Thulitheripus svalbardii

Thulitheripus svalbardii

Top image: The pantodont tracks found were made by animals that presumably migrated from North America to Svalbard. Illustration: UiO/Natural History Museum.

About 60 million years ago a pantodont was walking along a Svalbard sea shore. The fossil footprints of this mammal were discovered in 2006, the first discovery of fossil mammal tracks on Spitsbergen. Now these tracks have gotten a formal name: Thulitheripus svalbardii.

27 May 2010
Text: Eva Therese Jenssen / UNIS

It is in a recently published article in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, former UNIS PhD candidate Charlotta Lüthje, Jesper Milàn (University of Copenhagen), and Jørn Hurum (University of Oslo and adjunct associate professor at UNIS), publish the formal identification of the tracks and name them.

Jørn Hurum

Dr. Jørn Hurum with one of the fossil tracks. Photo: Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS.

Unique discovery

In December 2006, two miners working in the coal mine (Gruve 7), close to Longyearbyen, discovered the tracks in the roof of the one of the mine shafts. The discovery was the first discovery of fossil mammal tracks in Svalbard.

In the Paleocene (66–56 million years ago) Svalbard was situated close to the northern part of Greenland and Northern Canada. Plate reconstruction places Svalbard at 65-68º N at this time and there was a land contact from Svalbard to Northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island, Canada.

The climate in Svalbard during the Paleocene was warm-temperate, a very favorable climate for plant production. The track record of Paleocene mammals is scarce and so far only a handful of tracks and trackways have been described worldwide.

There are no known skeletal remains of mammals from the Paleocene of Svalbard. The tracks found in the coal mine is first worldwide record of such large-sized, well-preserved tracks and trackways from the Paleocene.

Size and excellent quality of the tracks make them unique and makes it possible to identify the track maker. The late Palaeocene age, the size, and the forms of the tracks strongly suggests that the tracks have been made by pantodonts (Titanoides), according to the authors.

Migrated from North America
The pantodonts were the only known mammals with a sufficient body size during the Palaeocene. Pantodonts were omnivorous and herbivorous large mammals that lived in the Northern hemisphere, and could weigh more than 500 kg.

However, until 2006, there were found no fossil evidence of these mammals in Svalbard. This is the earliest discovery of pantodonts this far north and east, and the tracks are now formally named Thulitheripus svalbardii.

The pantodonts in Svalbard were comparable to the largest pantodonts found so far and have presumably migrated from Northern America.

Lüthje, Charlotta J. , Milàn, Jesper and Hurum, Jørn H.(2010) ‘Paleocene Tracks of the Mammal Pantodont Genus Titanoides in Coal-Bearing Strata, Svalbard, Arctic Norway’, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 30: 2, 521 — 527, DOI: 10.1080/02724631003617449

fossil pantodont track

One of the fossil pantodont tracks found close to Longyearbyen. Photo: Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS.

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