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Paleontological collections and research - Svalbard and adjacent Arctic areas

The palaeontological collections at the Natural History Museum (NHM), University of Oslo, were built up during the lifetime of the Paleontologisk Museum (PM) prior to the reorganisation of the University of Oslo museums in 1999. The research based on the Arctic collections has a rich past history, and has been re-established during the recent years.

The oldest collection dates back to the expedition by Baltazar Mathias Keilhau to Svalbard in 1827. Since then the research at the museum has contributed to the understanding of the evolution of fish (Devonian fish; Johan A. Kiær, Anatol Heintz, Natascha Heintz), Ordovician geology (trilobites and radiolarians; David L. Bruton & Richard A. Forteys and their group), Ordovician vertebrates (Tove G. Bockelie, "Nature" (1976)), Carboniferous, Permian and Triassic geology, bryozoans and conodonts (David Worsley, Hans Arne Nakrem), and Cretaceous and Tertiary plants and palynology (Svein B. Manum). Since 2004 detailed field work led by Jørn H. Hurum has been carried out on mapping and excavating Jurassic vertebrates (ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pliosaurs).

The scientific collections

The palaeontological collections within NHM comprise approximately 1.7 million fossils and sedimentary rock samples. Only a fraction is satisfactorily computer catalogued, and it is not possible to determine how much of this derives from Arctic areas. But probably some 30% is Arctic material.

The first geological expedition to Svalbard was the one carried out by Baltazar Mathias Keilhau in 1827. During a six week expedition he collected fossils from Bjørnøya - Permian bryozoans, bivalves and brachiopods as well as Carboniferous fossil plants and coal samples, and from southern Spitsbergen. During the second half of the 19. century, Swedish expeditions collected some fossils which are now in NHM. Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen collected fossils from Khabarova and Franz Josef Land, some of which has been published by J.A. Kiær in 1902 (Ordovician brachiopods and trilobites) and by M. Smelror (Jurassic palynology of Franz Josef Land). Later explorer Roald Amundsen brought back fossils to NHM from his Gjøa and Maud expeditions. During the "Fram II" expedition (1898-1902) led by Otto Sverdrup and geologist Per Schei the arctic islands of Canada were investigated, e.g. Ellesmere Land. Large collections of geological material were made, e.g. Devonian plants and "Permo-Carboniferous" marine fossils (brachiopods, corals and bryozoans).

In 1921 Professor Olaf Holtedahl (University of Oslo) led a scientific expedition to Novaya Zemlya, Arctic Russia. A wealth of important scientific information was collected during the 10 week long expedition, and 40 scientific reports ("Report of the Scientific Results of the Norwegian Expedition to Novaya Zemlya 1921", Vols. 1-40) and numerous smaller reports followed. Since 2006 the whole collection has be re-catalogued after specialist visits from Russia and the US, which improved the quality of the data associated with each sample (e.g. age and locality according to modern Russian usage).

Regarding material from Svalbard the co-operation with the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) was very important. NPI mapped areas of Svalbard and collected fossils. These have since been kept in the palaeontological collections of NHM. In recent years the collections have been supplemented by large fossil collections from field work carried out by the NHM palaeontologists.


The geological-palaeontological exploration in Svalbard has had an economic aspect - first a search for coal and minerals, later on oil and gas. Johan A. Kiær was the first head of Paleontologisk Museum and published scientific studies on Devonian fishes from Svalbard, from Ellesmere and from Novaya Zemlya. Anatol Heintz continued this work and initiated the series"The Downtonian and Devonian vertebrates of Spitsbergen" which had its 13. volume in 1983 (Blieck & Heintz, 1983).

During an expedition to Hinlopenstretet, Ny Friesland, Spitsbergen in 1971 fossils from a relatively undisturbed section of Cambrian-Ordovician rocks were collected. The collection contained a great variety of trilobites, graptolites, brachiopods and other invertebrates.

