Tracking a toothy Transylvanian Dinosaurs: A Johns Hopkins paleontologist follows in the footsteps of a turn-of-the-century colleague, searching for fossils of the unique dinosaurs of the Carpathian Mountains.


January 16, 1998|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

David B. Weishampel makes an annual trek to the mist-shrouded Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania to hunt for the grave of a nasty character with a taste for blood.

But the Johns Hopkins University paleontologist, regarded by his colleagues as one of the world's top dinosaur scientists, leaves his wooden stakes at home. He isn't hunting for Count Dracula, the fictional vampire.

He's looking for the ancient bones of Romanian raptor, a meat-eating dinosaur whose incisors even the evil count might envy, along with a menagerie of other Cretaceous-era animals.

What he has helped to uncover is an oddity of natural history, a rare adaptation that could help confirm one aspect of Darwin's theory of evolution. Many of the region's dinosaurs, it seems, were dwarfs, from two-thirds to one-tenth the size of their counterparts elsewhere.

It is the only such community of miniature dinosaurs found anywhere on Earth, and it's probably related to the fact that the Carpathian mountains were once an island in the midst of an ancient ocean.

Weishampel thinks that some of the traits these animals developed in their island environment later proved extremely useful on the mainland -- providing a rare example of how isolated populations can change the course of evolutionary history.

While digging up his dinosaurs, Weishampel also became intrigued by some of the Balkans' human ghosts.

Now he's writing two books. One is a scholarly volume about dinosaurs. The other is a biography of Baron Franz Nopsca (pronounced Nobt-jah), a brilliant and troubled paleontologist who, around the turn of the century, first studied these long-extinct animals.

Weishampel, 45, who lives in Parkville, talked about his work in his book-crammed office, tucked in a corner of Hopkins' sprawling East Baltimore medical complex. A black-and-white oil portrait of Charles Darwin, painted by Weishampel, broods a few feet from his desk.

Around the turn of the century, Weishampel explains, North American paleontologists were racing around like cowboys, grabbing fossils and setting them up in museums. Baron Nopsca, by contrast, was less interested in rounding up the fossils than in figuring out what they said about the lives of the animals that left them.

Nopsca's sister, Ilona, first found the fossils in 1895, while strolling on the family estate. The young baron himself, educated at the University of Vienna, began excavating and describing these extinct animals.

By careful study, Nopsca found evidence for the then-controversial notion that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Because he recognized how closely related his dinosaurs were to others found elsewhere in the world, he knew that the notion of continental drift, also controversial at the time, had to be true. Today, the theory is well established.

He spent his life as an outsider. He was gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime in most places. And he dabbled in espionage, serving the Austro-Hungarian empire first in Albania and later in Romania during World War I.

After the war, Nopsca lost his estate and the family fortune. In 1933, at the age of 55, he committed suicide.

Unfortunately for Nopsca, Transylvanian dinosaurs do not make striking museum exhibits: Complete skeletons are rare. Most fossils consist of teeth and small shards of bone.

"His career was eclipsed by the great dinosaur discoveries of North America" in the early decades of this century, Weishampel says, when beautiful skeletons were unearthed.

As a result, "his work was pretty much ignored or trivialized."

A decade ago, Weishampel set out to study these bones, the first serious effort since Nopsca's death. He stepped out of the train in the Romanian city of Deva and into the gray and paranoid world created by Romania's notorious communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

"It was grim, really grim," Weishampel says. "My basic feeling was people were looking at me with suspicion. I was a Westerner. I was bad. It was kind of scary."

It took some delicate negotiations to gain access to Nopsca's collection. Even then, people were leery or hostile.

Only after a coup ousted Ceausescu, executed on Christmas Day 1989, did attitudes change. Weishampel began field work with Romanian paleontologists in the summer of 1993.

Now, he says, "people are extremely friendly and open."

Even the dinosaurs are beginning to yield their secrets.

Seventy million years ago, Transylvania was a tropical island, part of an archipelago stretching from present-day Spain to present-day Azerbaijan. Dinosaurs were likely stranded there by shifting continents and changing sea levels.

Biologist have long noted that big animals, such as mammoths and hippos, tend to shrink after hundreds of generations on islands. Likewise, island life seems to spur some small animals, such as birds and lizards, to evolve into larger models.

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