Aegyptosaurus lost

April 1, 2008

There seems to be some kind of bell curve associated with sauropods. We get lots of medium-sized ones, but very few babies, mostly disarticulated bits, and very few super-immense ones, which are also mostly disarticulated bits. Puertasaurus is known from two vertebrae. Sauroposeidon is known from 3.5. The holotype of Hudiesaurus is a single vertebra; the referred forelimb is not from the same individual or the same quarry, and there’s no particularly good reason to think it’s from the same taxon. Argentinosaurus is known from a handful of vertebrae and a smaller handful of limb bones.

Bruhathkayosaurus was evidently pretty big, but there’s only one paper on it so far, illustrated with very, um, simple line drawings of some bones and blurry non-orthogonal photos of others. More on that one later, maybe, although none of the preserved elements appear to be verts so it is a little outside our bounds. In any case, Bruhathkayosaurus may be the biggest sauropod known from remains that still exist (may be; by now you should know how much uncertainty that covers).

amphicoelias-altus-small.jpg

Then there are the really frustrating ones: the gigapods for which we have no remains left at all. What’s really frustrating is that these might be the biggest of all! The best known of our absent friends is Amphicoelias fragillimus, which Darren has discussed before and which we ought to cover here in the future. The genotype of Amphicoelias is the Diplodocus-sized A. altus, and it’s still around, or at least it was as of October 2006 because that’s when I took the photo above. No one knows what happened to the A. fragillimus vert. It might have gotten lost, or simply crumbled to dust since it was very fragile and it was excavated before the use of consolidant glues became widespread in paleontology (Carpenter 2006).

In the case of Aegyptosaurus, we know exactly what happened to the type material: it was blown to hell and gone, along with the original material of Spinosaurus and Carcharodontosaurus, when Allied bombs hit the museum in Munich in 1944. The type material of Aegyptosaurus baharijensis consisted of some caudal vertebrae and limb and girdle bones from an animal of unspectacular size. But in a curious parallel with Amphicoelias, there is–or rather was–a larger specimen, possibly one that represented a distinct species.

Near the end of the paper in which he described and figured A. baharijensis, Stromer (1932a) mentioned “ein Wirbel eines anderen noch größeren sauropod”, which he said would be described later. I’ll end the suspense right now: it wasn’t. Later that year Stromer published a short paper (1932b) on the sauropod fauna of Africa. That paper also did not describe any giant vertebrae in any detail, but it did include this photo (below).

stromer-vert-scan.jpg

The original caption reads “Professor Ernst Stromer neben einem Wirbel einer neuen Art von Aegyptosaurus“–Professor Ernst Stromer next to a vertebra of a new species of Aegyptosaurus. Presumably Stromer intended to provide a full description soon after, but it was not to be. The next summer at Bahariya Oasis he was attacked by a crocodile and nearly lost his left leg. In the end Stromer recovered, but only after repeated surgeries and many painful months spent learning to walk again. The wound effectively killed his professional career. Although he lived until 1952, his 1934 paper on Bahariasaurus was his last paleontological contribution. Almost all of the Bahariya Oasis collection was lost to science in 1944, but science lost Stromer himself almost a decade earlier.

So what about that vert? It’s clearly a posterior cervical. Stromer’s left hand is resting on the rib, which is awfully short and awfully high up on the centrum, which indicates that the vertebra is from near the base of the neck. There are other interesting features as well–note the hint of a keel on the bottom of the centrum, which is usually only found in fairly basal sauropods, and the ridges above the postzygapophyses, which put me in mind of Mamenchisaurus.

Also, I suppose you’ll have noticed that the vertebra is freakin’ immense. Frustratingly, neither Stromer nor the vert appear in their entirety, and neither are shown from an orthogonal angle (perils of using a portrait to try to do science, I know). Still, we know that Stromer was a tall man. Werner Janensch once playfully described him as “die bärtige Bohnenranke”–the bearded beanstalk. No one seems to have written down his exact height, and we’re missing his feet in this photo anyway, but from contemporary descriptions he seems to have been several inches over 6 feet. The diameter of the cotyle seems to be about the same as the distance between his shoulder and wrist, which is a good 2 feet in me and I’m only 6’2″. Assuming–well, you know–that would give a cotyle diameter of about 60 cm, which is just appallingly large. The cervico-dorsal vertebrae of the HM SII specimen of Brachiosaurus brancai are about 3/4 that big. Imagine B. brancai scaled up by a third.

It’s a cool thought, but that’s all it is. We don’t know exactly how tall Stromer was. We don’t know how much the vertebra might be foreshortened in this photo. It wouldn’t take much to get our imaginary monster sauropod downsized into being merely interesting instead of completely flabbergasting. And the specimen itself is literally history.

Farewell, Aegyptosaurus sp. We hardly knew you.

