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Nopcsa, Baron Franz (1877-1933)  
 
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Transylvanian paleontologist Baron Franz Nopcsa was a man ahead of his time in science. Making no effort to hide his homosexuality, he was often dismissed as "whacky" by other scientists, yet he made significant contributions to the fields of paleontology, geology, and evolutionary biology. He was also fascinated by the language and culture of Albania and aspired to become king of that country.

Franz Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás, the scion of an aristocratic Hungarian family, was born at the family estate at Szacsal, Transylvania (now in Rumania) on May 3, 1877. A gifted student, he graduated from the prestigious Maria-Theresianum in 1897 and went on to enroll at the University of Vienna, where he specialized in paleontology.

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Nopcsa's introduction to the science was fortuitous. His younger sister Ilona discovered some fossilized bones on the family land in 1895, and Nopcsa presented them to Professor Eduard Suess of the University of Vienna. Suess showed interest in excavating the site but subsequently changed his mind and told Nopcsa to do it himself. The young baron rose to the challenge. After analyzing the fossils, Nopcsa identified them as belonging to a new species of hadrosaurid in a paper given at the Vienna Academy of Science in 1899.

Nopcsa's presentation of the paper was all the more impressive for the fact that he was only in his second year as a student at the university, from which he graduated in 1904. Nopcsa went on to publish prolifically throughout his career, with more than 180 papers to his credit. The majority of these were on paleontology, but he also wrote about other topics, including archaeology, geology, ethnology, and geography.

Nopcsa was an innovative thinker about dinosaurs. "He was a paleobiologist rather than a paleontologist," states David Weishampel. "He wanted to attach some biology to the bones he had collected." In this, he diverged sharply from his predecessors in the field.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century had seen the "bone wars" in America, with Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope--professional rivals who thoroughly despised each other--competing to find and describe as many new species as quickly as possible. Their story is an odd combination of the genuinely devoted pursuit of paleontological studies and a rip-roaring tale of the Old West, replete with intrigue, clandestine operations, frantically paced (and consequently often destructive) excavations of each new discovery, and alleged fist fights between the rough-and-ready individuals employed by the two camps.

Nopcsa's public image was altogether different. Often attired in a sweeping black velvet cloak, he was every inch the elegant and rather exotic aristocrat. He could be temperamental as well, arrogant or irascible in his dealings with others. In addition, he made no apparent effort to hide his homosexuality. Because of this persona, combined with his theories, which were often out of the mainstream, people in the scientific community sometimes "thought he was just too whacky and brushed him aside," states Weishampel.

Nopcsa described a number of dinosaur species. He did considerable work on armored dinosaurs and argued that based on their evolutionary history they ought to be classified together. In 1928 he proposed the name Thyreophoridae for them. The idea failed to receive support at the time, but studies done in the 1970s proved Nopcsa to have been correct. Thyreophora is now recognized in the modern taxonomic system known as cladistics.

Nopcsa's true fascination was not with the bones but rather with the living animals to whom they had belonged. He wanted to understand the world of the dinosaurs and how they lived in it--how they moved, how they fed, how they mated, how they raised their young.

His curiosity about the mating habits of dinosaurs led him to speculate about sexual dimorphism and the possibility that dinosaurs used display as a means of courtship. In 1929 he suggested that the cranial crests of certain hadrosaurs were secondary sexual characteristics, used by males to attract mates. The fossil evidence eventually showed that the presence or absence of a crest was related to the species rather than the sex of the individual, but the idea itself was important. Weishampel and Wolf-Ernst Reif note that "the practice of identifying sexes and growth series . . . has been fruitfully applied to several reptile groups in order to rectify taxonomic and paleoecological problems."

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