Baron von Dinosaur

03 Jan

I have previously described Cope and Marsh as the dinosaur cowboys. Larger-than-life, boisterous, reckless men, fighting it out in the American West. America doesn’t have a monopoly on dinosaurs, though; nor does it have all the extraordinary paleontologist-adventurers. This is the Dinosaur Baron.

Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás was born in 1877 as the heir to a long line of Transylvanian nobles. Nopsca (pronounced Nop-cha) first experienced fossil hunting in 1895 when his younger sister Ilona stumbled across fossilized bones on one of their family’s Transylvanian estates. Nopsca, interested in what these could be, took them to the University of Vienna’s geology department, seeking answers. Instead he received the cryptic answer to work it out for himself. Nopsca enrolled at the university and set to work.

Two years later, he entered the public sphere with a bang. He had worked out the shape of the bones, how they fit together, and even what family of dinosaur they belonged to. He named his new species Telmatosaurus transylvanicus, an unusually small hadrosaur (duck-bill). Rich enough to keep himself in academia in perpetuum, Nopsca motorbiked through Albania (a notoriously unstable region) discovering and naming more and more fossils.

Albania would prove to define the second part of his story. Nopsca became engrossed with the idea of Albanian independence after befriending anti-Turk nationalist groups. He used his wealth and influence to smuggle weapons to the resistance and, when the Turks were ousted in 1912, Nopsca was even briefly considered for the throne (which would have made him the Dinosaur King, not just baron). Later, when World War I embroiled the continent, Nopsca once again made a name for himself, leading volunteer regiments and serving as a double-agent for various Balkan states. (Nopsca also distinguished himself in another, more personal way. Nopsca was openly homosexual and had a long-term public relationship with his secretary, Bayazid Doda.)

In contrast to his political swing, Nopsca wasn’t widely respected by the scientific community. He was one of the first scientists to try to deduce the ecology and behavior of dinosaurs. At the time most paleontologists were simply concerned with discovering and naming new species, not with crackpot ecology ideas. Worse, while Nopsca may have been a great theorist, he was a terrible writer. He did not take criticism well, his papers were incredibly dense and hard to read. Most of Nopsca’s work was ridiculed (if not outright ignored).

Now though… His “crazy” ideas included:

  1. Dinosaurs cared for their young. (Now accepted)
  2. Birds evolved from ground-dwelling dinosaurs. (Now accepted with caveats)
  3. Some dinosaurs were warm-blooded. (Now accepted)
  4. Transylvania used to be an island. (Now accepted)
  5. Animals on island tend to exhibit dwarfism. (Now accepted)
  6. Duck-billed dinosaurs displayed sexual dimorphism. (Now accepted, although he got the specifics wrong)
  7. Helped develop plate tectonics. (Now accepted)
Nevertheless, Nopsca received very little positive contemporary attention for his ideas. And when Austria-Hungary surrendered to the Allies in 1918, he was stripped of his Transylvanian titles, holdings, and land. Destitute for the first time in his life, needing to actually work for the first time in his life, Nopsca was forced to sell off his vast collection of fossils to the British Museum of Natural History. He tried working at the Hungarian Geological Institute, but the mounting debt and depression drove him mad. In 1933, at the age of 56, he fatally shot his lover, then himself, in a gruesome murder-suicide.
So. Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás. The motorcycle-riding homosexual aristrocrat spy. The crackpot paleontologist at least forty years ahead of his time. The almost-king of Albania. The Dinosaur Baron.
1 Comment

Posted by on January 3, 2012 in Biography


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One response to “Baron von Dinosaur

  1. Phi Hore

    January 6, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    very cool story, thanks for that


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