By Emily Osterlof, UK Natural History Museum
Baron Franz Nopcsa was a self-taught palaeontologist who spent his life pushing the boundaries of scientific understanding. He is credited with founding the field of palaeobiology and was the first to identify dwarfism in dinosaurs.
At the turn of the twentieth century, palaeontologists were primarily concerned with discovering and describing dinosaur species.
Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933), however, was more interested in what he could infer about ancient animal biology from fossils. His identification of dinosaur dwarfism in the historical region of Transylvania is one of his most well-known achievements. He was also a wartime spy, travelled Europe on a motorcycle and even offered to be king of Albania.
Transylvanian dinosaur discoveries
Franz Nopcsa was born into an aristocratic Hungarian family in Transylvania. His family had substantial fortune and lands, and lived in a now derelict castle.
Nopcsa’s interest in dinosaurs was sparked by fossils his sister had found on his family’s estate. But some of his finds, including Telmatosaurus and other species that he came across seemed unusually small for dinosaurs.
Prof Paul Barrett, a dinosaur researcher at the Museum, explains, ‘Nopcsa realised that these were relatives of animals that were generally much bigger.
‘By simply looking at the bones he realised that these were adults and had stopped growing – parts of the skeleton had fused up in a way that normally only happens in adults.’
Of the dinosaurs, one of the most striking in size is Magyarosaurus. This sauropod would have been five to six metres long, small when compared with sauropods such as Diplodocus which were around 26 metres long.
Island dwarfism and gigantism
Nopcsa’s small dinosaurs lived toward the end of the Cretaceous (around 72-66 million years ago), but he noted that they more closely resembled Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous dinosaurs from elsewhere. He theorised that the dinosaur’s size and primitive forms were due to island isolation.
Sea levels were very high during the Late Cretaceous – parts of modern-day Europe formed an extensive series of islands in the prehistoric Tethys Ocean. Nopcsa’s Transylvanian dinosaurs lived on what is now known as Haţeg Island.
‘If you go to islands today, it’s a well-known phenomenon that some large animals have become smaller and some small animals get larger,’ explains Paul. ‘But Nopcsa was the first person to make that intellectual leap to suggest that this process could also be seen in the fossil record.’
On islands there are generally fewer resources and predators than in mainland areas. This is thought to contribute to dwarfism and gigantism.
Large herbivores usually need a large grazing range, so becoming smaller makes them more compatible with an island’s limited food supply. Carnivores are thought to shrink in size in response to the shortage of prey.
Having fewer predators also means herbivores no longer need to be really big. A large sauropod, for example, could safely adapt to smaller sizes. Equally, less predation would allow small animals to become larger over time, experiencing gigantism.
Paul says, ‘The dwarf dinosaurs from Romania that Nopcsa described are the ones we know best. But there are others. A small sauropod discovered in Germany a few years ago, called Europasaurus, is also thought to be another island dwarf.’
The island rule doesn’t apply to all isolated animals, however. Nopcsa noted that other animals found on the prehistoric Haţeg Island, such as turtles and crocodilians, had grown to average sizes.
The father of palaeobiology
Nopcsa’s studies advanced the field of palaeontology. He was one of the first to study the biology of dinosaurs, and is often called the father of modern palaeobiology.
‘He was one of the first people to look at dinosaur growth. He did that by slicing up dinosaur bones to look at the growth rings and see what they suggested about dinosaur growth patterns,’ says Paul.
‘He also looked at whether you could tell sexes apart in dinosaurs. He was, again, one of the first people to do that – although now all of the ways he suggested have turned out not to be useful.
‘But he was at least thinking about the fact that maybe differences between specimens may have been differences between sexes, rather than differences between species, which would have been the default position of all of his contemporaries.’
Nopcsa also thought that dinosaurs might have been social animals that looked after their young while they grew up, like most modern birds. This theory of parental care in dinosaurs only really took off in the 1980s, however.
‘In a number of ways he started to move the subject forward from merely describing fossils to thinking about the animals as living entities.’
Nopcsa was fearless in publishing creative theories. Despite his ideas being unusual compared to the beliefs of his time, they were embraced by his contemporaries. His papers were taken seriously and highly regarded.
But with ideas that could be considered ahead of their time, Nopcsa didn’t always have the tools he needed to investigate his questions in depth.
‘He was a polymath. He was intellectually jumping all over the place,’ says Paul.
‘By the time that he died, the discovery of big dinosaur bone fields in Africa, Canada and China were just starting to come on the map. Just finding new specimens from these areas would have fuelled a lot more ideas.’
‘In the 10 or 20 years after Nopcsa’s death, people were routinely thinking more about the biology of the animals. But equally, there weren’t any major conceptual leaps until quite a long time after he had already passed away.’
The life of a rock star
Nopcsa’s interests were broad. In addition to dinosaurs he studied other reptiles such as turtles and lizards, and published geological maps of Eastern Europe. He was also significantly interested in Albania and carried out ethnographic studies there.
‘He was a specialist on the people and language – he was very much a fan of Albania and often used to wear Albanian national dress. At one stage he even offered to be King of Albania,’ explains Paul.
‘He knew the area very well, and during World War One he spied for the Allies in the Balkans.’
Traditional work didn’t appear to suit Nopcsa. He became head of Hungary’s Geological Survey in 1925 but quit three years later, embarking instead on a motorcycle journey across Europe with his secretary and lover, Bajazid Doda.
‘He was an openly and flamboyantly gay man at a time when it would have been totally socially unacceptable,’ says Paul. ‘He probably only got away with it because he was an aristocrat. He would have been allowed certain foibles that would have been easier to discriminate against if he didn’t have his own money and a certain social position.’
However, when Transylvania was ceded to Romania after the First World War, Nopcsa lost his fortune, lands and family home. His life ended tragically in 1933 at the age of 56, when he is believed to have drugged Doda with sleeping powder and shot him, before committing suicide.
‘It seems to have been driven by the fact that his circumstances had changed,’ says Paul. ‘He was very depressed some of the time and then at other times he was almost manically happy – a sad end for someone who was obviously very brilliant.
‘I think he was someone who was genuinely interested in everything. He was innovative and working at a time when not so much was known. He was pushing the boundaries on how to make the subject more interesting and thinking about animals as living things, rather than just thinking about them as dusty bones piled up in museum collections.’
‘His life was almost that of a rock star – he grew up in a castle, he was a feudal lord, he was an aristocrat, he travelled around Europe on a motorcycle, volunteered to be King and spied in the Balkans – I think he would have been a very interesting colleague to have around.’