Museum Revealed Podcast [Ep 6]: Searching for Fossils with Palaeontologist Dr Espen Knutsen

How do you search for fossils? What happens when you find one? Join Dr Espen Knutsen, Senior Curator of Palaeontology for episode 6 of the Museum Revealed podcast.

Listen now on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Let’s meet our guest: Dr Espen Knutsen

Dr Espen Knutsen is Senior Curator Palaeontology at the Queensland Museum Network, based at the Museum of Tropical Queensland campus in Townsville.  His position is co-appointed with the College of Science and Engineering at James Cook University. Originally from Norway, Espen completed his PhD at the University of Oslo in 2012.

He is a vertebrate palaeontologist, that over the past 12 years has conducted pioneering fieldwork and excavations in Australia, the Arctic, The Netherlands and USA . He has described five new species of Jurassic marine reptiles, and was part of an international multidisciplinary research team studying a newly discovered Jurassic marine ecosystem from the high-arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway.

Learn more about Espen here.

Sea Monsters: Prehistoric Ocean Predators

Sea Monsters: Prehistoric Ocean Predators opens at Queensland Museum on 20 November 2020. Learn more about Dr Espen Knutsen’s research and the ancient marine reptiles that ruled the depths of the oceans in this new exhibition. Learn more.

Interested in learning more?

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In case you prefer to read… 

Thanks for joining us on the Museum Reveal podcast. This episode was recorded using Skype, so you may hear a bit of background noise, which we like to call atmosphere. We hope you enjoyed this episode, too. So let’s get started.

RB: Welcome to the Queensland Museum Revealed podcast from the Queensland Museum Network. Join me, Doctor Rob Bell, as we chat to the people that make museums so fascinating, from curators to scientists and researchers. We dive deep into conversations with these storytellers who inspire us to be curious about our past and make sense of the present. And help us consider the future. And today, we’re joined by Dr Espen Knutsen now Espen, you are a palaeontologist. But you specialise in prehistoric sea reptiles. So how do you go about finding these sea monsters?

EK: That’s right. I do specialise in the sea monsters, but I also dabble in dinosaurs. But as with any fossil, when you go out to look for these. You’ve got to know what type of rocks you’re looking for. So you want to look for rocks that were deposited in marine environments for the marine critters and rivers and lakes for the ones that might have been on land. And then you always look for the ones that of the right age as well. What we do is we’re lucky to have the geologists that trowel the ground and map the geology, well, most of it giving us an age for them. So you can just look at a map and go, OK, we’ve got marine rocks of a Cretaceous age out there. So then what we do is we jump in the car and drive out there. And we walk around for hours on end, staring at the ground, looking for little bits and pieces of bone or teeth that might have eroded out of the hillside. We can still follow it up hill and try to figure out where the source is, where it might come from. So that’s how we find them, but then there is a whole process after that for how we bring them back to the museum.

RB: So I guess for people listening to this, they might be thinking, well, if it’s a marine fossil you’re looking for, shouldn’t you be looking in the ocean? But obviously, prehistoric times were different. So you are finding them in what? In outback places, in mountain ranges, all sorts of pretty well, obviously not the top of a mountain I suppose.

EK: Sometime, so I worked in the Arctic and up there. So a hundred metres above sea level in the mountains. Yes. Looking at reptiles from sometime in the last number, 150 million years ago. So there’s a couple of different ways you might get a marine fossil and some marine animals fossilised in what is now a land. From Queensland’s perspective, we had an inland sea that covered most of inland Queensland and northern New South Wales about a 110 million years ago. So, partly that was caused by a rise in sea level. But we also had changes in the elevation if you could compare it to the centre of the earth, sometimes plates will go up and down for various reasons, and the interactions with other continental oceanic plates, and that might force them off or push them down. And that can change the relative elevation of the plates themselves, which might make them inundated by ocean and the sea level rises as well. That’s one reason how it get, particularly for Queensland case. Otherwise, it’s obviously plate tectonics where continental plates interact and get seiments that push up and form mountain ranges. So you can find fossils, you know, 1000 metres above sea level,

RB: I suppose it depends on the sort of rock in which the fossil was found, but it can take a bit of work to get them out?

