• Paleontologist: Jorn Hurum
    Jorn Hurum is a paleontologist and science educator.

    Photograph by Hans Arne Nakrem

    By National Geographic Education Staff

    Monday, August 29, 2011

    Jorn is a 2011 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He is a paleontologist who studies fossils found in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, north of the Arctic Circle.

    Jorn also studies “Ida,” an important fossil of an early primate. Jorn named the fossil after his daughter.

    EARLY WORK

    Jorn knew he wanted to be a paleontologist since he was 5 years old. “I’m one of the nerds,” he says.

    Jorn’s interest in paleontology was sparked when he realized fossils were not just rocks, but could tell the history of life on this planet. He imagined fossils saying, “‘I am not a rock. I am a fossil. I have a story to tell.’”

    By the time Jorn was 6, he had his own collection of fossils and even his own museum—in his room! “All the visitors who came to our home had to be escorted through and have a proper showing of the exhibits,” he remembers.

    Jorn’s interest in paleontology never wavered. He earned his PhD in paleontology from the University of Oslo, Norway, and is still affiliated with the university’s Natural History Museum.

    MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK

    “Discovery—when you find something new. It’s like one of those scratch-off lottery tickets every time you dig. Sometimes, you start digging and you might just find part of a skull or other bone. Sometimes, you find the skull and the vertebra . . . then you know it’s a jackpot!”

    MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

    Logistics,” Jorn says. His team prepares for months before going to Svalbard every summer.

    “We have between 15 and 20 people, tons of equipment—food, jackhammers, water. . . . There’s a lot of work before you start the cool thing.”

    HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

    Geography includes a variety of skills, Jorn says. “You need to read maps, know geology, GPS, and the way landscape changes. . . . It’s useful to find marine reptiles!”

    GEO-CONNECTION

    Jorn, who describes himself as a “fossil nerd,” has found a wide variety of fossils all over the world. He has studied dinosaurs, mammals, and marine reptiles. His career has taken him on digs in the United States, Mongolia, Argentina, China, Canada, Kyrgyzstan, and Australia.

    In Svalbard, his team mostly finds marine reptiles, such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. One of the plesiosaurs found by Jorn and his team is nicknamed “Predator X.” Predator X was about 15 meters (49 feet) long, and had a bite that may have been more powerful than a Tyrannosaurus rex.

    Predator X was a fairly complete fossil, something Jorn admits he doesn’t find all the time. “Sometimes, we find ‘explodasaurus,’” he says. They find a skull fossil in one place, a vertebra in another, and a flipper somewhere else. “We have to identify the entire animal from individual pieces.”

    The black shale of Svalbard makes lighter-colored fossils stand out, and the hilly terrain is an excellent site for paleontologists to dig. “We can actually see evolution over 5 million years,” Jorn says.

    The top of the hill used to be a seabed about 100 meters (328 feet) deep. As tectonic activity kept pushing the shallow seabed (and its fossilized reptiles) above the water, new marine reptiles became fossilized in the newer seabed. As a result, “You can walk from the fossil of a plesiosaur to its related ancestor, which existed millions of years earlier, just up the hill.”

    The dig season in Svalbard is very short—from July to August. During that time, the permafrost recedes about 80 centimeters (31.5 inches), and the paleontologists do not have to use jackhammers to penetrate the ground. There is also less wind, and the “midnight sun” makes it easy for the scientists to have long, productive days.

    Unlike paleontologists working in more temperate climates, Jorn and his team do not use remote sensing technology in their search for ancient sea monsters. “The remote sensing technology doesn’t work in the Arctic,” he explains. “The permafrost reflects too much light.”

    One of the most important fossils Jorn has studied is one that he didn’t find himself. Jorn bought a fossil Darwinius masillae, which he nicknamed “Ida,” from a private collector in Germany. Ida is about 47 million years old, and related to both monkeys and lemurs.

    “Ida is the most complete [remains of a] primate before humans started to bury their dead,” Jorn says.

