Let me first declare my fraudulent credentials — I’m not a palaeontologist, I’m an oilman. But, like many geologists, my love of the science started in early adolescence, in my case when I first stumbled on the wonder of fossils while out hiking the Derbyshire Dales with my parents. Even now, after a long career dominated by seismic, logs, and petroleum systems, occasionally something happens to bring back that initial thrill. So I want to tell you about such a once-in-a-lifetime event that took place on a trip to Arctic Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in 1984, ostensibly to study the petroleum potential of the Barents Sea.
The Arctic is one of the world’s last great wildernesses. As a first-time visitor, I felt as if I was seeing everything with the first human eyes. I thought of Mary Anning walking the pristine Dorset shores a century or more before. Around the next corner, one might just stumble on something new and amazing. So it was that we were scrambling up the Upper Triassic shales of Miseryfjellet (Mount Misery) on Bear Island, the tiny frozen island south of Spitsbergen immortalized in Alistair MacLean’s novel. Most of the party weren’t interested in fossils and had ploughed on to the summit, while a couple of us were taking it more slowly, hoping for one of the rare Triassic ammonites that turned up from time to time.
Suddenly we spotted a few fossilized bones lying around, and excitedly started excavating — no doubt in a highly unprofessional way. Can you blame us? This was one of those cathartic moments I was telling you about. Hiding under large siltstone slabs we found more bones, including a backbone, rib cage, and skull, enough to show that this was a sizeable vertebrate. Then, to our astonishment, on lifting another slab we found… a sardine can! My acute geological insight told me immediately that this wasn’t a Triassic can, so what was the explanation? A Norwegian friend had the answer; he remembered hearing a story that one of Norway’s largest fossil vertebrates had been found — then lost again — on Bear Island many years before.
It turns out that the fossil, a giant amphibian, had been discovered during a Cambridge University ecological survey in the year of my birth, 1948. The party lacked the equipment to collect and curate the hundreds of bone pieces, so they took a few samples for study then covered the amphibian up again. A letter to Nature by J Lowy in 1949 described the find, and remarked that it was unlikely that the fossil would survive the ravages of the next few winters. But after briefly breaking the surface for the first time in 210 million years, our amphibian wasn’t to be denied. In all probability it was further covered by slippage of scree material, allowing it to be preserved until we stumbled on it 36 years later. A bit of later detective work in dusty museum corridors resulted in us finding the original expedition’s bone material and photographs. The photos showed the same fossil, albeit in slightly better condition. And there, sitting among the ribs and presumably for scale, was a gleaming new sardine can!
The amphibian is a plagiosaur, probably related to the genera Plagiosternum or Gerrothorax, but much larger than any known species of either. At 3 m (nearly 10 ft) long, it is considerably larger than any living amphibian. These forms supposedly had salamander-like external gills and are characterized by broad, shield-like skulls — the Bear Island amphibian’s skull is an impressive 70 cm wide. The fossil was airlifted by helicopter off the slopes of Miseryfjellet with a little help from oil company money, and taken to the Palaeontological Museum in Oslo for restoration.
A friend and I published a brief note on the rediscovery, but unfortunately, that’s where the story currently ends. Apparently decisions at the museum fell under the sway of a trilobite man who held all fossils younger than Silurian in contempt, and the restoration never took place. So one of Norway’s most unique fossils fell victim to palaeontological tribalism, and our giant amphibian waits patiently to emerge into the light for the third time.
Doré, A G and B Wandaas (1985). Lost fossil amphibian of Bear Island. Geological Curator 4 (3), 169–171.
Lowy, J (1949). A labyrinthodont from the Trias of Bear Island, Spitsbergen. Nature 163, 1002.
Romer, A S (1971). Vertebrate Palaeontology. University of Chicago Press. 468 p.