Ahead of his time: Franz Baron Nopcsa and the dinosaurs of Transylvania

by David Weishampel and Coralia-Maria Jianu

In 1895, the first Transylvanian dinosaurs were discovered by 12-year-old Ilona Baroness Nopcsa, while walking the hills near the village of Szentpéterfalva, Hungary (now Sânpetru, Romania).  These bones sparked the interest of her older brother Franz, then 18.  He took on the study of the fossil material collected on his family’s estate, educating himself in vertebrate paleontology and anatomy and publishing on this new genus and species of dinosaur.

Franz Baron Nopsca (1877-1933)

Franz Baron Nopcsa received his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in 1903 and traveled throughout Europe, gathering paleontological data and publishing on a host of fossil reptiles.  Unlike most of his contemporary peers, Nopcsa never held an academic position, supporting himself for most of his life from the family coffers.  He spent virtually all his adult life at Singerstrasse 12 in Vienna’s Old City with his secretary and lover, Bajazid Elmas Dada, an Albanian geologist he met in Bucharest, Romania, in 1906.

His extensive travels in the mountains of northern Albania provided the basis for his detailed accounts of the geology and geography of the region, which also provided important support for Wegener’s theory of continental drift.  It also gave Nopcsa the opportunity to learn about the laws, customs, and people of this remote area of the ever-explosive Balkan Peninsula.  He amassed considerable information about the tribes of northern Albanian and their history, languages, and religious practices.

Nopcsa used his political connections to push for an independent Albania allied to Austria-Hungary.  His plan was to arm the northern Albanian tribes and carry out a guerrilla war against the Turks.  A successful routing would result in Albanian independence with Nopcsa himself as king under the protectorate of Austria-Hungary.  Needless to say, Nopcsa never became King of Albania.  Nopcsa’s involvement in the geopolitics of the Balkans stopped after the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but he spied in western Romania during World War I under the auspices of the Prime Minister of Hungary.

The majority of his work included the osteology, comparative anatomy, and systematics of dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles, in which he recognized more than 25 new genera and species of fossil reptiles, many from his native land of Transylvania. Nopcsa often addressed questions of sexual dimorphism, growth, and development in extinct vertebrates, and provided a variety of soft-tissue reconstructions (brain, cranial nerves, and cranial vasculature; cranial and postcranial musculature; skin color), and biomechanical analyses of jaw mechanics.

Nopcsa was able to identify dwarfism in his island dinosaurs and the bias for preservation of primitive characters during insular evolution.  His research involved a complex web of

A reconstruction of Hatzegopteryx thambema, after Quetzalcoatlus northropii,
a closely related azdarchid pterosaur. Scale = 4m

comparative anatomy, functional morphology, phylogeny, and physiology.  Perhaps best known of his research were Nopcsa’s studies of the origin of avian flight, his use of bone histology to understand growth and thermoregulation, and his work on the development of the pituitary gland and gigantism.

Nopcsa was a fascinating individual, reflecting historical (a Magyar in the Hapsburg Empire), cultural (baronial lifestyle), geographic (Transylvanian roots), and sexual (a gay man living in central Europe in the first third of the 20th century) differences.  He tackled important problems of paleobiology, neo-Lamarckian evolutionary theory, and continental drift, while at the same time conducting research, fomenting guerrilla revolution, and spying.  Unfortunately, this was not to last.  For on the 25th of April, 1933, Nopcsa’s body and that of Bajazid were found at their Singerstrasse residence.  A note found at the scene makes clear the last moments of their lives: Nopcsa had poisoned Bajazid’s morning tea with sleeping powder and then shot him; thereafter Nopcsa put a gun to his own head to commit the final act.

David B. Weishampel is a professor of functional anatomy and evolution at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is senior editor of The Dinosauria and coauthor of Dinosaurs: A Concise Natural History and Dinosaurs of the East CoastCoralia-Maria Jianu is an independent consultant and former curator of the vertebrate paleontology and mineralogy collection at the Museum of Dacian and Roman Civilization in Romania. Their book Transylvanian Dinosaurs came out last September.