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.
Island of Dwarfs
Nopcsa first encountered fossils in 1895, when his sister, Ilona, happened on some large bones on one of the family estates in Transylvania, then part of Austria-Hungary. He pounced on the remains and brought some to Vienna, where he was attending secondary school, to show to a geology professor. The professor informed him they were from dinosaurs and offered him the assistance of one of the department technicians to collect more remains and to prepare a formal description. But although he had hardly any training in paleontology, the 18-year-old Nopcsa decided to go it alone, working day and night to learn anatomy. He was quick: within a year he wrote a paper on Ilona’s bones describing a new species of ornithopod dinosaur from Transylvania, later dubbed Telmatosaurus.
It was the beginning of a long and productive career for Nopcsa: over the next 35 years he published more than 100 scientific papers on fossils, many of them cutting-edge. He was one of the first to investigate whether the anatomy of long-extinct animals and how they had been fossilized together could be used to understand how they interacted in life; he championed the Victorian notion that birds were a kind of dinosaur, rather than the distant reptilian relatives his colleagues believed them to be—a view that has since gained acceptance by the vast majority of modern paleontologists; he charted the geology of enormous swaths of central Europe—the list goes on and on.
Nopcsa traveled far and wide in his scientific pursuits, but his most important work derived from discoveries made in his own backyard. The baron noticed, for example, that Telmatosaurus, the dwarf sauropod Magyarosaurus (a genus name coined by German paleontologist Friedrich von Huene to replace Nopcsa’s use of Titanosaurus) and other dinosaurs found on the Nopcsa estates were significantly smaller than other closely related species. Magyarosaurus, for one, was just six meters long—tiny compared with other sauropods, which routinely reached lengths of 15 to 20 meters. Because Nopcsa was an accomplished geologist, he knew that back when Magyarosaurus roamed Transylvania some 70 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period, a warm, shallow sea called Tethys covered much of southern Europe, leaving only islands of elevated regions suitable for terrestrial creatures. He also knew that some island-dwelling mammals, such as the recently extinct Mediterranean elephants, had evolved small bodies, presumably an adaptation to the limited resources available in these environments. Putting two and two together, he proposed in 1914 that the burial ground of his dinosaurs had once been part of an island born of the flooding of Europe by the Tethys Sea. He called this putative island Hátszeg and argued that his dinosaurs had attained their pint-size proportions as a result of island dwarfing.
Although Nopcsa’s contemporaries would have known about the pony-size elephants from Crete and other Mediterranean islands, no one had ever proposed that such shrinking could occur in dinosaurs. The baron’s bold theory was largely ignored. But starting in the late 1970s, renewed interest in the Late Cretaceous beasts of Transylvania put Nopcsa’s dwarfing scenario back on the table. Since then, it has gained considerable support, in part because discoveries of other dinosaurs have confirmed that the Hátszeg dinosaurs were significantly smaller than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, as well as those in Asia and North America.
Recently my own work has bolstered Nopcsa’s ideas. In studying a collection of Early Cretaceous bones unearthed from a Transylvanian bauxite mine in the 1970s, I discovered a number of very small birds and pterosaurs represented among the remains. Judging from preserved wing elements, I surmised that the creatures were probably capable of flying long distances. As I reported last year in a paper published in Palaeontology, these are exactly the kinds of flying animals one would expect to find on an isolated island. In fact, the species preserved in the bauxite mine collection are similar to the ones Nopcsa found in Hátszeg, a few hundred kilometers to the east. The bauxite mine locality was part of another earlier island in the Cretaceous archipelago formed by the Tethys.
Fittingly, evidence obtained using a technique Nopcsa himself invented has provided some of the strongest support for his island-dwarfing theory. In the 1930s Nopcsa published a revolutionary paper in which he described having exploited the microscopic structure, or histology, of bone to show that a fossil of an allegedly new type of duck-billed dinosaur from North America was actually just a juvenile member of a previously known species. He had figured out that he could estimate how old an animal was when it died based on the histology visible in thin slices of bone when viewed under high magnification, much as one can count growth rings to determine the age of a tree.
One of the weak spots in Nopcsa’s dwarf dinosaur theory, when he first proposed it, was that he could not exclude the possibility that his dinos were small simply because they were juveniles. He passed away before he could apply his histology technique to the problem. But recently a group of German, American and Romanian paleontologists conducted histological studies on Magyarosaurus and concluded that the dainty sauropod was indeed fully grown, upholding Nopcsa’s interpretation of the remains as those of an island dwarf. The team published its findings last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
Bone histological studies, now standard among paleontologists, have also cast light on other subjects dear to Nopcsa, including bird evolution. For example, in 2009 researchers from Germany, the U.S. and China reported in PLoS ONE that some early birds—the 140-million-year-old Archaeopteryx among them—have bone structures that show they grew up to a third as fast as living birds do, exhibiting a pattern more in keeping with “cold-blooded” reptiles than today’s “warm-blooded” avians. Thus, some of the hallmark characteristics of living birds, such as their extremely fast growth rates, must have taken longer to evolve than scientists previously thought.
