With The Monuments Men hitting theaters this week, I thought this might be a good opportunity to discuss the fate of valuable artifacts during WWII. And this leads us—as all things inevitably must—to the subject of extinct reptiles.
About a hundred million years ago, North Africa was the world capital of big, carnivorous dinosaurs. The biggest of them all was Spinosaurus, top contender for the largest known meat-eating dinosaur of all time. Even the lowest estimates of its size would make this animal longer than T. rex, and the higher estimates—up to 59 feet from nose to tail tip—are longer by far than those for any other theropod dinosaur known to science.
Spinosaurus got its moniker from the row of spines atop its vertebrae, some of them over five feet high, giving it a prominent sail or ridge running the length of its back. The German paleontologist Ernst Stromer came up with the name in 1915, based on some jawbones, vertebrae, and ribs discovered three years earlier in Egypt.
For thirty years, these fossils were safe and sound in Munich’s Paläontologisches Museum. Then the war came, and European museums weren’t safe havens anymore.
On the night of April 24, 1944 the Royal Air Force hit Munich with a bombing raid that wrecked the museum and destroyed the Spinosaurus fossils inside. Spinosaurus bones aren’t that plentiful, so the loss of any of them is a big deal, but the loss of this specimen was especially significant because it was the holotype (the individual used in the first official scientific description of the species). All that remains of it today are Stromer’s notes, drawings, and photos.
Perhaps the rarity and fragmentary nature of Spinosaurus fossils help explain why this dinosaur hasn’t always been as popular as you’d expect. It’s more well known now than it used to be, largely thanks to a starring role as the main antagonist in Jurassic Park III.
I’m partial to T. rex myself, but that scene is just freaking awesome.
Another massive carnivorous dino prowling around Cretaceous North Africa was Carcharodontosaurus, first discovered in the 192os and re-named by Stromer in 1931. Like Spinosaurus, this guy was huge—upwards of forty feet long. Its five-foot skull was lined with serrated, eight-inch teeth.
And also like Spinosaurus, the holotype got pulverized by Allied bombs falling on Munich. Expeditions to the Sahara unearthed additional specimens in the 1990s, but Stromer’s original went up in smoke during the war.
In fact, the RAF’s April attack on Munich basically wiped out Stromer’s remarkable collection, including the type specimen of the carnivorous dinosaur Bahariasaurus, the only known specimen of the unusual prehistoric crocodile Stomatosuchus, and the bones of the long-necked dinosaur Aegyptosaurus. And the war cost Stromer much more than his fossils. Two of his sons died in the army, while the third spent years as a prisoner of the Russians.
Incidentally, the First World War took its toll on paleontology, too. In December 1916 the German raider Möwe sank the Canadian ship Mount Temple, along with the twenty-two crates of hadrosaur and turtle fossils on board.