Article

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!”

Vocabulary

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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