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The Dinosaur Casualties of World War I

On December 6, 1916, two years into "the war to end all wars," a German naval crew destroyed a set of 75-million-year-old dinosaur skeletons

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The SS Mount Temple, photographed in 1907. Among other things, it was carrying a cargo of dinosaurs when it was sunk in 1916. Image from Wikipedia.

On December 6, 1916, two years into "the war to end all wars," a German naval crew destroyed a set of 75-million-year-old dinosaur skeletons. Recovered from what is now Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada by the famous fossil-hunting family the Sternbergs, the old bones were en route to England on the Canadian merchant ship SS Mount Temple, but as the ship was crossing the Atlantic it was intercepted by the German military ship the SMS Möwe. Things quickly got out of hand.

According to paleontologist Darren Tanke, who described the events at the seventh annual symposium of the Alberta Palaeontological Society in 2003, when the Mount Temple was ordered to stop and surrender by the Möwe, someone on board turned the single deck gun of the Canadian ship towards the German boat. Taking this as an act of aggression, the crew of the Möwe fired upon the Mount Temple, killing three and injuring several others.

Rather than immediately blow the ship out of the water, however, the German sailors took the remaining passengers of the Mount Temple prisoner (and later sent them to Germany on a captured ship). Once everyone was off the boat they then scuttled the Mount Temple, having no idea about the dinosaurs on board.

Although it has been difficult to put together a complete listing of what was lost, the surviving documents have given paleontologists a general idea of what the Sternbergs were sending to the British Museum of Natural History. Among the shipment were as many as four partial hadrosaur skeletons, the crocodile-like reptile Champsosaurus, fossil turtles and a nearly complete skull of the horned dinosaur Chasmosaurus. There may have been even more, but unless a more complete inventory is found, it is impossible to know.

Yet, Tanke suggests, all might not be lost. It might just be possible to salvage the bones from the wreck of the Mount Temple. The German sailors recorded the approximate coordinates at which they sunk the Canadian ship, and based upon peculiarities of the construction of Mount Temple it is possible that the fossil cargo was dumped out of the sinking ship and headed straight down to the bottom more than 14,000 feet below. This would make any attempt at finding and recovering the fossils extremely challenging, but Tanke is optimistic about the prospect. He concludes:

Could we consider hunting for dinosaurs on the bottom of the Atlantic? Relocation of the Mount Temple, filming her and possible salvaging of fossils (if exposed on bottom) is a technological possibility; it is simply a matter of manpower and money.

For more on the Mount Temple and its dinosaur cargo, check out the Dinosaurs in the Deep website.

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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