References

UPDATE

Okay, I’m pulling the plug on this one. It’s an April Fool’s Day post. Many of the biographical details about Stromer are just made up–he didn’t lose his leg in a crocodile attack, he did keep publishing after 1934, the giant Aegyptosaurus specimen is a Photoshopped cow vert. The ref for Stromer (1932b) is entirely fake–he never published a paper with that title. The fake paper was “supporting evidence” for the joke, and incorrect biographical details were tells that it was a sham. I’m telling all now because people are starting to look for the real Stromer (1932b), and although the joke had a good run, I hate wasting people’s time.

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18 Responses to “Aegyptosaurus lost”

  1. Zach Miller Says:

    An easy ruse to spot! How is Stromer lifting that enormous vert? It’s obviously because the structure is extremely thin-walled and fully of air sacks! An unfossilized sauropod vertebrae? That’s un-possible!

  2. Matt Wedel Says:

    :-) I think the vertebra is sitting on a table.

    I like this story because the sensational details–the crocodile attack, the fossils suspiciously getting blown up by Allied bombs–that are so well known to paleontologists are probably little known to the general public, and they make it seem like an April Fools post. Even Stromer’s ridiculous titles and weird journals. But anyone who scratches the surface will see that it’s all true. It’s a meta-April-Fools joke. When everyone is joking, telling the truth becomes the biggest gotcha.


  3. Mmmmmmm….Ubersaurus

  4. Mark Evans Says:

    Maybe Stromer had his photo taken on April 1st 1932.

  5. Nathan Myers Says:

    My question is, how did the biggest extant vert come to be ignored in a museum for ten or eleven years, before it was finally blown up? Was it smaller than A. frag., so not really very interesting? Or was it left alone out of deference to Stromer, who might still have got back on his feet, someday? Or did he actually continue to control access to it, and wouldn’t let anybody else do the work?

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    My question is, how did the biggest extant vert come to be ignored in a museum for ten or eleven years, before it was finally blown up?

    That’s an interesting story in its own right. The British took over Tendaguru after WWI and conducted excavations there from 1924 to 1931. Tendaguru is distant in time and space from the Upper Cretaceous rocks of Egypt, but at the time it was the only other well-represented dinosaur fauna from Africa. While most of the Brits, including Parrington, Migeod, and Leakey, poured their efforts into Tendaguru, a graduate student named Leigh Chadwick got curious about the Bahariya Oasis collection. He thought there might be evolutionary links between the two faunas, so he traveled to Munich to visit Stromer.

    This was during Stromer’s arduous recovery from the crocodile incident, and he was not at his best. He thought Chadwick was trying to steal his work and he sent him away–banned him from the museum, even. But Chadwick was both politic and tenacious. He sent Stromer a series of letters–in German!–protesting his innocence and laying out his interest in the Egyptian fossils and his speculations about their evolutionary importance. Eventually he won Stromer over. Not only did the two become friends, Stromer recognized Chadwick as a potential successor to carry on his studies of the Bahariya Oasis fossils.

    Alas, it was not to be. German paleontologists respected Stromer’s priority when it came to the Bahariya fossils, and from surviving correspondence it seems clear that Stromer intended for Chadwick to carry on his work. But Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and Fuhrer in 1934, and in the years leading up to WWII relations with England became increasingly strained. It became politically impossible for Chadwick to work on the material, not because the German paleontologists wouldn’t let him–they held themselves out of the ideological fray–but because the state started denying him entry. Eventually Stromer and Chadwick realized that further work on the Bahariya Oasis material would have to wait until the war was over.

    But the fossils were blown up in 1944, so there was nothing to work on. Stromer had effectively been out of the game for years, and this tragedy killed any hope he may have had of getting back into research. Chadwick was still a young man and had been drafted for the war effort. His fluency in ‘high’ German, honed over years of correspondence with Stromer, earned him a job in military intelligence. He spent the war translating captured documents and fabricating elaborate but phony operational plans that were deliberately leaked to the Axis powers. After the war he continued working as a translator. He even moved to West Germany to help with the postwar reconstruction, but he never published any original work in science.

    The destruction of the Bahariya Oasis fossils may not seem like much, next to the horrors of the Third Reich and WWII. Still, I will always wonder how the field of paleontology might have been different if Stromer and Chadwick had been able to pursue their collaboration. And I wonder about that vert. The available material of Paralititan doesn’t include any cervicals, so there’s no available comparison there. But Paralititan is pretty big, and that thing was pretty damn big, so…who knows. Hopefully somebody will find some more of it one of these days. And some more Hudiesaurus, and Sauroposeidon, and Amphicoelias

    Hey, a guy can dream.

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nathan, you’d be amazed at how much most palaeontologists don’t care about really big elements. The Amphicoelias fragillimus dorsal was pretty much completely ignored in between Osborn and Mook’s (1921) figuring of it and Ken Carpenter’s (2006) paper. The four giant cervicals that we now know as Sauroposeidon were so little regarded that they were given to an undergraduate to work on. (And, yes, that undergraduate was Matt.) BMNH R 5937, a Tendaguru brachiosaur, is the biggest dinosaur represented in the Natural History Museum’s collection, but no-one paid it any attention between 1931 and 2004.

