See Inside October 2011

The Dinosaur Baron of Transylvania

A maverick aristocrat's ideas about dinosaur evolution turn out to have been decades ahead of their time

"An unusual dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Romania and the island rule," by Hans-Dieter Sues, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, vol. 107, no. 35; August 31, 2010 (islands); The Changing Face of the Earth, by Bruno Vrielynck and Philippe Bouysse; UNESCO Publishing/Commission of the Geological Map of the World, 2003 (world)

The year is 1906. a small, nattily dressed man walks over to the giant Diplodocus skeleton in the entrance hall of the British Museum of Natural History. He gently lifts one of the dinosaur’s huge toe bones out of its iron mount, flips it over and carefully slips it back into place. Later he would note in correspondence to a colleague that his effort was not appreciated. The museum officials should have known better. The visitor was Franz Nopcsa (pronounced “nop-cha”), baron of Szacsal in Transylvania. In addition to being a nobleman, he was an esteemed authority on dinosaurs and other fossil animals. The baron had noticed that the Diplodocus toe bone was oriented incorrectly and was simply trying to fix it. Although Nopcsa failed to garner the respect of the officials, history has been somewhat kinder to him. Among paleontologists today, he is well known for having discovered and described some of the first dinosaurs from central Europe. Yet the details of Nop­csa’s personal life have often overshadowed his intellectual legacy. Adventurous, eccentric and wildly ambitious, Nopcsa was a colorful character. He served as a spy in World War I and made a bid to become king of Albania. He was also openly homosexual; his lover and secretary was a much younger Albanian man named Bajazid Elmaz Doda.

But there was much more to Nopcsa than his fossil collection and his personal and political affairs, as recent findings have underscored. He pioneered techniques for fossil analysis that are still at the forefront of paleontological research. Moreover, his theories about dinosaur evolution turn out to have been decades ahead of their time. Nopcsa insisted that his Transylvanian dinosaurs were key to understanding dinosaur evolution on a global scale. Only in the past few years, with new fossil discoveries, have scientists begun to appreciate how right he was.

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