Spitzberg

A team of scientists from the French Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle and the CNRS set off for Spitzberg on the 8th of July 2010 in search of the first insects to appear on Earth.

The mission

Spitzberg is the main island of the Svalbard archipelago, an Arctic region situated to the east of Greenland. Its mountain slopes offer scientists, especially paleontologists and geologists, an ideal environment for researching the formation of our planet and the origins of life.

The majority of the mission took place in the Dicksonland peninsula, in the glacial valleys surrounding Pyramiden, the Russian ghost town. The spectacular landscape of old red sandstone in this region is really good for discovering fossils: the mountain sides, with their different strata laying on top of each other like the pages in a book, present a stratigraphic continuity of the Devonian period (-416 to -359 million years ago) to the Mississippian period (-345 to -320 million years ago), with a gradual and alternating marine-continental transition. This type of palaeoenvironment corresponds exactly with that of the first "insects", as these are related to marine crustaceans.

All the stages from when life emerged from the water have been fossilised and recorded in this area’s characteristic fine sediment, including for palaeoentomology, palaeobotany, grazing traces on plants, palaeoichnology (movement of living beings) and palaeovertebrates.


Objectives

The mission’s core objective is to unearth fossils of terrestrial arthropods and attempt to date when insects (and other hexapods) first left the water, as well a the appearance of winged lineages during the Devonian. The stakes are high: to date, very few fossil remains of this type of terrestrial arthropods have ever been found.

The team brings together six renowned specialists as part of research unit UMR MNHN/CNRS 7205, dedicated to the origin, structure and evolution of biodiversity:

  • André Nel, palaeo-entomologist, in charge of the arthropod collections at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle (MNHN) and head of the mission;
  • Jean-Claude Roy, geologist, assistant head and field officer of the mission, Muséum volunteer;
  • Jean-Michel Bichain, malacologist, lecturer at the Muséum, the mission’s logistics officer;
  • Cyrille D'Haese, entomologist, researcher at the CNRS;
  • Romain Garrouste, entomologist and palaeo-entomologist at the Muséum.
  • Dany Azar, palaeo-entomologist, Lebanese University, Beyrouth, Lebanon, research fellow at the Muséum.

All of the team members have participated in a number of scientific missions (inventories) and palaeontological digs worldwide, as well as numerous palaeontological and entomological discoveries.

Their plan is at once ambitious, unique and promising:

  • Locate and sample fossil layers;
  • Collect and identify fossils in situ;
  • Determine plant and animal associations during the Devonian and Mississipian, locating fossil-rich layers;
  • Collect and identify associated fauna, primarily vertebrates (micro and macro fossils) and trace fossils;
  • Improve knowledge of present day invertebrate biodiversity in the extreme environments of Svalbard.

The institutional stakeholders