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Transylvanian Baron Uncovered Clues to Dinosaur Evolution

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

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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 recent years, with new fossil discoveries, have scientists begun to appreciate how right he was.

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