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social sciences

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Nopcsa, Baron Franz (1877-1933)  
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On the physiological level, he attempted to analyze what the musculature and nervous systems of dinosaurs must have been like. He also sought to understand their society, speculating, for example, that adults nurtured their offspring (as opposed to laying and then abandoning their eggs, in the manner of turtles), an idea that would not gain currency until many decades after his death, particularly following Jack Horner's 1978 discovery of Maiasaura ("the good mother" dinosaur) eggbeds that suggest through histological evidence that the nurturing patterns of dinosaurs were similar to those of modern birds.

Nopcsa's views on the parenting habits of pterosaurs (a different class from dinosaurs) led him to conclude that they were warm-blooded. In this idea he was far ahead of his time; endothermy in pterosaurs and dinosaurs was not seriously considered again until the 1970s.

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Nopcsa also weighed in on the topic of the evolutionary relationship of birds to dinosaurs. He envisioned a "pro-avis"--a running predatory dinosaur that eventually evolved feathers and acquired the possibility of flight--as opposed to the prevailing theory that tree-dwellers evolved into gliders. The scientific community took little notice of his theory.

"The 'ground-up' idea wasn't thought about again until the 1960s," states Weishampel. Recent discoveries of feathered therapods (notably in China) have done much to confirm the evolutionary relationship between dinosaurs and birds, but they also suggest that the earliest feathered creatures may in fact have been tree-dwellers rather than land-based. Nevertheless, Weishampel credits Nopcsa for his intellectual curiosity: "Nopcsa was asking good questions, even if he didn't always get the answers right."

Among the fossils that Nopcsa studied were some that he discovered in 1914 at a site in the Siebenbürgen Island region of present-day Rumania. Many of the creatures were relatively small, leading Nopcsa to conclude that dwarfism was a characteristic of isolated populations. This idea was bolstered by the discovery of pygmy dinosaurs at a site in northern Germany in the early 2000s. In 2006, Weishampel and Rumanian colleagues were performing histological analyses of the Siebenbürgen material to determine whether the individuals found by Nopcsa were juveniles or, as they suspect, indeed very small adults.

Nopcsa's atypical approach to paleontology led him to undertake the study of geology, on which he published more than two dozen articles. He took a special interest in tectonics.

Nopcsa was a firm believer in interdisciplinary studies. In 1928, at the opening of the Paläontologische Gesellschaft conference in Budapest, he delivered a strong exhortation against narrow specialization as an obstacle to an integrated view of science. Since Nopcsa was gravely ill at the time and feared that he would not be able to continue to work, Weishampel and Reif see the paper as Nopcsa's expression of his own "intellectual legacy."

Nopcsa certainly practiced what he preached. His final paper, published posthumously in 1934, according to Weishampel and Reif, "developed a unified picture of global tectonics and paleogeography which he used as the basis for discussion of the paleobiography of fossil reptiles and Stegocephalia."

Nopcsa was fascinated not only by natural science but also by the culture of Albania. He became a leading Albanologist, publishing more that fifty papers on a variety of topics related to the country, including geology, geography, history, and ethnology.

Nopcsa made his first of many trips to Albania in 1903. He later recounted that, on his entry into the northern mountains, he was greeted by a gunshot, with the bullet passing through his hat but not wounding him. Undeterred by the incident or the generally lawless reputation of the Albanians, he persevered in his exploration of the country and its culture.

Nopcsa cut a dashing and aristocratic figure in European capitals, but on his frequent trips to Albania he wore traditional native garb and let his hair grow long. He immersed himself in the culture and learned several dialects of the language.

Nopcsa came to have a great admiration for the spirit of the mountain tribes, who continually put up resistance against the Turks, centuries-long occupiers of the region. Nopcsa gave speeches in favor of rebellion and smuggled weapons to the Albanians to aid the cause.

In 1912 Albania, as part of a Balkan alliance, succeeded in expelling the Turks and declared its independence. The Albanian throne was vacant, however, and in order to secure the recognition of the nation by other European countries, the Albanian Congress of Trieste was convened in 1913 to choose a nobleman to become king.

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