On a recent trip to Barcelona I did not have time, unfortunately, to explore what everyone who has been there describes as a truly great city. The only non-conference thing I did really was to briefly visit Barcelona’s Museum of Natural Sciences. I did not even have time to explore the Museum’s permanent collections in any depth (though they were impressively presented in darkened exhibition halls with dramatic spotlighting), but did get to take in a touring exhibition on Spinosaurus
This exhibition tells the story of the discovery of Spinosaurus, the destruction of the original remains in World War II, and the discovery in more recent years of some more Spinosaurus remains. It puts Spinosaurus in its Cretaceous context, and also puts the sometimes murky world of fossil hunting into some kind of context.
The exhibition starts with Ernst Stormer, or to give his full name Ernst Freiherr Stormer von Reichenbach. Stormer was a long lived figure – from 1871 to 1952 -a lifetime encompassing quite a span of German history. His wikipedia bio is one of those with a slightly eccentric level of detail on one aspect of his life (his 1910-11 Egypt expedition – sample line “After checking into the hotel in Cairo, Stromer found a letter of welcome waiting for him from the Director of the Geological Survey of Egypt at the post office. Stromer was a man who observed the formalities, and the second thing he did that afternoon was to visit the office of George Steindorff, a reputable German Egyptologist, as a matter of courtesy and to plan the future expedition.”) while silent on some of the interesting things I learnt in the museum (another example of the limits of dominant online sources ) especially his anti-Nazi activity.
During World War II Stormer pleaded with the museum director to have the collection moved to a place of safety, but the director, “an ardent Nazi” in the exhibits terminology, refused. Ultimately the collection was destroyed by Allied bombing, and for years the evidence surviving for Spinosaurus was purely photographic.
Stormer suffered an even worse loss in World War II. Two of his three sons were killed, while another was believed killed but in fact had been taken prisoner by the Soviets, only returning to Germany in 1950. At least Stormer lived to see that. I haven’t yet been able to find out more about Stormer’s anti-Nazi activity but would like to find out more about this figure – born just after the Franco-Prussian war and surviving into the Cold War. It also was clear that much of the on the ground fossil hunting was done by a Richard Markgraf, employed by Stormer.
The story then moves to Nizar Ibrahim, a palaeoentologist of German-Moroccan descent, who discovered more Spinosaurus remains in the Kem Kem beds of Morocco (the samples from Morocco will return there once the exhibitions tour is complete). Ibrahim tells the story in this TED Talk:
In the exhibition, we get a sense of the murky elements of the world of fossil hunting. Ibrahim had to do detective work in the markets of the Kem Kem region, where fossil samples are openly sold – but dinosaur remains are prohibited from export.As well as the prestige of appearing on the National Geographic Channel, Ibrahim got a publication in Science out of his work on establishing the semi aquatic adaptions of Spinosaurus. Later work on its feeding confirmed that it ate like a pelican.
The exhibit features impressive reconstructions not only of Spinosaurus but other dinosaurs and other creatures of the Kem Kem. We see how each was adapted to a particular niche of what was then a marshy, semi-aquatic environment.
There are some features specific to the Barcelona exhibit, such as fossils from the Kem Kem which were donated to MCNB by a private collector – an information sheet reflects on the controversial nature of private collections of fossils, but the potential value they have when properly curated and provenanced.
Overall this was an impressive exhibit which managed to tell the human story of fossil hunting, the detective story of reconstruction, and impressively show the sheer scale of these creatures which still have a hold over our imagination today. As often is the case, I was impressed at the ability of palaeoentologists to reconstruct from relatively small samples.
One is also struck by how dynamic this field is. For instance I wonder in how many ways this 2013 BBC Planet Dinosaur video gets it wrong, in the light of subsequent work:
Certainly the exhibition made it clear that the dinosaurs of the Kem Kem were adapted for specific niches and their aquatic nature has been further clarified since (though this is mentioned in the Planet Dinosaur excerpt also)
However, it is certainly more accurate than this: