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Baron Nopcsa: More than just Transylvanian dinosaurs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The publication and description of the peculiar dinosaur species Balaur bondoc in 2010 generated a lot of interest in the paleontological community and the general media – nevertheless it was only a preliminary last chapter in the long and intriguing exploration of the geology and palaeontology of the former Cretaceous islands of the Hateg region (a geological basin in modern Romania).
The first scientific exploration of these lost islands is connected to one name: Nopcsa.
Ferenc Baron von Felsö-Szilvas Nopcsa was born 3, May 1877 in the residence of the aristocratic family Nopcsa near the Hungarian village of Szacsal in Transylvania (today western Romania).

It was in 1895 when his younger sister, Ilona, discovered some petrified bones on the family estate Szentpeterfalva (see also this description and photos of the sequence of the fossiliferous strata near Sânpetru, the type-locality of Nopcsa’s “Szentpeterfalva / Sânpetru sandstone) and brought them to her brother. This discovery raised the interests of young Nopcsa for palaeontology and in the same year he showed the fossils to Eduard Suess, professor of geology in Vienna, who identified the fossils as dinosaur bones and proposed Nopcsa to excavate and study them. Asked by Nopcsa for advice and literature about the subject of dinosaurian osteology, Suess simply replied “Study them!
Thanks to the wealth and influence of the family, especially the personal connections of his uncle Franz von Nopcsa to the royal court of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Nopcsa enjoyed his formal education in Vienna and in 1897 enrolled in geology.

Just two years later he presented the first part of a planned 5 volume comprising monographic work of the “Dinosaurs of Transylvania“.
The geology and palaeontology professors in Vienna were impressed by the appearance and work of the 22-year old student, but also displeased by his arrogant behaviour, especially when he noted to Belgian palaeontologist (and Iguanodon-father) Louis Dollo how outstanding and important his work was considering his age. Nopcsa concluded his studies in 1903.

Nopcsa’s was described by contemporaries being a complex and contradictory personality: sophisticated and cosmopolitan, dedicated to geology and palaeontology and to his friends, he even allowed others to publish his material (behaviour considered sometimes as academic suicide) and ready to solve a problem at every cost  – ignoring limitations or rules. Nopcsa was open to new ideas and unusual methods and willing to adopt them to improve palaeontology. So he combined modern concepts of biology with palaeontology to describe fossils as living organisms, he considered “geologist, which intends to study vertebrate palaeontology without zoological or physiological knowledge” as nonserious.
However he was also very self-confident and convinced of his intellectual superiority, as result he was often vacillating between frenetic work and sudden lethargy.

Fig.1. Drawings of the bone structure of the synapsis Palaeohatteria (left) and Pantelosaurus (right) in a letter by Nopcsa to German geologist Friedrich von Huene, 15, August 1925. Nopcsa introduced principles of physiology into palaeontology, trying to deduce physiological functions of tissues and organs by observing the fossil remains – Nopcsa therefore can be considered one of the first palaeobiologists.

Nopcsa continued to study intensively the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous formations of the Hateg Basin. At a meeting in Vienna in November 1912 and subsequent publication in 1914 he proposed that the discovered fossils of reptiles and especially the dinosaurs represented animals adapted to an insular environment: “while the turtles, crocodilians and similar animals of the Late Cretaceous reached their normal size, the dinosaurs almost always remain below their normal size.
He interpreted the low biodiversity of the excavated fauna and the reduced size seen in the dinosaurs as a results of the isolation on former islands. Modern islands show an impoverishment in species diversity compared to a similar habitat as a result of different dispersal ability of the single species. Once stranded on the island, large species tend to reduce their mass, probably to minimize the impact on the natural resources, and small species can gain mass, maybe as a result of decreased predation. This phenomenon, later described also from fossil mammals and summarized as “Island Rule“, was at Nopcsa´s times under fierce scrutiny and discussion.

Maybe reflecting his contradictory personality, he not only developed the idea of dwarf dinosaurs, but also an explanation of the gigantism of some other dinosaurs. In 54 pages divided in three articles, entitled simply “About dinosaurs“, he proposed the overdevelopment of the hypophysis gland as cause of the overgrown proportions of dinosaurs, bringing them finally to extinction. Despite this explanation sounds strange, it shows the application of Nopcsa´s principles in palaeontology, trying to deduce physiological functions of an organism by observing his fossil remains – Nopcsa therefore can be considered one of the first palaeobiologists.

In 1925 Nopsca was awarded with the position of director of the Royal Hungarian Geological Institute. Despite an illness that forced him for one year to stay in bed he worked incessantly and published on a large variety of geological themes, comprising his beloved dinosaurs, regional geology, stratigraphy and tectonic geology.
In one of his first publications on tectonics he adopted the new theory of continental drift, but without even mentioning the name of Alfred Wegener. Only in a later letter send to Wegener he notes:

Meanwhile, I would congratulate you for the confirmation of your drift hypothesis by Tu Toit, and I am glad to be one of the initial supporters of your hypothesis.

Q.e.d.

Bibliography:

BENTON, M.J.; CSIKI, Z.; GRIGORESCU, D.; REDELSTORFF, R.; SANDER, P.M.; STEIN, K. & WEISHAMPEL, D.B. (2010): Dinosaurs and the island rule: The dwarfed dinosaurs from Haþeg Island. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 293: 438 – 454
CSIKI, Z. & BENTON, M.J. (2010): An island of dwarfs – Reconstructing the Late Cretaceous Haþeg palaeoecosystem. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 293: 265 – 270
FICHTER, J. (2010): Franz Baron Nopcsa: Paläontologe, Geologe, Ethnologe und Politiker. Fossilien Zeitschrift für Hobbypaläontologen Heft 2 März/April: 100-105
GRIGORESCU, D. (2010): The Latest Cretaceous fauna with dinosaurs and mammals from the Haþeg Basin – A historical overview. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 293: 271 – 282
KUBACSKA, A.T. (1945): Franz Baron Nopcsa. Ungarisches Naturwiss. Museum, Budapest
THERRIEN, F. (2005): Palaeoenvironments of the latest Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) dinosaurs of Romania: insights from fluvial deposits and paleosols of the Transylvanian and Hateg basins. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 218: 15-56

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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