Ernst Stromer

From The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt by William Nothdurft, Munich Museum of Paleontology

In 1901, German paleontologist Ernst Stromer paid his first visit to Egypt. He was captivated, and returned years later to look for early mammal fossils. In that venture, he was disappointed, but his other discoveries made up for it. Between 1911 and 1914, Stromer and his European and Egyptian team found giant bones belonging to dinosaurs. Ill-prepared to excavate and protect such big fossils, he had to cut up mosquito netting then soak it in a mixture and flour and water to make jackets.

Stromer and his team found the remains of three different species of carnivorous dinosaurs: Bahariasaurus, Carcharodontosaurus and Spinosaurus (with bladelike vertebral extensions shown on this page). Not only were the huge predators impressive as individual species, but their proximity to each other was unusual; generally, the food chain can only support one giant carnivore species in any area. Perhaps even more puzzling, remains of carnivores in this region appeared to outnumber herbivores (their likely food source). This oddity became known as Stromer's Riddle.

Due to political tensions before and after World War I, Stromer had to wait years for the Egyptian fossils to be shipped to him in Germany. He finally received them in 1922, but they had been packed poorly and damaged so badly that he spent several years piecing them together. He finally published formal descriptions of the fossils in the 1930s.

Stromer was a study in irony. Though often considered frail, he survived the punishing heat (and cold) of Egypt's Western Desert, and eventually lived to the age of 82. He disliked roughing it, but preferred that to crowded, noisy cities, so he braved windstorms in flea-infested tents near tiny towns or in the middle of nowhere. He was landed gentry but always short of cash. He resented an Egyptian assistant, whom he depended on completely, for trying to rise above his "station." Years later, however, Stromer irritated the Third Reich for refusing to join the Nazi party and — worse — for maintaining ties with Jewish colleagues. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Stromer believed (correctly, it turned out) that humanity's roots lay in Africa, not Europe or Asia. No wonder he irritated the Third Reich.

Stromer's defiance of the Nazi party cost him dearly. As a member of an old aristocratic German family, he was spared personal harm, but his sons were not: All three were sent off to battle; two died in combat and one was captured and imprisoned in the Soviet Union for several years. As the war progressed, and curators of fine art and science museums all over Germany removed their specimens to caves and salt mines, the fossils Stromer had found in Egypt remained in a Munich museum, just blocks from Nazi headquarters. The museum head, an ardent young Nazi, ignored Stromer's repeated requests to move the fossils to a safer place. On April 24, 1944, a British Royal Air Force raid bombed the museum and incinerated its collections. Stromer's fossils were gone.

The loss of Stromer's fossils was not an isolated occurrence. Between 1940 and 1944, 17 dinosaur fossils, including several type specimens used as examples of named species, were destroyed in World War II battles. After the war, paleontologists became more conscientious about making casts of fossils in the event the originals were destroyed.

Stromer spent the last several years of his life essentially a broken man, perhaps his only source of joy being the return of his son from a Soviet POW camp in 1950.

Finds of the early 21st century returned Stromer's name to the public eye — and began to solve Stromer's Riddle. In 2001, a team of paleontologists led by Joshua Smith described an 80-foot sauropod that may have weighed up to 70 tons found in Egypt. In 2008, a nomad (who preferred to remain anonymous) brought a box of intriguing fossil bones to Nizar Ibrahim, then a graduate student visiting Morocco. In 2009, visiting the Milan Natural History Museum, Ibrahim examined bones that proved to be not only from the same species but in fact the same animal. The Milan museum bones had been found in 1975 and originally misidentified as the lower jaw of a crocodile when they were actually part of the snout of a big Spinosaurus. Ibrahim managed to piece together bones found decades apart and presented to him at locations more than 1,000 miles from each other. In 2014, Nizar Ibrahim, Paul Sereno and collaborators published a paper on the remarkable fossil. Not only did Spinosaurus prove to be the biggest predatory dinosaur yet known, but also the only dinosaur showing strong indications — a tiny nostril high on the snout, dense limb bones, long forelimbs and flat feet — of being a swimmer. If Spinosaurus really did spend most of its time in the water, it had plenty of food; sizeable fish frequented the waterways of Cretaceous northern Africa.

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