Field of Science

Baron Nopcsa: More than just Transylvanian dinosaurs

The publication of Balaur bondoc has generated a lot of responses by the palaeo - dedicated geoblogosphere, nevertheless it's only a preliminary last chapter in the long and intriguing exploration of the geology and palaeontology of the former cretaceous islands of Hateg, now Romania.

Dealing with the history of scientific research of this area one man must be r

Ferenc Baron von Felsö-Szilvas Nopcsa was born May 3, 1877 in the residence of the fa
mily Nopcsa near the Hungarian village of Szacsal in Transylvania (today western Romania).

Fig.1. Baron Nopcsa, figure from Wikipedia.

It was in 1895 when his younger sister, Ilona, discovered some petrified bones on the family estate Szentpeterfalva (Sânpetru) and brought it to Nopcsa to determinate it. 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 it 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 replied "Study it!"

Fig.2. Lithological sequence of the fossiliferous sites near Sânpetru, the type-locality of Nopcsa's "Szentpeterfalva / Sânpetru sandstone", from where most of the specimens he collected came (figure from GRIGORESCU 2010).

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, where he studied by Eduard Suess.
June 22, 1899 he presented the first part of a planned 5 volume co
mprising monographic work of the "Dinosaurs of Transylvania".
Geology and palaeontology professors 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 Louis Dollo how outstanding and important his wor
k was considering his youth.
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, even letting others publish on material he possibly couldn't study by itself, prepa
red to solve a problem at every cost ignoring limitations or rules, on the other side self confident, even sniffy, convinced by his superiority, always vacillating between frenetic work-mania and complete lethargy.
Nopcsa was open to new ideas and unusual methods and willing to a
dopt them to improve palaeontology. He combined modern concepts of biology with palaeontology to describe fossils as living organisms, a method which he recommended to the "geologist, which intends to study vertebrate palaeontology without zoological or physiological knowledge."

Fig.3. Drawings of the bone structure of Palaeohatteria (left) and Pantelosaurus (right) in a letter by Nopcsa to Friedrich von Huene, August 15, 1925 (figure from KUBACSKA 1945). Both genera belong to Synapsida.

Nopcsa studied intensively the unusual dinosaurs of the cretaceous formations of the Hateg Basin - at a meeting in Vienna in November in 1912, and subsequent publication 1914, he proposed a model in which he considered the discovered fossils of reptiles and especially the dinosaurs peculiar forms 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 fauna, the basal phylogenetic position of the species and the reduced size seen in dinosaurs as a results of the isolation on the islands. This phenomenon, known also from the fossil mammals of the Mediterranean islands and later summarized as "island rule", was at these times (and still is) under 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 cause seems today reasonable or not, it shows the application of Nopcsa ´s principle to fossils, trying to interfere physiological functions of an organism by observing his mortal 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 a illness that forced him for one year to stay in bed, he worked incessantly, and published on a large variety of geological themes, comprising regional geology, stratigraphy and tectonic of Albania.

In his first work on tectonics he sustained the new theory of plate tectonics, but without even mentioning the name of Wegener. In a letter later send to Wegener he noted:

"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."

In disagreement with an initialized drill project he quit the work in the Geological Institute in 1928.

Five years later, in Vienna, he will shoot first his secretary, friend and paramour Elmas Doda Bajazid in the head before committing suicide.


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. Musum, Budapest.

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