From boyhood DREAMS to adult DISCOVERIES

26.06.2013
It smells like a petrol station when vertebrate specialist Jørn Harald Hurum gets to work on bones found on Svalbard’s rugged slopes. He has now identified oil in these Arctic islands.
  • Bjørn Rasen and Emile Ashley (photos)

Jørn Harald Hurum

Jørn Harald Hurum

 

I am not in Svalbard, but hunting for the entrance to Oslo’s Geological Museum – a massive stone building rather like a fortress.

The tall, wide entrance doors appear to have been created to admit dinosaurs, while their thickness seems designed to prevent such massive creatures from escaping once lured inside.

“Everything’s fine,” Hurum responds spontaneously when I ask how things are going with Ida. “We’re still doing research on her. She’s on display.”

One of the two Idas in his life is his nine-year-old daughter. She has not come to work with him today, but has features in common with 47-million-year-old primate Ida, whom Hurum acquired over a drink at an exhibition in Germany.

This was something of a coup, he says, which only cost the museum NOK 1-2 million. It was not the money which kept him awake for two nights in September 2006.

When ancient Ida was imported from Germany, Hurum named it for his daughter. “That’s pretty appropriate given the state of her teeth,” he explains.

“The early primate had gained her milk teeth and was starting to develop permanent molars when she died. That’s just how it was with my daughter at the time.”

Since then, he has devoted much time to the world’s best daughter and the world’s best fossil – “at least, its rarest fossil, because Ida is the world’s only complete early primate.

“We don’t find full fossil skeletons of primates again until humans began to bury their dead. All the remains found in between are incomplete.”

Those who know nothing about fossil Ida can use Google, which presented her discovery to one-two billion people and carried her logo on its front page for 26 hours. Hurum describes it as “the fastest publicised research project in history”. 

 

The original of the Ida fossil

Complete.
The original of the Ida fossil (above) can be found in Oslo’s Geological Museum. Visitors can also see how the creature probably looked in life (below).

 

The fossilised remains of a sevencentimetre- long “primate” found in China are 55 million years old – some seven million more than Ida.

Older still
The fossilised remains of a sevencentimetre- long “primate” found in China are 55 million years old – some seven million more than Ida. This finding comes from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History and was reported in Britain’s Guardian newspaper on 6 June.

 

 

"When ancient Ida was imported from Germany, Hurum named it for his daughter. That’s pretty appropriate given the state of her teeth"

 


Time appears to have stood more than still within the museum’s thick walls. Its floors are filled with the skeletons of prehistoric predators.

Some stand free in the central spaces, while others are securely locked behind glass. Although the best known, Ida is just one of many exhibits in her case.

Hurum has placed the fossils he loves best in his office. A 2.5-metre-tall skeleton looms behind his desk, and the rest of the room is dominated by skulls and other bones of every kind.

In addition come arrays of books. Many of them, including several for children, have been written by the associate professor for research and collections himself.

After five minutes in his company, I begin to wonder what Hurum actually does instead of pursuing his hobby around the clock.

“My job involves vertebrates – everything from fish to people,” he explains. “I’m in charge of all fossils with bones in Norway.

“That means I can pick and choose between working on fish or land animals. But I don’t bother with fish – I find them boring. They have so many bones and aren’t as spectacular as mammals.”

He took over his job as a vertebrate palaeontologist from Polish professor Zofia Kielan- Jaworowska, after studying for his PhD under her knowledgeable guidance.

“And now I’m here,” Hurum chuckles with satisfaction, and emphasises that he also has a life and family outside work.

And where family is concerned, scientists are divided over whether Ida has human features or belongs among the lemurs – a debate Hurum directs.

He admits to inclining towards the ape theory. “She’s 47 million years old, while the split between lemurs and apes occurred some 63 million years back.

“Ida exhibits features which could point in either direction. Since we lack other fossils of a comparable age, we can’t reach any conclusions.”

So what does a scientist who likes to stand up to his knees in mud and dig in remote places think of a Google search linking him first with Ida?

