News & media

Greenland adventure left them wanting more

19 November 2015

Henning Blom peeks out of his tent. The expedition camp at Celcius Bjerg, east Greenland.

On the one hand, wide sweeping vistas and absolute peace and quiet. On the other hand, fickle weather, isolation and polar bears. We met some researchers just returned from Greenland – and they are already longing to go back.

The purpose of the expedition was to investigate two prehistoric events which occurred even before the age of the dinosaurs. The first was when the first four-limbed creatures, or tetrapods, abandoned their aquatic life to live on land about 370 million years ago. The second, 120 million years later, was when some reptiles went back into the water and started living there again.

‘Nobody really knows what exactly went on. We went to eastern Greenland because it’s the only place on earth where you can study both prehistoric ages within a reasonably small area,’ says Benjamin Kear, a curator at the Museum of Evolution in Uppsala.

Footprint casts

A whole room has been prepared at the museum to display the results of the expedition. These include casts from a block of stone which clearly show the footprints of a large four-legged creature. It was Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki, a post-doctoral student of organism biology, who found them when he was climbing around in the mountains.

‘We can see that they are the tracks of a living creature and that it was walking around in very shallow water as the tracks are in a sediment which has turned to rock. There are, however, no anatomical details. I want to go back next year to find tracks with finer details,’ he says

Scientists already know a great deal about the tetrapods but more research is needed to understand the ecosystem they lived in. One table holds a large number of fossils from plants and ammonites – ancient relatives of octopuses, squid and cuttlefish.

New expedition planned

Researchers are already planning a new expedition to Greenland next summer.

‘We were unlucky with the weather this time. So even if we got some really good results, we lost almost half of the time we’d planned for. The idea is to go back there and do further exploration now that we know what we’re looking for,’ says Henning Blom, senior lecturer at the Department of Organism Biology.

The expedition hit a number of snags including a snow-storm which kept everybody holed up in their tents for 36 hours.

Another dramatic memory is Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki’s close encounter with two polar bears.

‘I was alone and quite a long way up in the mountain, about 400 metres above sea level. I was not expecting to see polar bears there but suddenly I saw two polar bears 600 metres away – and I only had five rounds in my rifle.

Time stood still for a while before the polar bears turned off in a different direction.’

Met no people

There are many research groups all over Greenland, but because of the great size of the island, the expedition saw none of them. The expedition is the only one doing research into its particular area.

‘It is of historical interest to return to the Arctic where fossils were discovered by Swedish explorers in the 1910s and 1920s. We have now taken over the baton from them,’ says Benjamin Kear.

Anybody who wants to can follow the expedition and how their research is progressing. They can either read the blog which they will continue to update and/or they can go to the Museum of Evolution. The fossils brought back by the group are now part of the museum’s collections.

FACTS: Arctic expedition

‘Up onto the Land and Back into the Water: A Study of the Eco-systems of Aquatic Tetrapods in Greenland’ is concentrated in eastern Greenland. This is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to collect fossils from completely different groups of aquatic vertebrates. The project is a collaboration between the Museum of Evolution and the Department of Organism Biology and is financed by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat.

Follow the blog

Excerpts from the blog:

Day 3

Woke up to the sound of pounding rain on the tent roof. Warm and dry in the sleeping bag but it means a muddy introduction to the work, or worse being grounded until the weather clears. We all eventually crept out of our tents and sat in the “lounge room” – the huge central tent where we keep all our supplies and communications equipment – to plan our day. /.../ After breakfast, and a large cup of specialty coffee (imported from Greece by Ben), we headed out...

Day 7

Spent the morning resting and packing our fossils for transport back to Sweden. Everything needed to be marked with GPS coordinates, labeled and inventoried so that we have an accurate record for the registers in Uppsala. We have permission from the Greenland government to remove 400 kg of samples. This will be accessioned into the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University /.../ The sun has been out for the last 48 hours so we are now working in T-shirts. We have also done a few night visits to the closest outcrops (again don’t forget we have 24 hours of light).

Day 9

We found parts of a giant ammonite, Otoceras, which would have reached the size of a bicycle tire. Several examples of the large snail Belerophon were also recovered, as well as a very large coprolite (100 mm in length) containing chewed up ammonites. Considerable amounts of plant material, including horsetails and some seed-like structures, were also found indicating a close proximity to land. There is one last upriver exposure we need to see. It looks promising but we have run out of time for today.

Day 18


Another fine morning in our Arctic paradise… High winds, more rain and low clouds – we were ready to go but increasingly poor weather has kept us grounded. Rescheduled for tomorrow morning at 0900. Weather is “supposed” to improve then. Have coordinated everything with Lasse via satellite phone. They likewise have rain and fog at Kap Stosch. He also said that they had a couple of polar bears come through the camp last night – only 300 m away! All OK though – the bears moved on. Seems like they were just curious.