Halloween special VI: Baron Nopcsa and the dinosaurs of Transylvania

The Nopcsa Sacel Castle

Transylvania is mostly known for its myths about vampires. Following the publication of Emily Gerard’s The Land Beyond the Forest (1888), Jules Verne published Le Château des Carpathes (The Castle of the Carpathians) in which Transylvania is described as one of the most superstitious countries of Europe. But of course, the most significant contribution to the development of the Transylvania place myth was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897.

Sacel Castle, at the heart of the Hateg region, is the last residence of the Nopcsa family, known as one of the strangest in Transylvania. Among the members of the family, there were governmental counselors and chancellors of the Transylvanian Court, members of the Royal Minister and of the Royal House, and knights of imperial orders. Baron Franz Nopcsa of Felsöszilvás (1877-1933), was one of the most prominent researchers and scholars of his day, and is considered the forgotten father of dinosaur paleobiology.

Baron Nopcsa in Albanian Uniform, 1915

In 1897 Nopcsa became a student of Vienna University and by the age of 22, he presented the first description and paleobiological analysis of one of the Transylvanian dinosaurs before the Vienna Academy of Science: Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus. The holotype, BMNH B.3386, was found in the Haţeg Basin.

The Hateg region, situated at the heart of Transylvania, is the cradle of Romanian civilization, but 70 million years ago it was a tropical island in the Thetys Ocean, noted for the occurrence of aberrant, endemic, and dwarfed fauna. In 1914, Nopcsa theorized that the “limited resources” found on islands have an effect of “reducing the size of animals” over the generations. Nopcsa noted several palaeobiological features in support of his views, including what he perceived as the common presence of pathological individuals, and considered this condition a reasonable result of the ecologically impoverished and stressed environment inhabited by this fauna. The recognition of ameloblastoma in a Telmatosaurus dentary discovered from the same area represents the best documented case of pathological modification identified in Transylvanian dinosaurs.

Doda, left, and Nopcsa, circa 1931. They spent nearly 30 years together. (Hungarian Natural History Museum)

Nopcsa continued to do collecting in the Haţeg Basin, at least until the beginning of the First World War. Among the fossils that Nopcsa studied were the duck-billed Telmatosaurus transylvanicus, the bipedal and beaked Zalmoxes robustus, the armored Struthiosaurus transylvanicus, and the sauropod Magyarosaurus dacus. In addition, he made extensive travels across much of Europe to visit palaeontological museums and to meet fellow scientists. In his field trips Nopcsa was now accompanied by Elmas Doda Bajazid, whom Nopcsa met in Albania and convinced to become his secretary. The men spent nearly 30 years togheter.

On 25 April 1933, Nopcsa’s body and that of his secretary Bajazid were found at their Singerstrasse residence. Nopcsa left a letter to the police: ”The motive for my suicide is a nervous breakdown. The reason that I shot my longtime friend and secretary, Mr Bayazid Elmas Doda, in his sleep without his suspecting at all is that I did not wish to leave him behind sick, in misery and without a penny, because he would have suffered too much. I wish to be cremated.”

 

References:

David B. Weishampel & Oliver Kerscher (2012): Franz Baron Nopcsa, Historical Biology: An International Journal of Paleobiology, DOI:10.1080/08912963.2012.689745

CSIKI, Z. & BENTON, M.J. (2010): An island of dwarfs – Reconstructing the Late Cretaceous Haþeg palaeoecosystem. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 293: 265 – 270 doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2010.05.032

Dumbravă, M. D. et al. A dinosaurian facial deformity and the first occurrence of ameloblastoma in the fossil record. Sci. Rep. 6, 29271; doi: 10.1038/srep29271 (2016).

 

 

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Introducing Dynamoterror dynastes, the powerful terror ruler.

Frontals of Dynamoterror dynastes in rostral view. From McDonald et al., 2018. (Scale bars = 5 cm)

Tyrannosauroidea is a relatively derived group of theropod dinosaurs more closely related to birds than to other large theropods such as allosauroids and spinosaurids. The clade originated in the Middle Jurassic, approximately 165 million years ago, and for most of their evolutionary history, tyrannosauroids were mostly small-bodied animals that only reached gigantic size during the final 20 million years of the Cretaceous. Until recently, all tyrannosaurs fossils were limited to Asia and North America, but the latest discoveries suggest a more cosmopolitan distribution during their early evolution.

All tyrannosaurs were bipedal predators characterized by premaxillary teeth with a D-shaped cross section, fused nasals, extreme pneumaticity in the skull roof and lower jaws, a pronounced muscle attachment ridge on the ilium, and an elevated femoral head. The clade was a dominant component of the dinosaur faunas of the American West shortly after the emplacement of the Western Interior Seaway (about 99.5 Mya).