After all, he has not dug the fossil up himself but bought it at a fair. Surely the seller must have been an idle European who kept her in a drawer for at least 20 years?

“He knew what he had, all right, and that’s reflected in the price,” says Hurum with a laugh. “If you understand collectors, you’ll know that having something unique confers self confidence.

“You enjoy it through owning it. Knowing that you have a world sensation like Ida under the bed is definitely a good feeling for a collector.”

Hurum is very much a collector himself, and agrees that he can also be described as a historian. “Every fossil is a witness to an earlier time we can’t travel back to and see.

“We must try to understand how the world looked then. I concentrate on the big reptiles from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Plus a little excursion up to the Eocene with Ida, obviously. I couldn’t say no to her.”

The word “no” does not have a dominant place in Hurum’s vocabulary. Life has too many possibilities for that.

He grew up with “how” and “why”, and says he began to think deep thoughts about who he was and where he came from at an age of five or six.

In a children’s book, he read about a boy walking along the road throwing stones. One of the stones says “Don’t throw me. I’m a trilobite with a tale to tell about life before humans.”

“Something just said ’click’ in my head then,” Hurum recalls. “Fossils bear witness to a history humans haven’t experienced, and I wanted to learn all I could about them.”

His grandfather advised him to wait until he started school, when he would be able to get answers to all the questions he was asking about fossils.

“On my first day at school, I asked the teacher if she knew all about fossils. She naturally didn’t, so I decided to find out for myself. And that’s what I’m still doing, of course.

“I try to understand the time before humans. My driving force is putting together ecosystems which nobody has done before, as we’re now doing on Svalbard – everything from microfossils to huge reptiles.”

He studies individual animals to comprehend them, but examines the ancient Svalbard ecosystem to grasp how the mud was deposited, what microfauna were present, and who ate whom.

Hurum cannot say whether dinosaurs and other ancient reptiles ate fish and chips, but he has studied the way they chewed their food.

This is a quite natural subject for scientific study, he maintains. “I was working on the bone-shattering dinosaur bite. Nobody had previously studied the lower jaw of these creatures.”

The desolate Svalbard archipelago is Hurum’s playground. “You avoid all that dreadful green stuff you find everywhere,” he responds when asked to explain its fascination.

“Grass and trees cover everything that’s fun, which is why geologists and palaeontologists love deserts. And Svalbard’s a wasteland, of course.

“You can walk over rocks which haven’t become overgrown, which let you see the geology and find fossils much more easily. You escape the root systems which keep everything in place.

“A lot of wind also ensures rapid erosion. Up to five centimetres of loose shale can be removed every year on Svalbard, which naturally brings new bones to the surface all the time. An area can change its appearance completely from year to year. Quite fantastic.”

You might wonder whether Hurum is unique, or whether he meets flocks of like-minded people from around the world digging for bones in Svalbard’s black shales.

But the scientist is quick to emphasise that he is part of a group which includes students from various nations. The work is fun, but demanding. And many cannot be bothered.

“Working in the Arctic demands a lot of logistics,” he explains. “Most palaeontologists are too lazy for that. They come, pick up a couple of rocks and go home to analyse small fossils.”

His team dug 40 tonnes of shale out of a hole by hand last year. Once the bones had been removed, the spoil was thrown back into the hole. Nobody else appears to work that way in Svalbard.

“A number of people describe this approach as a form of academic suicide,” says Hurum. “Eight years of collecting mean about 10 years of gluing skeletons together in the lab at home.

“This project means you devote 18 years of your life to describing some reptiles on Svalbard. And nobody has done it before or will do it afterwards. The research is likely to stand for a very long time.

“That’s when it’s good to have a permanent job and a bit of a thick skin, not to give too much of a damn and to enjoy the open-air life.”

The Svalbard project began with a phone call in 2004 to notify the museum that part of a skeleton had been discovered on Mount Janus. “We naturally took the trip north,” says Hurum.

This excursion could be combined with celebrations for the 10th anniversary of the palaeontology association at the Geological Museum.

