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   The Island Rule
The History of the Haţeg Basin

Dinosaur fossils have undoubtably been unearthed in Haţeg for centuries but it was not until the late 19th centurary that they first came to the attention of the scientific community, thanks to the work of a Hungarian aristocrat turned Palaeontologist, Baron Franz Nopcsa (1877-1933).

Early Excavations

Left: Figure 2. Photograph Of Franz Nopcsa

Franz Nopcsa's passion for the Haţeg dinosaurs was sparked when in 1895 a number of dinosaur bones were found by his sister Ilona at Sânpetru (or Szentpéterfalva) near the family estate at Săcel (also called Szacsal) in Transylvania, which was at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but now resides in western Romania. He brought the bones to Vienna in the hopes of having the bones identified but was advised by the then professor of Geology Eduard Suess that he should undertake his own study into them. Two years later when Nopcsa was only twenty he published his first paper (Franz Nopcsa 1897) and it was in this same year that he began his own studies at Vienna University.

His passion for Geology and Palaeontology, especially that of the Haţeg area, never waned and his early notable accomplishments include the naming of the Szentpéterfalva (Sânpetru) sandstone as a stratagraphic unit and the beginning of his systematic description of the dinosaurs of the Haţeg basin in the first of five monographs (Franz Nopcsa,1900, 1902, 1904, 1928, 1929). published as 'Dinosaurierreste aus Siebenbürgen' ('Dinosaur remains from Transylvania').

However his greatest achievement in Palaeontology is arguably his theory of Insular Dwarfism (also known as the [island rule]-#hyperlink to Island Rule Website#). He first suggested that the small dinosaur specimens he had found had come from island dwarfing at a meeting in Vienna in November 1912 (published as Franz Nopcsa, 1914b). Nopcsa (1914b) wrote that "while the turtles, crocodilians and similar animals of the Late Cretaceous reached their normal size, the dinosaurs almost always remain below their normal size." He observed that most of the Transylvanian dinosaurs hardly reached 4 metres in length and, for the largest (what was to become Magyarosaurus dacus), it was a puny 6m long compared to the usual size of 15-20m for other sauropods.

Nopcsa's contribution to the understanding of Palaeontology were later sumarised by Grigorescu (2005):

  1. Systematic Palaeontology: description of 9 species of dinosaurs and other fossil reptiles, out of which 6 were confirmed by the subsequent revisions;
  2. Chronostratigraphy and Geologic mapping: dating the continental fossiliferous deposits as Danian, at that time considered the uppermost stage of the Cretaceous; first detailed geological map of the Haţeg Basin and the neighbouring regions, with the Upper Cretaceous marine deposits clearly delimited from the overlaying continental deposits with dinosaur remains, the latter being described under the generic name of 'Sânpetru sandstone';
  3. Evolution: recognition of the primitiveness of most of the taxa from the Haţeg palaeofauna, stressing that in spite of their chronostratigraphic position at the end of the Upper Cretaceous, many of them much closely related to Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous taxa;
  4. Palaeobiology: besides their primitiveness, many species from the Haţeg palaeofauna were much smaller than their closest relatives from other regions of Europe. Both the primitiveness and the small size were explained by Nopcsa by the isolated condition, on an island, in which the dinosaurs and their other co-habitants lived for a long span of time; this biological phenomenon, common for large animals living in small and medium-sized islands is known as 'island dwarfing'.

After Nopcsa for almost forty years there were very few new investigations in the Haţeg area. A small number did occur and included studies of the regions geology, leading to the discovery of some interesting fossilised bones (Mamulea, 1953a, b) and plants (Mărgărit and Mărgărit, 1967), but also caused controversy regarding the age of the continental deposits with dinosaur remains. After the work of Mamulea (1953a, b), a large part of Nopcsa's Danian deposits were assigned to different stages of the Palaeogene, and the dinosaur bones were seen as redeposited from older beds. Nowadays however, the late Cretaceous age of the the western deposits from the Haţeg Basin and all of Nopcsa's fossil finds were confirmed by Dincă et al. (1972) who also adjusted the name of this age to Maastrichtian, after the Danian was moved to become the first stage of the Palaeogene.

This state of affairs where little work occured in the Haţeg area continued until Dan Grigorescu of the University of Bucharest initiated systematic palaeontogical searches of the Haţeg area beginning the Summer of 1977.

