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).

 

 

Advertisements