 

"This project means you devote 18 years of your life to describing some reptiles on Svalbard"

 

 

Jørn Harald Hurum

The Svalbard skeletons are insulated with soft toilet paper, plastered together with gauze, reinforced with metal rods and laid on pallets before a helicopter lifts them out. “It takes up to 10 days to assemble a big skeleton,” report Hurum. “That’s followed by nine months of gluing at the lab, and then report-writing. It can easily take 1 000 hours before we’re ready to produce the paper.” The lab subsequently casts copies for distribution to museums worldwide.

 

“Twelve of us set off to excavate the first find – one metre of neck and a flipper,” recalls Hurum. “We then found 10-12 skeletons in two days. That wasn’t normal – something had happened here.”

The team returned later to carry out further studies. During one field season, 30-40 reptile skeletons were uncovered. Major excavations began in 2007 and have continued annually.

This is tough work, and Hurum agrees that it can cause problems for knees and back. Most people have had enough after a fortnight, “but we sometimes press it to three weeks, when many of us are on the verge of collapse”.

The weather window at a height of 400 metres on Mount Janus is just six-eight weeks a year. Not everyone is suited to standing and digging in mud under such conditions.

Hurum selects his team carefully – some are scientists, and others are students and volunteers who can do the practical work.

“We need people in the field who’ve been fiddling with mopeds since they were 12 – and not just ones who sit and study. The first kind are worth having when a drill breaks down.

“And we need a big-game hunter to take care of the weapons, so that they’re not full of mud when the Polar bears become too aggressive.“

Many academics who visit Svalbard take to their tents in bad weather and otherwise fiddle. We go deeper – it’s is a very different kind of field work, which I learnt in Canada.”

This toil has yielded results, with the pliosaur christened Predator X as the crown jewel. First thought to be 15 metres long with particularly big flippers, it turned out to be two metres shorter once the vertebrae had been glued together in the lab.

“But it’s the complete master – the top predator in the food chain,” Hurum says. “A pliosaur ate all the other animals it had a taste for.”

This sort of project yields PhD theses and scientific articles – and children’s books. Hurum and his colleagues published Monsterøglene på Svalbard (The Monster Reptiles in Svalbard) on the day their 18 papers on the discoveries appeared.

“We communicated the whole story of our discovery to children and the scientific community at the same time,” says Hurum. “I feel it’s important to get across the full result, rather than publishing in dribs and drabs.”

 

Jørn Harald Hurum

Jørn Harald Hurum’s daughter beneath an inflatable pliosaur. He had this created in full scale – 15 metres long – in 2008 by a US company which makes balloons for Thanksgiving and similar events. Costing NOK 130 000, it has been inflated on Karl Johan, Oslo’s main street, in school gymnasiums, at oil exhibitions and at science shows.

 

Interest in the high north is growing at many levels, including international politics, ice-free shipping lanes across the top of Asia and exploration for oil and gas. The question is whether Hurum contributes anything useful.

“In terms of oil? Hmm. One of the by-products we describe is black shale, the same Upper Jurassic strata which produces petroleum in the North Sea.

“The oil companies can benefit from our detailed studies of the stratigraphy and the sequence of deposits in these sediments.”

And he has found oil in Svalbard. “When we split carbonate rocks in old methane pipes, it smells like a petrol station. That odour is even stronger when reptile bones full of oil crack.

“When we burn our rubbish on the shale, too, the rock catches fire. So it’s very rich in organic materials. This liquid oil is described in the last of our 18 papers.”

He admits that microscopic dinoflagellates provide more information for oil hunters, and that drillers seldom encounter fossil bones in a well.

But one exception can be found in the cellar at the Geological Museum – the dinosaur from the Snorre field in the North Sea. A small piece of it can also be found at the NPD.

Skeletons of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaur teeth have also been found in cores from NCS wells, without that having improved reservoir understanding.

“A few grams of black shale contains hundreds or thousands of dinoflagellate fossils, so using these for interpretation is easier,” Hurum notes. “When you’ve 20 kilometres of mountainside to study, you don’t need to think in grams.”