Modern Resurgence

Left: Figure 3. Photograph Of Dan Grigorescu

courtesy of the University of Bucharest

From 1977 onwards Grigorescu organised yearly summer camps for geology students, with the main aim of finding 'fossiliferous pockets' and to excavate them. Initially for the first few years searching focused on the Sibisel valley, were Nopsca himself found many of his most famous finds, but focus soon turned to a much wider area. An important contributer to the expansion of the fossil record came from Ioan Groza of the Museum in Deva (capital of Hunedoara county, in which Haţeg is located).This proximity to the fossiliferous deposits allowed Groza to continue the excavations during the autumn, after Grigorescu and his students from Bucharest had left. These excavations were supplemented by micropalaeontological studies, which led to a great increase in the number and variety of vertebrate taxa (Grigorescu 2010).

The renewed interest in the Haţeg basin coincided with a great discovery of hundreds of dinosaur, pterosaur and other bones in a bauxite mine almost 200 miles north of Haţeg in the Apuseni mountains.Both factors contributed to a resurgance in international interest, with many eminent Palaentologists traveling to see one of the best late Cretaceous sites in Europe.

Today Haţeg is one of the best studied late Cretaceous dinosaur sites outside of North America, with the fossils found here proving to have a fascinating and unique history. An ususal feature of many of the dinosaur fossils is that in a land of giants they were tiny, which has led many Palaeontologists to conclude that these were island dwarves, a recent study of this theory by Benton et al. (2010) focused upon the dinosaurs - Magyarosaurus, Telmatosaurus and Zalmoxes, and attempted to show whether these smaller than usual dinosaurs were juveniles or fully grown adult dwarves.

Literature cited

  • Benton M. J., Csiki Z., Grigorescu D., Redelstorff R., Sander P. M., Stein K. and Weishampel D. B., 2010, Dinosaurs and the island rule: The dwarfed dinosaurs from Hațeg Island, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Article in Press
  • Dincă, A., Tocorjescu, M., Stilla, A., 1972. Despre vârsta depozitelor continentale cu dinozaurieni din Bazinele Haţeg Ci Rusca Montană. Dări de Seamă ale Institutului Geologic Român 58, 83-94.
  • Grigorescu D., 2005. Rediscovery of a 'forgotten land'. The last three decades of research on the dinosaur-bearing deposits from the Haţeg Basin, Acta Palaeontologica Romaniae 5, pp. 191-204.
  • Grigorescu, D. 2010. The Latest Cretaceous fauna with dinosaurs and mammals from the Haţeg Basin - A historical overview. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Article in Press
  • Mamulea, M.A., 1953a. Cercetări geologice în partea de Vest a Bazinului Haţeg (Regiunea Sarmisegetuza - Răchitova). Dări de Seamă ale Comitetului Geologic Român 37, 142-148.
  • Mamulea, M.A., 1953b. Studii geologice în regiunea Sânpetru - Pui (Bazinul Hațegului). Anuarul Comitetului Geologic Român 25, 211-274.
  • Mărgărit, G., Mărgărit, M., 1967. Asupra prezentei unor resturi de plante fosile în împrejurimile localitătii Densus (Bazinul Haţeg). Studii cercetări de geologie, geofizică geografie, Geologie 12, 471-476.
  • Nopcsa, F., 1897. Vorläufiger Bericht über das Auftreten von oberer Kreide im Hátszeger Thale in Siebenbürgen. Verhandlungen der Kaiserlich-Könighlichen Akademie des Wissenschaften, pp. 273-274.
  • Nopcsa, F., 1900. Dinosaurierreste aus Siebenbürgen I. Schädel von Limnosaurus transsylvanicus nov. gen. et nov. spec. Denkschriften der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Klasse 68, 555-591.
  • Nopcsa, F., 1902. Dinosaurierreste aus Siebenbürgen II. (Schädelreste von Mochlodon). Mit einem Anhange: zur Phylogenie der Ornithopodiden. Denkschriften der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Klasse 72, 149-175.
  • Nopcsa, F., 1904. Dinosaurierreste aus Siebenbürgen III.Weitere Schädelreste vonMochlodon. Denkschriften der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftliche Klasse 74, 229-263.
  • Nopcsa, F., 1928. Dinosaurierreste aus Siebenbürgen IV. Wirbelsaule von Rhabdodon und Orthomerus. Palaeontologia Hungarica 1, 273-304.
  • Nopcsa, F., 1929. Dinosaurierreste aus Siebenbürgen V. Geologica Hungarica, Ser. Palaeontologica 4, 1-76.
  • Nopcsa, F., 1914a. Die Lebensbedingungen der obercretacischen Dinosaurier Siebenbürgens. Centralbaltt für Mineralogie, Geologie, und Paläontologie 1914, 564-574.
  • Nopcsa, F., 1914b. Über das Vorkommen der Dinosaurier in Siebenbürgen. Verhandlungen der zoologische-botanischen Gesellschaft, Wien 54, 12-14.

Authored by Tom Baird and Richard Conium

Dicynodon Illustration courtesy of John Sibbick.
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