Found ichthyosaurus from the Triassic Age on Svalbard

During geological field work for the NPD on Svalbard during the summer of 2007, the geologists found a well-preserved small ichthyosaurus skeleton.
  • Text and photo: Jan Stenløkk

Even though remains from ichthyosaurs are not uncommon on Svalbard, it is very rare for the head to be preserved – which was the case with this discovery, made on a mountain plateau near Muenfjellet on the western coast of Edgeøya on Svalbard.

The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate’s field programme continued the following year, and the Natural History Museum in Oslo was invited along to, if possible, extract and secure the important fossils. The Ministry of the Environment permitted the Museum to extract up to three skeletons.

On Edgeøya, the ichthyosaurs are located in metre-thick shale layers that were deposited in the Middle Triassic (Botneheia formation) – about 200 million years ago. The bones often consist of a bluish mineral and are therefore easy to spot. The fossils were fairly exposed, and were therefore highly vulnerable to deterioration by frost weathering and other erosion.

During the 2008 field season the palaeontologists from the Natural History Museum spent two days on the Muen plateau, and the fossil extraction exceeded all expectations. A number of ichthyosaurus bones were retrieved; skulls, jaws, spines, humeri, coxal and scapula and ribs. Several of these were connected in larger skeleton groups.

The museum also recovered three more or less complete ichthyosaurus skeletons. The cranium was preserved on two of these. A larger skeleton was also found, but was not extracted due to size and lack of time.

Polar bears, which live and hunt in this area, posed a challenge in the work to secure the ichthyosaurus skeletons. The polar bears were also present during the summer season in 2008. One bear approached the geologists and sat down not too far away to watch over the work. The work was concluded as soon as practicable for safety reasons.

The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate has partially sponsored the fossil preparation. The most complete small ichthyosaurus was sent to the Löwentor Museum in Stuttgart in Germany during the autumn of 2010, where it, among other things, was sandblasted to make the bones more visible.

An exact cast of the best preserved ichthyosaurus fossil is on display in the reception in the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate’s offices in Stavanger.


photo: Jan Stenløkk

One of the plates with ichthyosaurus fossils is gently lifted up, and is then bandaged with plaster for transport to the boat. The eye cavity and “beak” are clearly visible, and parts of the ribs and dorsal vertebra can be seen around this
(photo: Jan Stenløkk).