Paleogeography of North America during the late Campanian Stage of the Late Cretaceous (∼75 Ma). From Sampson et al., 2010

Dynamoterror dynastes, the most recent taxon described from the lower Campanian of northwestern New Mexico, provides additional data on the morphology and diversity of early tyrannosaurines in Laramidia. The new specimen lived during the Late Cretaceous period, approximately 78 million years ago. The name derived from Greek word dynamis (“power”) and the Latin word terror. The specific name is a Latin word meaning “ruler. Dynamoterror was collected in San Juan County, New Mexico, and is the first associated tyrannosaurid skeleton reported from the Menefee Formation.

The holotype (UMNH VP 28348) is an incomplete associated skeleton including the left and right frontals, four fragmentary vertebral centra, fragments of dorsal ribs, right metacarpal II, supraacetabular crest of the right ilium, unidentifiable fragments of long bones, phalanx 2 of left pedal digit IV, and phalanx 4 of left pedal digit IV. The right and left frontals both are incomplete; the dimensions of the right frontal are similar to a subadult specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex, suggesting that UMNH VP 28348 represents a subadult or adult individual. The reconstructed skull roof of Dynamoterror present several tyrannosaurine features, such as large supratemporal fossae and a tall sagittal crest on the frontals, providing an expanded attachment area for enormous jaw-closing muscles.

 

References:

McDonald AT, Wolfe DG, Dooley AC Jr. (2018) A new tyrannosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Upper Cretaceous Menefee Formation of New Mexico. PeerJ 6:e5749 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.5749

Brusatte SL, Norell MA, Carr TD, Erickson GM, Hutchinson JR, et al. (2010) Tyrannosaur paleobiology: new research on ancient exemplar organisms. Science 329: 1481–1485. doi: 10.1126/science.1193304

Sampson SD, Loewen MA, Farke AA, Roberts EM, Forster CA, Smith JA, et al. (2010) New Horned Dinosaurs from Utah Provide Evidence for Intracontinental Dinosaur Endemism. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12292. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0012292

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forgotten women of paleontology: Irene Crespin

Irene Crespin (1896-1980)

Irene Crespin was born on November 12, 1896, in Kew, Victoria, Australia. In her memories, she wrote that her interest in Palaeontology began early in her life, when she was one of the first students to attend the Mansfield High School in northeastern Victoria. The head master of for a short period was the eminent Australian geologist Charles Fenner.

In 1919, she graduated with a B.A. from the University of Melbourne. In 1927 she joined the Commonwealth Government as Assistant Palaeontologist to Frederick Chapman at the National Museum of Victoria. Chapman was an authority on Foraminifera and was president of the Royal Society of Victoria. About her time at the Museum she wrote: “In the early days, we passed through the depression era. Our salaries were reduced overnight. I was reduced to six pounds a week. They were difficult times for us all. One would walk a long distance to save a threepenny tram fare.”

Dr Irene Crespin with W. Baragwanath, Secretary of Mines for Victoria, probably visiting a Cooksonia plant site, c. 1927 (From Turner 2007)

In 1936, Crespin succeeded Chapman as Commonwealth Palaeontologist. On February 10th, she was transferred from the National Museum, Melbourne to join the Commonwealth Geological Adviser, Dr. W.G. Woolnough, in Canberra. About her new position she wrote: “Of course, being a woman, and despite the tremendous responsibility placed upon me with the transfer to Canberra, I was given a salary of about half of that which Chapman received. Later the Chairman of the Public Service Board told me that I was being put on trial.”

She becoming greatly interested in the Tertiary microfaunas, and for some time she was the only professional micropaleontologist on the Australian mainland. Her research took her all over Australia. In 1939, she received permission from the Minister of the Interior to visit Java and Sumatra to discuss the problems of Tertiary correlation in the Netherlands East Indies with Papua and New Guinea.

Crespin’s photo of her aeroplane and crew on an overseas trip to Java, Indonesia, 1939 (From Turner 2007)

Crespin was well respected internationally and was a regular participant in national and international scientific conferences. In 1953, many of her books and specimens were destroyed as a result of a fire in the Canberra offices. The same year, she received Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation medal. In 1957 she was president of the Royal Society of Canberra, and was awarded with the Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

During her career she published 86 papers as sole author and more 22 in collaboration with other scientists. She was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, London, in 1960. She became an honorary member of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in 1973. She died in Canberra, on January 2, 1980.

References:

Turner, S. (2007). Invincible but mostly invisible: Australian women’s contribution to geology and palaeontology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 281(1), 165–202. doi: 10.1144/sp281.11

Crespin, Irene (1975). “Ramblings of a micropalaeontologist”. BUREAU OF MINERAL RESOURCES, GEOLOGY AND GEOPHYSICS.