But he hints that reptiles have also contributed to the search for Norway’s oil riches. His team has found two oils similar to North Sea crude, and a third – in the bones – which behaves quite differently.

“We do wonder whether we’ve found reptile oil for the first time,” says Hurum. “We can’t say that out loud yet, because further analyses are needed. But we have mentioned it in the paper. Oil from reptile bones could make a tiny contribution to Norway’s resources.”

He nevertheless sees his biggest contribution as communicating knowledge to ordinary Norwegians – explaining all the interesting things he can read from stones.

That has been the way since his childhood bedroom was converted into a museum. “Everyone who visited Mum and Dad had to be taken on a tour of my little room. Now I’ve got a big one.”

Like many others who talk enthusiastically about their subject in a way people can understand, Hurum comes in for criticism. Detractors claim that he overwhelms his audience.

He publishes children’s books on the same day as his research reports are unveiled, he is present in every channel – including children’s TV. Is he too keen on the limelight?

His own view is that he merely seizes the opportunities that offer themselves “and I stick to my own subject. Everything has to do with palaeontology and geology.”

That held true, too, when he produced a geological survey of the district of Nedre Eiker west of Oslo with local funding and a team of academics.

Ready in five years, this books means that the local authority is the only one in Norway with such an overview of its underground assets.

“We wrote about the subsurface, mining and its cultural history, minerals, fossils and evolution,” he reports. “I’m personally an active collector of geological literature.”

That was followed by a concentration on the Svalbard project, before Ida turned up. “Many people maintained that I shouldn’t be diverted by a primate fossil, but my boss gave the green light.”

Hurum does not believe that all scientists can be good communicators. Those who are good at research but not at communication should not be burdened with the latter.

“Everyone who’s been to university knows there are academics who should never be allowed to lecture or communicate. Being also able to communicate should be more appreciated.

“Writing a children’s book when you’re an academic is somehow bad form. I’m criticised for publishing an article or two less than the others one year, without anyone mentioning that I’ve also written two kids’ books. Children are an important audience.”

Norway should have more scientist who are also good communicators, Hurum maintains. “We have role models in skiing and football, and we have pop stars, but we need to build such models in other areas as well.

“Simply referencing a discipline is hopeless, you must show your face as well. The subject otherwise becomes too anonymous. When I was young, all the scientists doing cool things were American. I didn’t know any Norwegian ones.”

His subject has always interested him deeply, and he was determined to learn as much as possible. “It’s got something to do with the reason why you’re studying.

“I was disappointed when I started reading geology at the University of Oslo. I might just as well have studied business or law.

“My fellow students were very clever, but uninterested in the subject. They were keen to get educated because they saw a lot of money at the other end.

“So they learnt what they had to in order to get into the oil business. Opportunities for career and cash overshadow the academic element, and they’re definitely not interested in a PhD. You don’t get much better paid for one of those in the oil business.”

 Hurum’s subject has always illuminated his life, including at home. He confirms a story about his honeymoon in Kirgizstan, where the newly-weds sifted fivesix tonnes of sand every day.

That was great, he says. “I can’t stop talking shop when I get home. If I couldn’t, I might as well be single. It was absolutely essential for me to find a geologist wife.”

He is still solidly married. While his holiday plans remain to be settled, he is working on a trip to Alaska – where there are these reptile footprints ...

Looking further ahead, to the next decade, Svalbard remains high on his list of priorities. He hopes to have built up a research team on the early Triassic.

“I have big plans in Svalbard to do the same as we did with the Jurassic. We now have the logistics, the camp and the knowledge of how to go about this.”

The early Triassic was a time when ichthyosaurs existed which still did not look like such creatures. They were more akin to crocodiles and swam a little closer to land. Some of the earliest lived in Svalbard.

“Their remains were discovered a century ago,” says Hurum. “Doing a proper job on them – five years in the field with real mud – could turn up really important finds.”

 

"When we split carbonate rocks in old methane pipes, it smells like a petrol station"