Excerpt: 'The Link: Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor'

Jørn Hurum, associate professor of paleontology at the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo, is a regular at the Hamburg fair, where he goes each year in hopes of adding to his museum's collections. He has traveled the world, looking for connections between species. At age 41, he has the rugged look of an explorer who spends a lot of time in remote areas of the planet. His long hair is pulled over his forehead, and he has a sturdy build. His bright eyes reveal a childlike enthusiasm for his craft that dates from his youth.

Hurum grew up outside Oslo, and from the age of six he knew that he wanted to be a paleontologist. The moment came when his parents were reading him a story about a boy who was walking on the shore, throwing stones into the sea. In the story, one of the stones says to the boy, "Don't throw me into the sea. I'm a fossil. I can tell you a story." The stone, a 500-million-year-old trilobite that existed before fish and dinosaurs, starts to tell the boy about how life evolved over millions of years. Hurum was so taken by the story that he wanted to know everything about fossils, and a lifelong passion emerged.

Hurum studied paleontology at the University of Oslo as an undergraduate, earned his PhD in 1997, and has since become an associate professor in vertebrate paleontology at the university. In 2006, Hurum led a team that described the fossil of a plateosaurus buried more than one mile (1.6 kilo-meters) beneath the earth's surface. The dinosaur, estimated to have been 30 feet (9 meters) long and weighing four tons, lived 200 million years ago, during the Triassic period. His later fieldwork in the Svalbard archipelago, located in the Arctic Ocean midway between Norway and the North Pole, resulted in the mapping of forty skeletons of Jurassic marine reptiles and the excavation of six skeletons. His team's greatest find was a large 150-million-year-old sea reptile. This 50-foot (15-meter) pliosaur, dubbed "the Monster," is the longest pliosaur known to science, with a body of 40 feet (12 meters) and a skull measuring 10 feet (3 meters).

When Hurum arrived at the Hamburg fair in December 2006, he had no idea that this routine trip would change his life. Early one afternoon, Hurum and his museum colleague, Dr. Hans Arne Nakrem, were milling around the table of a reputable dealer named Thomas Perner. Hurum had bought several small specimens from Perner over the years and had developed a working relationship with him. But when Hurum caught sight of Perner, he noticed the dealer was staring at him and acting strangely. To Hurum, Perner looked like a man burdened with a secret that he needed to reveal.

Finally Perner approached Hurum and whispered, "I need to show you something so interesting and unbelievable, but there are too many people here at the moment. Can I buy you a drink at four o'clock?"

Hurum immediately accepted. Perner was very reliable, so Hurum was certain he had a worthwhile specimen to show him. But why the secrecy, he wondered. He presumed it was a Messel specimen, possibly of a horse.

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