During the 1980s and 1990s petroleum companies supported field work and many student projects were completed. David Worsley supervised many of these projects, some in association with scientists at the Continental Shelf Institute in Trondheim. H.A. Nakrem's PhD was based on such material, including shallow cores from the Barents Shelf (Late Paleozoic and Triassic bryozoans and conodonts).

After the discovery in 2004of gigantic marine reptiles in the Upper Jurassic rocks of Spitsbergen, a multidisciplinary research project led by J.H. Hurum in cooperation with H.A. Nakrem, Ø. Hammer and PhD student E.M. Knutsen has been active. Methane seep formed carbonates have been discovered in association with the marine reptiles. The study of these carbonates and their containing faunas has also attracted international scientific interest. A study of Triassic labyrintodonts (amphibians) is being conducted by Franz-Josef Lindemann.

The research has always been collection based, and selected material from the Ellesmere-expedition was used by S.B. Manum (palynology), the Nansen collection was studied by M. Smelror (Jurassic palynology), and the Holtedahl collection from 1921 treated in Nakrem et al. (1991).

The youngest sediments of Quaternary and Holocene age were studied by Rolf A. Feyling-Hanssen in 1964-66. He published on Quaternary barnacles and foraminiferans from Svalbard. The collection of Holocene whale bones has attracted the interest of the DNA research group at NHM (zoology) in recent years. Kjell R. Bjørklund is studying radiolarian occurrences in sediments cores from the Arctic shelves.

Mountain Tempelfjellet in Isfjorden. Fossiliferous sedimenatry rocks of Carboniferous and Permian age.

