The legacy of the feud between Florentino Ameghino and P. Moreno.

Sin título

Portrait of Florentino Ameghino (1854-1911) by Luis De Servi (1863-1945).

In 1887, Florentino Ameghino, former Assistant Director of the Museo de la Plata, and Francisco P. Moreno, head of the museum, were in a middle of a bitter dispute. The discovery of the phorusrhacid birds played a big role in this story. The feud between Ameghino and Moreno is in many aspects similar to the well-known feud between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, which took place in the United States at roughly the same time.

Florentino Ameghino was born on September 19, 1853. He came from a family of Italian immigrants who settled in 1854 in the town of Lujan, where the extraction and exportation of fossils were a lucrative activity. Throughout his scientific career, he was seconded by his younger brother Carlos Ameghino (1865–1936).  Carlos had been employed by Moreno at the same time as his brother, as “travelling naturalist” for the Museo de La Plata. During his trips, he gathered a remarkable collection of fossil mammals, later described by Florentino. In January 1888, Florentino Ameghino resigned from his position at the Museo de La Plata, and Moreno denied him access to the paleontological collection.  From that moment, and until became head of the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales in Buenos Aires in 1902, the Ameghino brothers continued with their palaeontological exploration, without any permanent official support, but they managed to get the funds to run their paleontological investigations as a private enterprise. For instance, Karl von Zittel subsidized their explorations, receiving in exchange fossils for the collection of the Munich University. Meanwhile Moreno, in order to gain priority over his rivals, published a series of brief reports about the new palaeontological discoveries made by his field researchers.

Francisco Pascacio Moreno (1852-1919). From Wikimedia Commons

Francisco Pascacio Moreno (1852-1919). From Wikimedia Commons

In 1895, the critical financial situation forced Florentino Ameghino to sell his fossil bird collection, in order to support his further work in Patagonia. The collection was purchased by the London Museum by the sum of 350 £ in 1896. When Florentino became director of the Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires in 1902 the selling of fossils ceased, and he started making claims for the return of the museum’s collections. He also proposed that the most remarkable specimens of Patagonian and Pampean fossil faunas be cast and stored in Buenos Aires and La Plata museums to be used in Argentinean schools. The same casts were sent to Museums all over the world and in exchange, Ameghino received casts of the oldest fossil mammals from Africa and the Northern Hemisphere to compare with the Patagonian faunas (Podgorny, 2005). It was a smart way to prevent the sale of the original fossils.

References:

Ameghino, F. 1895. Sobre las aves fosiles de Patagonia. Boletín del Instituto Geografico de Argentina 15:501–602.

Ameghino, F. 1891a. Mamíferos y aves fósiles Argentinos: espécies nuevas: adiciones y correciones. Revista Argentina Historia Natural, 1:240-259.

Eric Buffetaut (2013), Who discovered the Phorusrhacidae? An episode in the history of avian palaeontology, Proceedings of the 8th International Meeting of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution Paleornithological Research 2013.

Moreno, F.P. 1889. Breve reseña de los progresos del Museo La Plata, durante el segundo semestre de 1888. Boletin del Museo La Plata, 3:1-44.

Podgorny, I. 2005. Bones and devices in the constitution of paleontology in Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century. Science in Context 18(2): 249-283

 

 

Ernst Stromer and the lost Dinosaurs of Egypt.

 Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach. From Wikimedia Commons

Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach. From Wikimedia Commons

Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach was born in Germany on June 12, 1870. In 1893, he began to study geology and paleontology at the University of Munich and wrote his thesis about the geology of the German colonies in Africa, under the direction of Karl Alfred von Zittel.

He later became a vertebrate paleontologist at the Paläontologisches Museum in Munich and an expert on fossil fish and mammals. But I was not until 1901 that he travelled to Africa, more specifically to El Fayum, a fossiliferous location discovered by George August Schweinfurth, a German botanist. The place contains fossil mammals from the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. Supported by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities (Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften), he conducted a second expedition in 1902.

Bahariya Oasis.

Bahariya Oasis.

In 1910, E. Stromer went to his  third paleontological expedition to Egypt. He arrived to Alexandria on November 7. He was initially looking for early mammals and planned visit the area of Bahariya, in the Western Desert, which has sediments from the Cretaceous era. But an expedition to the Western Desert needed the permission by the English and French colonial authorities and of course the Egyptian authorities. Although diplomatic relations with Germany were rapidly deteriorating , Stromer managed to get the permissions.

He arrived to the Bahariya Oasis on January 11, 1911. After facing some difficulties during the journey, on January 17 he began to explore the area of Gebel el Dist, and at the bottom of the Bahariya Depression, Stromer found  the remains of four immense and entirely new dinosaurs ( Aegyptosaurus, Bahariasaurus, Carcharodontosaurus and Spinosaurus aegyptiacus), along with dozens of other unique specimens.

“Illustrations of the vertebrate “sail” bones of Spinosaurus that appeared in one of Stromer’s monographs. From Wikimedia Commons.

With the help of Richard Markgraf (1856-1916), Stromer excavated in three years numerous remains of dinosaurs, snakes, turtles, marine reptiles and crocodiles. Unfortunately, due to political tensions  before and after World War I, many of this fossils were damaged after being inspected by colonial authorities and not arrived to Munich until 1922. The shipping from El Cairo was paid by the Swiss paleontologist Bernhard Peyer (1885-1963), a former student and friend of Stromer.

The most famous of all Stromer’s discoveries was the Spinosaurus. This gigantic predator is estimated to have been about 50 to 57 feet (15 to 17 m) with unusually long spines on its back that probably formed a large, sail-like structure.

This is the only photographic proof of German researcher Ernst Stromer's discovery of Spinosaurus. Image from the Washington University in St. Louis

This is the only photographic proof of German researcher Ernst Stromer’s discovery of Spinosaurus. Image from the Washington University in St. Louis

During the World War II, Stromer tried to convince Karl Beurlen -a young nazi paleontologist who was in charge of the collection- that he had to move the fossils to a safer place, but he refused to do it. Finally, on April 24, 1944, a British Royal Air Force raid bombed the museum and incinerated its collections. Of course, that was not an isolated occurrence. Between 1940 and 1944, several dinosaur fossils were destroyed in World War II battles.

Stromer was an aristocrat (“Freiherr” in his name roughly equals “baron” in English) who refused to join the Nazi, but Stromer’s defiance cost him dearly: all of his sons were sent to the German army. Two of them died in combat and one was captured and imprisoned in the Soviet Union for several years.

In 2000, a new paleontological expedition went to Bahariya and recovered the first dinosaur’s remains since the time of Stromer and Markgraf. Among the new findings is the sauropod Paralititan stromeri (named in Stromer’s honor).

References:

Sanz, José Luis,  Cazadores de Dragones, Editorial Ariel, 2007

Holmes, Thom, Last of the Dinosaurs: The Cretaceous Period, Infobase Publishing, 2008.