Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás

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The first paleobiologist, Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, was also a near-monarch of Albania and a spy in World War I for Austria-Hungary. He rejected the concept of studying a singular academic discipline and integrated geology, paleontology, and physiology into a hybrid system for reconstructing dinosaur behavior. At the time his hypotheses were considered outlandish, but later scholarship indicates that funky crests were indeed related to sexual selection, confirms the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, and supports the theory that smaller landmasses can produce pygmy species variations. Several dinosaur species, including Nopcsaspondylus (“Franz Nopcsa’s vertebra”), are named after him.

An adventurer as well as a scholar, Nopcsa made several voyages into the Balkans, and took a particular interest in Albania. He learned several dialects of the native language and used his influence to originate the discipline of Albanian studies; he even joined in the country’s fight for independence from the Turks, and made a bid for the title of King. His campaign cited his aristocratic heritage and proposed an eccentric solution to Albania’s financial problems: Auction off the title of Queen to a wealthy American woman. For the openly gay Nopcsa, the idea made sense: He already had a partner in his secretary, so what did it matter who he married? Albania, however, disagreed, and selected a minor German noble who was deposed six months later as the country transitioned into a republic.

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