Photograph by Hans Arne Nakrem
He’s been asking the same question since he was five years old: “Where do I come from?” The answer, Jørn Hurum believes, could lie in fossilized bones, buried for millions of years. “I focus on fossils to try and understand my own past. If my discoveries can contribute a new piece of the puzzle to explain the history of life on Earth, that’s really exciting.”
He’s found a forbidding, yet fossil-fertile spot to conduct his search. Each August he leads a team to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, far north of the Arctic Circle. There, under a sun that never sets, they anchor tents against freezing winds, post lookouts for polar bears, and begin coaxing the secrets of evolution from a rocky polar desert. “For about three weeks a year, there’s very little snow, and since the landscape has virtually no vegetation, there are a lot of exposed rocks on the mountainsides,” he describes. “It allows us to see outcrops very cleanly and find fossils everywhere. We’ve already mapped about 60 skeletons in a very small area; it’s the biggest locality of marine reptiles in the world.”
One hundred and fifty million years ago, the 600-foot high hillsides the team combs were 600 feet below water. “Something about the chemistry of this sea bottom was very favorable to the preservation of bones,” Hurum notes. The treasure trove of skeletons found in this single layer of earth includes everything from micro algae to small marine reptiles to enormous sea monsters—specimens that help connect new dots in the evolutionary story. “We’re uncovering an entire ecosystem filled with new species no one has seen before. It’s giving us an overview of the high Arctic during part of the Jurassic period for the very first time.”
Though Hurum has been digging for decades, he insists that “discovering a fossil is like finding gold every time. It’s like a scratch-off lottery ticket. When you find bones on the surface, you don’t know what lies below. Many times the whole skeleton has been weathered away. But sometimes you start to uncover a bone and it just keeps going and going, deeper and deeper. Those are the big, beautiful finds.”
One such spectacular find, a partial pliosaur christened “Predator X,” put Hurum on the paleontology map. Both it and fragments of another equally colossal specimen he unearthed are some of the largest sea reptiles of their kind known to science. As dinosaurs strolled the shores, these 50-foot predators prowled the cold waters with powerful jaws perfectly designed for pulverizing prey.
Hundreds of miles away from Hurum, another pivotal discovery was made—an astonishingly intact primate fossil pulled from Germany’s Messel Pit. The 47-million-year-old prize is the most complete primate fossil ever found. Immediately recognizing its significance, Hurum was responsible for bringing the star specimen to the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo, naming it “Ida,” after his own six-year-old daughter.
Hurum believes Ida is critical to understanding the evolution between higher primates, such as monkeys, apes, and humans, and their more distant cousins, such as lemurs. Her features include relatively short limbs, grasping hands, opposable thumbs, shovel-like front teeth, square molars, and digits with nails rather than claws. “Ida created a lot of discussion,” Hurum acknowledges. “How closely she is related to us continues to be debated. But she definitely moved our understanding of primates further back in time. We are, of course, related to early primates too, not only the much ‘younger’ hominids found in Africa. Ida was the one specimen that could take us back in time this way because her shape is so well preserved and iconic; she’s clearly a small monkey.”
Ida is also iconic of the way Hurum uses his work as outreach, bringing paleontology to scientists around the world as well as a larger, general audience. “The government of Norway pays me to do my work, so I feel obligated to tell taxpayers what I’m accomplishing. I appear on radio and TV, give lectures, and last year we broadcasted a live feed with cameras showing our fieldwork online, around the clock.” He departs from tradition by making his scientific publications available in a free, open-access journal. “I feel very strongly about making science available to everyone, not only those who have wealthy institutions to pay for subscriptions.” To date, there have been more than 90,000 downloads of the scientific paper his research group wrote about Ida.
One recent outreach effort brought him on stage before a general audience interested in his Arctic island project. “There was a four-year-old in the front row and he couldn’t stop asking questions, really good questions” Hurum remembers. “This little boy was so excited to know there was somebody else who understood the things he was wondering about. He made my whole day! As a child, I felt very alone with my interest in fossils. Finally at age 13, I discovered there was a museum in Norway that actually employed people to study paleontology. I started corresponding with those scientists and it was such a relief, such an inspiration. I hope I can give some of that spirit back to the next generation.”
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