EK: Yeah. So if you’re lucky or you can find it in shale, which is often easier to extract fossils from because it’s like on a flakey and brittle most of the time. So you can just pick away at a rock using tweezers and a paintbrush. Other times, which is quite often in Queensland for instance, with fossils in so-called concretions. So you have work really hard as there is hard rock surrounding the skeleton. And then you need to use a tiny little thing called an air supplier that is a little bit like a jackhammer that runs on air and there’s a little needle point that goes in and out fast and it sort of knock offs, the rock around the fossil, this tiny little needle that can take you know, six, 12 months at least to get anywhere near close to finish preparing a fossil. And all the times, if you’re really lucky or you can have a chemistry differences between the chemical differences between the rocks and the fossil that allows you to submerge the whole specimen in an acid bath. Which will dissolve the rocks and leave the bones and teeth along with that would be the best way to do it.

RB: Of course, if only it was possible all the time, which clearly it isn’t. It’s so much hard work. Now, look, a lot of your research is part of a new exhibition called Sea Monsters. Can you tell me a little bit about the exhibition and how you decided what goes into an exhibition like this?

EK: Well, it can be very tricky because there so much to choose from. So the whole point of this business is sort of show people what the world would look like, you know, one hundred and fifty to a hundred million years ago when you didn’t have whales, you had turtles, no whales. You didn’t have a lot of the marine life that we are so familiar with today. But we had creatures that look kind of different. Some look very similar, like the Ichthyosaur for instance, the fish like, dolphin like lizards or reptiles, but they are a completely different group of animals, but they have very similar body shape to dolphins and some tuna like fish just because of the way they live. Then you have the Plesiosaurs which look completely different from anything we have today. Four-flippered animals, some with really long necks being more than half or two thirds of their complete body length, with a tiny little head on one end. To a type of Kronosaurus like animals that you have here in Queensland from that time period that is giant 12 metre long marine monsters. So they were the apex predator of that time. And so that’s all time starting to show people how different things looked, but also similar at the same time.

RB: And so these were the kind of creatures that were around in the age of the dinosaurs, although they’re not. We can’t call them dinosaurs, correct?

EK: Yes, that’s right. So they were in the Mesozoic era, so the age of reptiles is sometimes referred to. And they are sometimes called dinosaurs because of the way they look, but they do belong to a different group of reptiles. Just as pterosaurs are different from dinosaurs and crocodiles, different from dinosaurs. Let’s say it’s a different group that are different ancestors as well, a from a different group of reptiles. At least they lived in the same time as dinosaurs. And I guess kind of superficially, I suppose, looks like they’re like dinosaurs in some aspects.

RB:  And plesiosaurs – they are the one that everyone likes to think might be the Loch Ness monster.

EK: Yes, probably so. So old reconstruction that you see, you know, so posed with a swan like neck sticking out of the water, but more recent research has showed, it pretty much didn’t much didn’t move its neck from the body plane, so the movement would be slightly side to side with mostly just up and down some sort of horizontal and downwards.

RB: Excellent. Look, we’re going to find out a little bit more about the Sea Monsters exhibition. And I’m sure what you’re asking, which is your favourite sea monster? Have a think about that and let us know when you join us shortly. Welcome back to the Queensland Museum Revealed podcast. We are chatting with Dr. Espen Knutsen from the Museum of Tropical Queensland. And we are talking about sea monsters because of an exhibition going on in about three months. Tell me as it has been flagged it earlier, but do you have a favourite amongst these ancient creatures?

EK: Well, there are lots to choose from, but I think seeing that I’ve described probably five or six species, I’ll have to choose one of them. We have giant one that we dug out of the Arctic, that we nicknamed Predator X – there was a documentary made out of that. It’s a Pliosaurus which a 15-metre-long Kronosaurus like thing which is like an icy crocodile with four flippers with cucumber sized teeth, so a pretty nasty thing to run into.

RB: So tell me now. They should have twigged earlier, of course. But you’re so much like you can find marine reptiles in the middle of what is today the desert up mountains. Finding them down in Antarctica. Obviously, reptiles not that fond of cold water, but that’s not what was around back then.

EK: Yeah. So they ones I’ve been digging up are off in the Arctic. So the other side. But they also do find them in Antarctica. There are plesiosaurs from there that lived just after the ones we found here.  But also the dinosaurs you find show us that it was a lot warmer and milder climate in that period, both in Antarctica and the Arctic.

RB: And with continents being in different positions, even back then as well, things have moved around and Antarctica I suppose, was originally sort of joined to the bottom of Australia somewhere. So you get this crossover of the ways things were distributed even back then as well.

EK: That’s right. So Australia was rotated clockwise 90 degrees. And what’s now Melbourne, was attached to Tasmania, and Victoria and Tasmania was attached to Antarctica back in those days and South America was again on the other side attached to Antarctica as well, so you see that a lot in dinosaur fauna as they sort of migrate between Australia and South America.