    This is kind of understandable: big bones are an absolute sod to work with — especially vertebrae, which tend to be very fragile. I’ve often envied people who work on crappy theropods, who can easily pick up an entire skull in one hand and move it around effortlessly. Whereas just to get the pair of BMNH R 5937 dorsals out of the cabinet, three feet sideways onto the floor, requires two skilled specialists: there is no way that a researcher would be allowed even to try to move them himself (and he wouldn’t be physically able to do so alone anyway).

    On the other hand, we don’t have to pox about with microscopes and suchlike in the world of sauropods — unlike mammal workers, who seem to spend all their time gazing through scopes at minuscule teeth. Swings and roundabouts.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    In a new comment on an old article, Asier asked: “How tall are the pair of BMNH R 5937 dorsals? I think that the berlin brachiosaurus brancai dorsals are bit over 100 cm.” I thought I’d answer over here since I’d just mentioned this specimen.

    BMNH R5937 includes two very well preserved dorsals conjoined, as well as another pair of conjoined dorsal centra and an isolated neural spine. There are also six cervicals in various states of disrepair, a long-bone fragment (possibly near-distal humerus), a partial pubis, some other unidentifiable bits and some as-yet unopened jackets.

    The two complete dorsals measure 86 and 84 cm from top of spine to bottom of cotyle. In that respect, they are similar in height to comparable dorsals of HMN SII, the Berlin Brachiosaurus brancai. The BMNH dorsals represent D8 and D9 (of 12); According to Janensch (1950), D?7 of SII is 77 cm tall, and D11 and D12 are 76 and 79 cm respectively. The more anterior D4 is 107 cm tall. (Paul 1988 claimed this was a mismeasurement and that D4 is actually 117 cm tall. Not so: I measured it myself and Janensch was correct.)

    So is R5937 bigger than SII? Not necessarily: although its posterior dorsals are taller than SII’s, the neural spines are proportionally longer, and its centra are actually smaller than those of SII. Its dorsals are also a little shorter anteroposteriorly. Measurements of the cervicals also suggest an animal a little smaller than SII (though still pretty darned big :-) )

    More on BMNH R5937 eventually … either in an SV-POW! article, or when I get the darned paper written. (This thing is supposed to be a chapter of my Ph.D, so I have every reason to get on with it.)

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    big bones are an absolute sod to work with

    The common complaint of sauropod workers everywhere.

  10. Vertebrat Says:

    Poor Freiherr Stromer! Once, he had it all:
    Three sons, his health, and from Bahariya,
    The undescribed remains that would recall
    Cretaceous titans to Bavaria.
    But all too soon, his fortune turned about:
    A crocodile nearly took his leg.
    The Nazis came, and kept his student out,
    And sent his sons away to die. He’d beg
    That his collection move, at least, but no –
    It stayed, and errant bombs destroyed it all.
    Now just one photograph remains to show
    The giant vertebra he meant to call
    Aegyptosaurus. Science still bemoans
    The loss – there are no more like Stromer’s bones.

  11. Mike Taylor Says:

    That was beautiful.

    I hope Matt feels properly ashamed when he reads it :-)

  12. Asier Says:

    Thanks you very much for your explanation.

  13. Nathan Myers Says:

    Yes, thanks everybody for delicious details.

    Let this be a lesson: publish ortho photographs — and 3-D MRI scans! — of anything unusual as early as possible.

    I’d like to know who’s going to get busy sequencing the DNA from those dino feathers-in-amber before *they* get nuked.

  14. Graham King Says:

    Wonderful writing! You are doing a service to science by commemorating these lost specimens and the (sadly unfinished) work of past palaeontologists. Poignant; Thanks.

    It’s salutary too as reminder of how much there was that we don’t know; and gladly also a hopeful inspiration as to what might yet remain to be uncovered (unearthed… or unjacketed).


  15. [...] (Images via prehistoricanimal, pravekysvet, svpow, realmagick) [...]


  16. [...] (Images via prehistoricanimal, pravekysvet, svpow, realmagick) [...]

  17. Hans Sues Says:

    The claim hat Stromer did no paleontological research after 1934 is just wrong. First of all, he published a synthesis of the work at Bahariya in 1936, and Stromer published numerous other paleontological papers (mostly on Cenozoic mammals) almost up till the time of his death in 1952. Of these, a major review of progress in paleozoology (1944) is especially noteworthy. Stromer (1932) published a brief account on a giant sauropod vertebra from Bahariya. He notes that it does not belong to Aegyptosaurus but (unlike so many who shall remain nameless) felt that a new taxon should not be based on a single, incomplete vertebra.

  18. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hans, thanks for your diligence. But please also note the date of the post. Almost everything I wrote about Stromer here was pure invention. He never suffered a career-ending crocodile attack, and as you note, the real, not-April-Fool’s-Day Stromer went on to make many more valuable contributions. Those were clues to the joke!


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