Ongoing palaeontological projects based on Arctic material

Selected references

  • Baud, A., Nakrem, H. A., Beauchamp, B., Beatty, T.W., Embry, A.F. & Henderson, C.M. 2008. Lower Triassic bryozoan beds from Ellesmere Island, High Arctic, Canada. Polar Research 27, 428-440.
  • Bjørklund, K.R., Kruglikova, S.B., 2003. Polycystine radiolarians in surface sediments in the Arctic Ocean basins and marginal seas. Mar. Micropaleontol. 49, 231-273.
  • Blieck, A. & Heintz, N. 1983. The Downtonian and Devonian vertebrates of Spitsbergen. XIII. The Cyathaspids of the Red Bay Group (Lower Devonian) of Spitsbergen. Polar Research 1 n.s., 49-74.
  • Bockelie, T. G. & Fortey, R. A. 1976. An early Ordovician vertebrate. Nature 260 (5546), 36-38.
  • Bruton, D. L. 1999. Permian trilobites from Akseløya, Svalbard. Geologica et Palaeontologica 33, 191-201.
  • Fortey, R. A. 1974: The Ordovician trilobites of Spitsbergen I. Olenidae. Norsk Polarinstitutt Skrifter 160, 1-81.
  • Fortey, R. A. 1975: The Ordovician trilobites of Spitsbergen II. Asaphidae, Nileidae, Raphiophoridae and Telephinidae of the Valhallfonna Formation. Norsk Polarinstitutt Skrifter 162, 1-125.
  • Fortey, R.A. 1980: The Ordovician trilobites of Spitsbergen III. Remaining trilobites of the Valhallfonna Formation. Norsk Polarinstitutt Skrifter 171, 1-163.
  • Fortey, R. A. F. & Bruton, D. L. 1973. Cambrian-Ordovician rocks adjacent to Hinlopenstretet, North Ny Friesland, Spitsbergen. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 84, 2227-2242.
  • Heintz, A. 1929-1962. [Papers on Devonian fishes from Svalbard, see]
  • Henitz, N. 1960-1983. [Papers on Devonian fishes from Svalbard, see]
  • Holtedahl, O. 1911. Zur Kenntnis der Karbonablagerungen des westlichen Spitzbergens. I. Eine Fauna der Moskauer Stufe. Videnskapsselskapets Skrifter, I. Mat.-naturv. Klasse 1911 10, 46pp.
  • Holtedahl, O. 1912. On some Ordovician fossils from Boothia Felix and King William Land collected during the Norwegian expedition of the Gjøa, Captain Amundsen, through the North-West Passage. Videnskapsselskapets Skrifter, I. Mat.-naturv. Klasse 1912 9, 11 pp.
  • Holtedahl, O. 1913. The Cambro-Ordovician Beds of Bache Peninsula and the neighbouring regions of Ellesmere Land. Report of the Second Norwegian Arctic Expedition in the "Fram" 1898-1902 28, 14 pp.
  • Holtedahl, O. 1914. On the fossil faunas from Per Schei's Series B in south western Ellesmereland. Report of the second Norwegian Arctic expedition in the "Fram" 1898-1902 32, 48 pp.
  • Holtedahl, O. 1924. On the rock formations of Novaya Zemlya. With notes on the Palaeozoic stratigraphy of other Arctic lands. Report of the Scientific results of the Norwegian expedition to Novaya Zemlya 1921 22, 183 pp.
  • Kiær, J.A. 1915-1935. [Many papers on Devonian fishes from Ellesmere Island and Svalbard, see]
  • Maletz, J. & Bruton, D.L. 2007. Lower Ordovician (Chewtonian to Castlemainian) radiolarians of Spitsbergen. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology 5 (3), 245-288.
  • Manum, S. B. 1960-1991 [Cretaceous and Tertiary plants/palynomorphs from Ellesmere Island and Svalbard, see]
  • Nagy, J. 1970. Ammonite faunas and stratigraphy of Lower Cretacaeous (Albian) rocks in southern Spitsbergen. Norsk Polarinstitutt Skrifter 152, 58 pp.
  • Nakrem, H. A. 1991. Conodonts from the Permian succession of Bjørnøya (Svalbard). Norsk Geologisk Tidsskrift 71, pp. 235-248.
  • Nakrem, H. A. 1994. Middle Carboniferous-Lower Permian bryozoans from Spitsbergen. Acta PalaeontologicaPolonica 39 (1), 45-116.
  • Nakrem, H. A. 1994. Bryozoans from the Lower Permian Vøringen Member (Kapp Starostin Formation), Spitsbergen (Svalbard). Norsk Polarinstitutt Skrifter 196, 92 pp. [Printed 1995]
  • Nakrem, H. A., Orchard, M.J., Weitschat, W., Hounslow, M.W., Beatty, T.W. & Mørk, A. 2008. Triassic conodonts from Svalbard and their Boreal correlations. Polar Research 27, 523-539.
  • Nakrem, H. A. 2008. Fossil Bryozoa from Svalbard (Arctic Norway) ? a research history. In: P. Wyse Jackson, P. & M. Spencer Jones (eds): Annals of Bryozoology 2: aspects of the history of research on bryozoans. Pp. 71-88. International Bryozoology Association, Dublin. ISBN 0-9543644-1-4.
  • Nakrem, H. A., Szaniawski, H., & Mørk, A. 2001. Permian-Triassic scolecodonts and conodonts from the Svalis Dome, central Barents Sea, Norway. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 46(1), 67-84.
  • Smelror, M. 1986. Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous palynomorph assemblages from Cape Flora, Franz Josef Land, Arctic, USSR. Norsk Geologisk Tidsskrift 66, 107-119.
  • Smelror, M. 1987. Bathonian and Callovian (Middle Jurassic) dinoflagellate cysts and acritarchs from Franz Josef Land, Arctic Soviet. Polar Research 5 n.s., 221-238.
  • Worsley, D., Aga, O. J., Dalland, A., Elverhøi, A. and Thon, A. 1986. The Geological History of Svalbard, Evolution of an Arctic Archipelago. Statoil, Stavanger, Norway, 121 pp.
By Hans Arne Nakrem
Published Apr. 20, 2010 2:00 PM - Last modified Jan. 31, 2019 10:10 AM