RB: So we probably know we’re talking about such long timelines here with an entire continent picking in different positions and being attached to each other. Can you give us an idea of, I suppose, how long ago these creatures lived and did they all sort of live at the same time and were there any modern day relatives, turtles, for example. Did they exist back then as well? Or a version of their own?

EK: Turtles are relatively recent compared to Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs, they are mostly from the Jurassic period and onwards. We are still talking somewhere between 200 and 150 million years ago. But most of these. Well, most of these Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs and their relatives, popped up not long after the Permian extinction, which was one of the greatest, not the greatest, but worst mass extinctions in the earth’s history. And with 97 percent of all species pretty much going extinct. Yet all these vacant niches on the planet, needed to be filled by these survivors of extinction. And a lot of them tried the aquatic lifestyle. So animals that normally live on land, self-adapting to a life in water to seek out those resources that were freely available from fish and other things, so you get a whole group of particular reptiles in that time period trying out this semi-aquatic lifestyle and amongst them are the ancestors of the Plesiosaurs and Ichthyosaurs. So it’s pretty much from then on you start to see these critters.

RB: Yes, and it’s fascinating. This is in fact the second sort of journey into the ocean in that Life sprung, out of the ocean, onto the lands started flourishing.

EK: And that’s what we see happens until the end of the second extinction when all the marine reptiles are wiped out except for the turtles and the crocodiles and all the dinosaurs on land are wiped out. So you have this period, only within 15 million years. So you start seeing the whales popping up.

RB: I love the way I as a palaeontologist you say just 15 or so million years later. Pretty quick on a geological timescale. I’m sure of it. To most people, that’s obviously an eternity. Can you also just tell us really quickly about some current research you’re working on? You mentioned you’ve described to the six species. Actually, I’m going to start with the six species described. Do you get to have any input into the names of the species or is that a bit of a myth?

EK: Yes, there a bit of both group effort, the whole project. We are relying on volunteers every time we were up there for 10 years collecting fossils, so we sort chose to honour the volunteers of the project, using their last names in species names. So a lot of it’s a mix between, so all species of our genus name followed by a species name, some of them might be descriptive of the animal names, some of them might contain names or a main sponsor or main person, that was part of the project. So we as a group, we just decided that. So we’re here. If you’re all alone, it’s up to you to decide whatever name you want to name it. But it’s very frowned upon to name it after yourself.

RB: That’s good. I think. So what is your current day like? What does a research day look like for you at the moment? So, you know, this year, some time, if you going out looking for fossils. Where would it be and what would you be looking for?

EK: It is quite different now I am working from home, but I have just returned from the field. So when I’m out in the field, I get as much as I can. And we pretty much go to locality’s where we know that there’s gaps in the fossil record from this time period. And it’s all about fossils we want to know about. So it might be dinosaurs or marine reptiles and we go out specifically looking for that. But I also bring with myself geologists so, they go to areas that they haven’t been to. So I’m getting more understanding of the environment that was around at the time when whatever fossils were living. So we still don’t know much about, for instance, of Jurassic environments of eastern Australia, we’re trying to figure out how that was where were the rivers. How are the rivers flowing? When did we get the first oceans coming over the land. So it’s going out as much as we can, like that and gathering as much data from different sources and all we still are finding most fascinating animals that lived in these areas.

RB: Yeah. Filling those gaps in the geological history. So specifically, are you travelling around Australia at the moment with the world when you’re looking for the fossil?

EK: Mainly in Australia and mainly Queensland as well. Being in Townsville, you are sort of not really doorstep but compared all the places and so, you know, within a 10 hour drive, you can get to most of the time periods in geological history of the earth. And by no means some of these areas have not been exhausted or even looked before. So recently we’ve been to an area where no one’s been there for 60 years. So very exciting to go out to these remote areas and see what’s there.

RB: I feel like it is almost the new tourism campaign needed for Townsville. You’ve got all of these geological timescales just on your doorstep.

EK: Well, even just half an hour from the town here you can look at sponge reefs and the coral reefs. You can find animals that live in there. A lot of interesting stuff.

RB: Espen, thank you so much for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast and don’t forget, the Sea Monsters exhibition will be on at Queensland Museum from November 20 until May 2021 so get out there and have a look at that. Stay up to date on social media @qldmuseum or visit us online at And until next time, of course, stay curious.

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