In 1895, Franz Nopcsa, a teenage baron from Transylvania, was shown some interesting fossil bones brought to his sister Ilona by peasants on one of their properties in Hatzeg. Soon after, he filled 19 wagons with fossils and took them to the University of Cluj, where he asked Professor Anton Koch for scientific references to enable the fossils to be identified. He was told there were no such references so he would have to write them himself. And write he did, publishing a first paper in 18971 and introducing to the world the first Transylvanian dinosaurs, including a first ornithopod species: Telmatosaurus transylvanicus (initially called by Nopcsa Limnosaurus transylvanicus). He then went to study at the University of Vienna and completed his doctoral thesis in 1903. A descendant of a baron known as Fatia Negra, who had attained legendary status as a Transylvanian version of Robin Hood, Franz Nopcsa had a tumultuous and troubled life. He became a member of the Royal Geological Society of London in 1912 and was a spy (for Austria-Hungary) during WWI. He even made a bid to become the king of Albania! Unable to cope with the massive sociological upheavals after the war, he shot himself (after sedating and shooting his long-time Albanian secretary and homosexual partner) in 1933.

Nopcsa’s fossil research methods and evolutionary views were way ahead of his times. Trying to explain the small average size of all Transylvanian dinosaurs, Nopcsa proposed that the area was an island in the Tethys Sea which allegedly covered a good part of Europe in the Maastrichtian (Late Cretaceous period, just before the famous extinction of the dinosaurs). Being isolated, the dinosaurs adapted their size to that of their island habitat (‘insular dwarfism’). One could imagine this as a sort of dinosaurian Galàpagos.

In 1978, much earlier (Early Cretaceous, according to the evolutionary timescale) dinosaur fossils were discovered about 150 km north.2 Although 10,000 bones have been excavated at the site, they allowed the putative identification of only six dinosaurian taxa, three pterosaur species and three bird species. Their habitat was described as an “archipelago of volcanic and coral islands”. The taphonomic investigation (a complex study of what may have happened from death to present times) has yielded little evidence for weathering but clear evidence for water transport (alignment of elongated elements). Predatory activity (evidenced via teeth marks) was also identified, yet the extreme rarity of carnivorous dinosaur types has puzzled researchers. Along with the small size of all the creatures in this fossil assemblage, it is considered further evidence for insularity….

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