Episode 106 – Franz Nopcsa

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In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a Hungarian Baron became a paleontologist, traveling around Europe, excavating fossils, going on adventures, and producing innovative research on fossils, geology, and more. This episode, we discussed the life and work of Franz Nopcsa.

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Baron Franz Nopcsa, the Paleontologist

In 1895, so the story goes, young Ilona Nopcsa found some strange bones on the family estate in Transylvania, and she shared them with her teenage brother Franz, at the time a student of geology at the University of Vienna. These would become some of the first dinosaur bones Franz ever researched, the beginning of an historic paleontological career.

Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás was born in 1877, at a time when paleontology, geology, and evolutionary science as we know them were still fairly young. He grew up in a world where the Bone Wars were in full swing in North America, and biologists worldwide were arguing about Darwin’s theories. From his college days at the turn of the century to his tragic death in 1933, Nopcsa produced over 100 publications on paleontology, geology, and evolution, and he described and named over two dozen fossil species.

Franz Nopcsa in Albanian uniforms, 1913 (left) and 1915 (right).

Perhaps the most famous of Nopcsa’s paleontological contributions is his work on the fossils of Transylvania (now part of Romania). Those first dinosaur bones his sister showed him would end up being named Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus, one of several dinosaurs he would study from this region. He was the first to recognize that the dinosaurs of this area were unusually small, and he correctly deduced that his homeland was once an island home to dwarf species, a 70-million-year-old example of island evolution.

Beyond that, Nopcsa was among the first paleontologists to use fossils to make inferences about soft tissues, physiology, behavior, and locomotion. He tried (unsuccessfully) to identify sexual differences in fossil dinosaurs; he examined the internal structure of bones (which we still do today!) to tell adults from juveniles; he speculated on dinosaur social behavior and the origins of bird flight; he combined his expertise in fossils, geology, and living bodies to usher paleontology into a more modern way of thinking.

Top: Nopcsa’s drawing of the skull of Telmatosaurus, a small hadrosaur from Romania.
Bottom: Nopcsa’s drawing of the skeleton of Polacanthus foxii from Western Europe.

Baron Franz Nopcsa, the Adventurer

Nopcsa spent many years traveling around Eastern Europe, particularly in Albania, studying not only geology but also culture. He became a leading expert in Albanian geography and folklife, publishing over 50 articles on these subjects.

By all accounts, Nopcsa was an eccentric guy who lived a remarkable life. He lived alongside the people of the Albanian mountains for years; he served as soldier and spy during the Balkan Wars and World War I; he attempted (unsuccessfully) to become King of Albania; he held the position of Director of the Hungarian Institute of Geology for several years. He’s been described as innovative, arrogant, charming, rude, fashionable, and audacious.

Two photos of the Albanian landscape taken by Nopcsa on his Kodak camera during the early 1900s.

Nopcsa was joined in his journeys by an Albanian man named Bajazid Elmas Doda, who was Nopcsa’s secretary, traveling companion, and is generally agreed to have also been his romantic partner. Bajazid was reportedly a respectable geologist as well, aiding Nopcsa in fossil hunting and study. The two men met in 1906 and spent much of their lives together until 1933, when Nopcsa, citing “shattered nerves” as his reasoning, killed Doda and them himself in their home in Vienna.

Learn More

History Forgot This Rogue Artistocrat Who Discovered Dinosaurs and Died Penniless, by Vanessa Veselka
Franz Nopcsa: the dashing baron who discovered dwarf dinosaurs by Emily Osterloff

The memoirs of Franz Nopcsa, edited and translated by Robert Elsie.
Documents about Nopcsa are also available at Robert Elsie’s website on Albanian History.

The Work of Franz Baron Nopcsa (1877-1933): Dinosaurs, Evolution, and Theoretical Tectonics by David B Weishampel & Wolf-Ernst Reif (technical)

DODA – The Life and Adventures of Franz Baron Nopcsa (documentary by Vis Production)

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4 thoughts on “Episode 106 – Franz Nopcsa

  1. WayneWax February 12, 2021 / 3:22 am

    How about an ep on the evolution of variable longevity? Why some creatures evolve to live for months and others of similar in size live for decades, e.g. rodents vs bats.

    Like

  2. manyhandscreative April 17, 2021 / 1:17 pm

    My family is from Luzon, and we lost people during the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. It’s hung over our family as a tragedy, and it’s always been weird for me as someone who keeps up with science news, as I find that many western scientists think of the eruption as “cool” and never talk about the human cost.

    I was worried when you started talking about Mt. Pinatubo that you might fall into the same trap — and was pleasantly surprised when my apprehension was met with this story of triumph. Maybe I’m a bit sappy, but I found the story of the Pinatubo volcano mouse touching, in a way. Thank you for sharing it.

    Like

    • commondescentpc April 20, 2021 / 12:34 am

      Thanks for commenting! We’re glad you enjoyed the story of the mice. We’re also glad we didn’t fall into that pattern of behavior you were expecting – that’s a good thing for us to keep in mind for any future natural disaster discussions.

      Like

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