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.
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!”
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.
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.
organism from whom one is descended.
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.
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.
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.
tools and materials to perform a task or function.
to accompany or guide.
process of how present types of organisms developed from earlier forms of life.
to expose by digging.
display, often in a museum.
large, flat limb used by marine mammals for swimming.
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.
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.
powerful drill, operated by a single person, that uses compressed air to break up hard substances like rock or pavement.
the geographic features of a region.
Encyclopedic Entry: landscape lemur Noun
type of small mammal (primate).
management of the movement of goods and services.
animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.
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.
mammal considered to be highly intelligent, with four limbs and, usually, a tail.
space where valuable works of art, history, or science are kept for public view.
person who studies fossils and life from early geologic periods.
to push through.
permanently frozen layer of the Earth's surface.
Encyclopedic Entry: permafrost PhD Noun
(doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.
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.
animal that hunts other animals for food.
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.
to retreat or withdraw.
remote sensing Noun
methods of information-gathering about the Earth's surface from a distance.
the floor of the ocean.
type of sedimentary rock.
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.
topographic features of an area.
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.
to hesitate between two or more choices.