Dinosaurs on the Move
The significance of Nopcsa’s Transylvanian dinosaurs extends well beyond their implications for island-dwarfing theories, as the baron himself knew. Because most of Europe lay under the Tethys Sea during the Late Cretaceous, the Transylvanian specimens offer a rare glimpse of European dinosaurs from this period. Intriguingly, many of the forms found there—including the Hátszeg ornithopod Telmatosaurus—have counterparts only in Asia or North America—not in the Southern Hemisphere. This distribution pattern suggests that Transylvania was an important bridge between Europe and the Late Cretaceous landmass comprising Asia and North America. Dinosaurs in Europe could cross the Tethys into Asiamerica, and vice versa, by hopping along Hátszeg and the other islands that formed an archipelago stretching from the European Alps to Southwest Asia.
New geologic data published last year in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology has shown that because Hátszeg was close to both the European continental margin and to the open ocean, it probably provided a convenient stepping-stone for animals moving from east to west. Thus, the dinosaurs of Transylvania in general, and of Hátszeg in particular, will most likely prove critical to understanding the global distribution of dinosaurs just before the zenith of their diversity 65 million years ago—a heyday cut short by a cataclysmic asteroid impact that extinguished their kind.
Forged at a time when the sciences of paleontology and geology were still young and evolution was still hotly debated, Nopcsa’s theories were astonishingly prescient. No doubt they benefited from his standing as a member of the aristocracy. Because of his wealth and influence at the court of the emperor of Austria-Hungary, Nopcsa had huge advantages over the average scholar of his day. He could travel freely throughout the empire on fossil-hunting expeditions and make regular pilgrimages to the great museums of Europe. He seemed to relish these escapes from court life, readily shedding his Viennese nobleman’s finery for rough, native shepherd dress when he set out for the Balkans. Conversant in several Albanian dialects, Nopcsa would disappear into the hills of Albania, often for months or years at a time, with only his secretary and lover, Doda, for company. Although he produced an immense wealth of geologic, meteorological and ethnographic data over more than a decade of Albanian travel, much of it published in the leading scientific journals of the age, it is unlikely that Nopcsa took leave from the court purely for academic reasons: in 1923 he named a new 70-million-year-old fossil turtle he had collected in Transylvania Kallokibotion bajazidi, the genus name meaning “beautiful and round,” in honor of Doda.
Unfortunately for Nopcsa, world events conspired to strip away his privilege. After the defeat in 1918 of Germany and its allies, including Austria-Hungary, Transylvania was ceded to Romania. He lost his estates and income as a result and began to worry about how he would continue to support his itinerant scientific lifestyle. To make ends meet, he accepted a position as head of the Hungarian Geological Institute and moved to Budapest. The constraints of institutional life did not suit the freewheeling Nopcsa, however, and after just a few years he left his post to resume traveling with Doda by motorcycle in the Alps and in Italy, searching for fossils and mapping geologic features. To raise money to live on, he sold most of his fossil collection, including his treasured Transylvanian dinosaurs, to the British Museum of Natural History (now known as the Natural History Museum in London), a place he once had visited regularly as an honored scientific guest.
In the months before he died, Nopcsa received an invitation to address the Geological Society in Antwerp, Belgium. Although he was running a high fever, he made the trip. But he fell seriously ill the night before he was due to talk. Nevertheless, with no preparation, he delivered a lecture on the geology of Albania in French to a packed hall. “Whenever I talk,” he later wrote to a friend back in Budapest, “the room is filled mostly with ladies who hope for fewer scientific explanations than adventure stories.” Surely the swashbuckling dinosaur baron was happy to indulge them.
Alas, Nopcsa’s life ended in tragedy. On April 25, 1933, the great fossil hunter, by now destitute and depressed, served Doda a drug-laced cup of tea and then fatally shot his sedated lover in the head before turning the gun on himself. The heartbreaking suicide note he left for police said, “The reason for my suicide is my nervous system, which is at its end. The fact that I killed my long-term friend and secretary, Mr. Bajazid Elmaz Doda, in his sleep, without him having an inkling as to what was going on, was because I did not want to leave him behind sick, in misery and in poverty because he could have suffered too much.” The baron may be long gone, but his scientific legacy continues to grow.