    Ida is also an excellent public outreach tool for girls, he says. “She is a cute, small monkey. She tells us so many stories—she hurt her wrist, she is missing some teeth.”

    For outreach to boys, Jorn relies on the predators he excavates in the Arctic. “I know I need big teeth and blood!”

    SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . PALEONTOLOGIST

    “Go for it! It’s an interesting, exciting field of study.”

    Jorn recommends studying all aspects of paleontology and not just focusing on one species or type of fossil.

    GET INVOLVED

    Jorn encourages families to visit a museum or listen to a scientist give a hands-on presentation. Paleontologists are usually excited to share their work with students. “Kids—little kids—often have better questions and insights than adults!”

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    affiliate Verb

    to associate or connect to something else.

    ancestor Noun

    organism from whom one is descended.

    ancient Adjective

    very old.

    archipelago Noun

    a group of closely scattered islands in a large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: archipelago
    Arctic Noun

    region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Arctic
    Arctic Circle Noun

    paralell of latitude that runs 66.5 degrees north of the Equator.

    climate Noun

    all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: climate
    dig season Noun

    time of the year when an archaeological or paleontological site can be legally and safely excavated.

    dinosaur Noun

    very large, extinct reptile chiefly from the Mesozoic Era, 251 million to 65 million years ago.

    Emerging Explorer Noun

    an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

    equipment Noun

    tools and materials to perform a task or function.

    escort Verb

    to accompany or guide.

    evolution Noun

    process of how present types of organisms developed from earlier forms of life.

    excavate Verb

    to expose by digging.

    exhibit Noun

    display, often in a museum.

    flipper Noun

    large, flat limb used by marine mammals for swimming.

    geography Noun

    study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

    Encyclopedic Entry: geography
    geology Noun

    study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.

    Global Positioning System (GPS) Noun

    system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.

    hill Noun

    land that rises above its surroundings and has a rounded summit, usually less than 300 meters (1,000 feet).

    Encyclopedic Entry: hill
    ichthyosaur Noun

    giant marine reptile that flourished between 245 million years ago and 90 million years ago.

    jackhammer Noun

    powerful drill, operated by a single person, that uses compressed air to break up hard substances like rock or pavement.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    lemur Noun

    type of small mammal (primate).

    logistics Noun

    management of the movement of goods and services.

    mammal Noun

    animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    marine reptile Noun

    an animal that breathes air and usually has scales, and lives most of its life in or around the ocean.

    midnight sun Noun

    sunlight visible all night at certain times of the year in Arctic and Antarctic regions.

    monkey Noun

    mammal considered to be highly intelligent, with four limbs and, usually, a tail.

    museum Noun

    space where valuable works of art, history, or science are kept for public view.

    paleontologist Noun

    person who studies fossils and life from early geologic periods.

    penetrate Verb

    to push through.

    permafrost Noun

    permanently frozen layer of the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: permafrost
    PhD Noun

    (doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

    planet Noun

    large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.

    Encyclopedic Entry: planet
    plesiosaur Noun

    giant aquatic (mostly marine) reptile that flourished between 230 million years ago and 65 million years ago.

    predator Noun

    animal that hunts other animals for food.

    primate Noun

    type of mammal, including humans, apes, and monkeys.

    public outreach Noun

    program by an organization to connect its work to other organizations or the general public.

    recede Verb

    to retreat or withdraw.

    remote sensing Noun

    methods of information-gathering about the Earth's surface from a distance.

    seabed Noun

    the floor of the ocean.

    shale Noun

    type of sedimentary rock.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    tectonic activity Noun

    movement of tectonic plates resulting in geologic activity such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

    temperate Adjective

    moderate.

    terrain Noun

    topographic features of an area.

    ton Noun

    unit of weight that equals 2,000 pounds.

    T. rex Noun

    (Tyrannosaurus rex) large carnivorous or scavenger dinosaur.

    vertebrae Plural Noun

    (singular: vertebra) bones that make up the spinal column, or backbone, of an animal.

    waver Verb

    to hesitate between two or more choices.

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