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Oil Drillers Strike World's Deepest Dinosaur

James Owen
for National Geographic News
April 26, 2006
 
Oil drillers have struck dinosaur off Norway, the Research Council of Norway announced this week.

Found 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers) beneath the North Sea, the fossil find marks the world's deepest known dinosaur, researchers say.

Furthermore, it's the first ever dinosaur for Norway.

The fossil has been identified as the knucklebone of a Plateosaurus, a massive, plant-munching dino that lived some 200 million years ago.

The discovery was made about 87 miles (140 kilometers) west of Norway in the Snorre oil field. Geologists Morten Bergan and Johan Petter Nystuen spotted a bone-like fragment in a drill core—a long cylinder of rock from an oil exploration well.

A dinosaur fossil has never been found so far underground, says Jørn Hurum of the Natural History Museum, University of Oslo.

"It's a very small piece of bone—about three centimeters [1.2 inches]," he said.

Hurum, as Norway's only dinosaur researcher, had the difficult task of trying to identify the find. He took a slice from the fossil just a few thousandth of a millimeter thick for microscopic examination.

German Fossils

While the examination confirmed the remains as a dinosaur's, it wasn't until Hurum compared the fossil with specimens in Germany that he made the link.

Plateosaurus was a giant, long-necked plant-eater that grew 30 feet (9.1 meters) long and weighed as much as four tons (4.1 metric tons). An early dinosaur, it is known to have lived in modern-day Europe and Greenland between 210 and 195 million years ago.

"Plateosaurs have a special kind of bone structure which is not seen in any other dinosaurs from this period," Hurum said. "They were one of the most common dinosaurs. Hundreds of skeletons have been found in Europe."

The fossil came from sandstone sediments left by prehistoric rivers that once meandered through dry plains.

"At that time there was no North Sea," Hurum said. "There was a semi-desert between Norway and Greenland, so it was a dry, arid climate like you see in Morocco today."

The researcher says most of the oil fields in the North Sea are in marine sediments rather than in sandstones that were formed on land, and that other deep drilling has yielded fragments of prehistoric sea creatures.

Marine Reptiles

"We got several drill cores which had fossils of marine reptiles," Hurum added. "Finding a terrestrial animal is much more rare—its like looking for a needle in ten haystacks."

Being Norway's sole dino researcher, he appropriately played a hand in uncovering the nation's only known dinosaur.

The country's distinct lack of dinosaur remains is attributed to the Ice Age, which obliterated rock formations that might have harbored these fossils.

"Most of the rocks in Norway are twice as old as the oldest dinosaur or much older," Hurum said. "All the young rocks were removed and eroded away by the glaciers."

He says mainland Norway has a fine fossil record in rocks between 540 and 400 million years old, including marine trilobites and primitive, squid-like species.

"The only way for us to find a dinosaur is [drilling] in the North Sea," Hurum added.

Nystuen, co-finder of the fossil and a geologist at the University of Oslo, says North Sea oil exploration may well add to Norway's dinosaur collection.

"But," he admitted, "they will be very hard to find and extremely expensive to recover from their very deep tombs."

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