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The Life and Legacy of the Dinosaur Baron




Wikimedia Commons; published before 1923 and public domain in the US.

Franz Nopcsa was a turn-of-the-century baron of Szacsal in Transylvania who discovered some of the first dinosaurs from central Europe. His ideas about fossil analysis and dinosaur evolution were remarkably prescient, as this article in the October issue describes. Below is a timeline of major events in the dinosaur baron’s life, some of his paleontological discoveries and recent work that has validated his claims. István Fózy of the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest provided many of the biographical details.

Nopcsa’s Life

  • 1877: Born in Deva, Romania, on May 3
  • 1895: First encounters fossils, on one of the family estates in Transylvania
  • 1897: Publishes his first scientific article, a description of the bones found on the family estate—a new species of ornithopod dinosaur later named Telmatosaurus
  • 1898: Goes to the University of Vienna
  • 1899: Delivers his first lecture—on a hadrosaurid dinosaur from Transylvania—at the Austrian Academy of Sciences
  • 1903: Completes his doctoral thesis
  • 1905: Visits the British Museum of Natural History for the first time
  • 1912: Becomes a member of the Royal Geological Society in London
  • 1914: Proposes that the Nopcsa estates that yielded small-bodied dinosaurs had once been part of an island he called Hátszeg that formed from the flooding of Europe by the ancient Tethys Sea, and that the dinosaurs evolved their petite proportions as a response to the limited resources available on small islands
  • 1917: Becomes a corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
  • 1923: Names a new 70-million-year-old fossil turtle he found in Transylvania Kallokibotion bajazidi, in honor of his lover, Bajazid Doda
  • 1925: Becomes head of the Hungarian Geological Institute
  • 1930s: Publishes paper describing his use of the microscopic structure, or histology, of bone to show that a fossil alleged to represent a new type of dinosaur was instead a juvenile member of a previously known species
  • 1933: Kills Doda and himself on April 25

Modern Day

  • 2009: Paper by Gregory Erickson et al. in PLoS ONE on results of bone histological studies sheds light on the evolution of the fast growth rates of living birds
  • 2010: Paper by Koen Stein et al. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA on histological studies of Magyarosaurus upholds Nopcsa’s claim that it was an island dwarf
  • 2010: Special issue of Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology shows Hátszeg served as a stepping stone for dinosaurs moving from east to west during the Late Cretaceous, underscoring the importance of Nopcsa’s beloved Transylvanian dinosaurs for understanding the global distribution of dinosaurs leading up to the zenith of their diversity 65 million years ago
  • 2011: Paper by Gareth Dyke in Palaeontology on small birds and pterosaurs from another site in Transylvania that used to be part of an island a few hundred kilometers east of Hátszeg provides support for Nopcsa’s ideas
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