Sea Monsters of the North, Part XI – Gravediggers Back From the Dead: Fossil team starts new excavation

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They vanished, only to reemerge as stalkers of Svalbard’s ancient burial grounds last summer. Now, hungry for more, they’re unearthing the bones of the dead to indulge their seemingly insatiable appetites.

And this time they’re not just poking around in any graveyard – they’re trying to figure out what can trigger an apocalypse.

The whole spectacle is basically about digging in the dirt, putting things less provocatively. But the “Sea Monsters of the North” theme has been embraced by Oslo paleontologist Jørn Hurum and his teams of researchers who’ve been discovering new fossils in Svalbard for the past decade.

They departed Longyearbyen for their latest expedition site Monday, where they’ll spend two weeks excavating fossils from about 250 million years ago, when roughly 95 percent of all marine species were suddenly wiped out in Earth’s worst-known mass extinction event.

“We already know we have one animal that hasn’t been seen here before,” Hurum said shortly before departing for the excavation site at Flowerdalen in Vindodden.

The species was spotted last summer, when work was limited to exploring and mapping three areas, Hurum said. Permission was subsequently obtained to excavate the site this summer, but he said he doubts any tourists or other random explorers have stumbled upon the bones in the meantime.

“It took us three days for us to spot the bones,” he said.

Hurum gained worldwide notoriety while conducting excavations in Svalbard from 2004 to 2012 focusing on the Late Jurassic era about 150 million years ago. The paleontologist and his assistants discovered several new species – with some getting headline-grabbing names like the giant “Predator X” sea reptile – and the “Sea Monsters of the North” moniker stems from National Geographic’s documentary/blog series about the excavations.

He planned to halt the excavations after 2012, but resumed work last summer after getting funding for a project focusing on sea reptiles and other creatures from the Triassic era.

Among the mysteries Hurum said he hopes to solve with this project, scheduled to last up to five years, is what caused the Permian-Triassic extinction event. Several theories, including climate change and a catastrophic event such as a meteor strike, exist today.

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