is on a hillside with several exposures of shale," Jorn Hurum, co-leader of the team, wrote in an e-mail from the University of Oslo in Norway. "There will be three digs going on at the same time within five to 10 minutes walking distance."

The paleontologists will start by excavating "The Monster," an ichthyosaur and a smaller long-necked plesiosaur, but the site will be worked for several years, Hurum said.

Ichthyosaurs resembled dolphins, but had an upright tail fin. Plesiosaurs come in two types. One -- like the marine reptile found in Montana in August and the majority of Arctic specimens -- had a long neck and relatively small skull. The other -- like "The Monster" -- had a short neck and massive skull.

"This is a matter of national pride," Druckenmiller said about the discovery of such fossils on property over which Norway has sovereignty. The island of Spitsbergen is part of the Svalbard archipelago administered by Norway.

Druckenmiller, the only marine reptile specialist on the team, heard about the expedition in May 2006, flew out in July and spent 12 days during August in the Arctic.

"I just love the opportunity to do stuff like this," he said.

Hurum, an associate professor in vertebrate paleontology, said, "He contributed a lot to the identification of all the specimens we found."

Druckenmiller said only a handful of paleontologists in the world focus on marine reptiles, so he feels like a pioneer. The marine reptiles he studies existed before whales and at the same time as dinosaurs. "The Monster," he said, was like an underwater T. rex, but wasn't a dinosaur.

Source: by Evelyn Boswell, Montana State University

Explore further: Ancient clay seals may shed light on biblical era

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Why the Sony hack isn't big news in Japan

2 hours ago

Japan's biggest newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, featured a story about Sony Corp. on its website Friday. It wasn't about hacking. It was about the company's struggling tablet business.

Hopes, fears, doubts surround Cuba's oil future

3 hours ago

One of the most prolific oil and gas basins on the planet sits just off Cuba's northwest coast, and the thaw in relations with the United States is giving rise to hopes that Cuba can now get in on the action.

Ancient clay seals may shed light on biblical era

3 hours ago

Impressions from ancient clay seals found at a small site in Israel east of Gaza are signs of government in an area thought to be entirely rural during the 10th century B.C., says Mississippi State University archaeologist ...

Off-world manufacturing is a go with space printer

6 hours ago

On Friday, the BBC reported on a NASA email exchange with a space station which involved astronauts on the International Space Station using their 3-D printer to make a wrench from instructions sent up in ...

Recommended for you

Digging up the 'Spanish Vikings'

Dec 19, 2014

The fearsome reputation of the Vikings has made them the subject of countless exhibitions, books and films - however, surprisingly little is known about their more southerly exploits in Spain.

Short-necked Triassic marine reptile discovered in China

Dec 17, 2014

A new species of short-necked marine reptile from the Triassic period has been discovered in China, according to a study published December 17, 2014 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xiao-hong Chen f ...

Gothic cathedrals blend iron and stone

Dec 17, 2014

Using radiocarbon dating on metal found in Gothic cathedrals, an interdisciplinary team has shown, for the first time through absolute dating, that iron was used to reinforce stone from the construction phase. ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.