The Eastern European Dinosaur Specialist by Steve Brusatte
A Portrait of Dr. David Weishampel
by Steve Brusatte
European dinosaur species are rare! These terrible lizards are so hard to find that until 1945 only four countries boasted Late Cretaceous dinosaurs: France, Austria, Romania, and Crimea. But, this tide is quickly changing. Every year new and increasingly amazing European dinosaurs are being discovered in droves, including an amazing French carnivore resembling the raptors in Jurassic Park, an Italian theropod which was discovered with preserved internal organs, and countless fossils from Romania that are changing the way we think about Late Cretaceous life.
Dr. David Weishampel, of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, is best known for discovering, researching, and naming several of these amazing species.
David Weishampel\'s life as a paleontologist has been amazing and fascinating. As a young 7 year old growing up in Cleveland, Ohio Weishampel was eager to find dinosaurs, but was disappointed to learn that his home state boasted no dinosaur discoveries.
Instead he hunted for brachiopods, and took his hobby to Ohio State University, where he graduated with a Bachelor\'s degree, and then onto the University of Toronto, where he graduated with a Masters\' of Science diploma. From there it was on to the University of Pennsylvania, where Weishampel studied under the famed dinosaur paleontologist Peter Dodson and earned a Ph.D. in Geology. After his graduation from graduate school Weishampel received a post doctoral position in Tubingen, Germany, where he studied Plateosaurus and investigated the history of German dinosaur paleontology, especially the career of the eccentric, but professionally important Franz Baron Nopcsa.
From Germany he went onto teach at Florida International University, and then onto Johns Hopkins, where he teaches evolutionary biology and principal human gross anatomy in the medical school. During the 1980\'s Weishampel gained fame for his work with American paleontologist Jack Horner. During the later part of the decade Weishampel was involved in a field project in northwestern Montana where he collected Hadrosaur material from what he and Horner believe was a nesting area. Dr. Weishampel called this his \"first major field find,\" and from there he didn\'t look back. He later named the famous plant eating, egg laying Orodromeus with Horner, and also continued to explore the Late Cretaceous St. Mary River formation in hopes of gaining new insights into social and parenting habits of the dinosaurs.
But, despite his studies of social behavior, Weishampel\'s real specialty was the anatomy of duck billed dinosaurs. Very early in his collegiate career Weishampel presented a thesis on the evolution of jaw mechanisms in duckbills, using 3-D graphics and computer modeling to prove his point. He later suggested that duckbills and their closest of kin developed a unique jaw movement. While they chewed their jaws popped out to the sides ever so slightly, sliding their upper teeth over the foliage they were eating. While it seems odd, Weishampel explains, this jaw movement may have held an evolutionary significant role, as \"it represents one of only three ways along which transverse chewing can evolve.\" While he was still studying the function of duck bill chewing, Weishampel was also working on hadrosaur sound.
The most distinctive feature of many of the hadrosaurs, including t he famous Parasaurolophus, are their distinctive horn crests. Just what were these crests for? Using plastic tubing Weishampel constructed a model of a Parasaurolophus crest that could be played like a musical instrument. By blowing into the tubes he created, reasoned Weishampel, you would create a sound that may have been similar to the triumphant wail of the long extinct Parasaurolophus. Throughout the entire social/sound ordeal Weishampel continued his studies on the flamboyant Nopcsa and his Romanian dinosaurs. And now, a decade after his pioneering studies with Horner, Weishampel is most widely known, not only in the United States but around the world, for his current work on the Romanian dinosaur fauna.
The Romanian, or more widely known as Transylvanian, dinosaur fauna of Nopcsa and Weishampel is best described as a very odd late Cretaceous environment. Weishampel describes it as a tropical to subtropical environment with rapid streams and vast flood plain settlements. The first known Transylvanian dinosaur from this fauna was actually discovered on the Nopcsa estate, but not by the Baron, but by his sister Ilona. It was a hadrosaur, later named Telmatosaurus transsylvanicus by the Baron in 1900. Since the time of Nopcsa several other Transylvanian dinosaurs have been named, including Rhabdodon, an ornithopod, Struthiosaurus, a nodosaurid ankylosaur, and Magyarosaurus, a titanosaurid sauropod.
Weishampel believes that all of these dinosaurs, plus some turtles, crocodiliand, mammals, and pterosaurs, lived on a large island (which he has named Hateg Island) during the late Cretaceous. And, as he stated in a Dinosaur World magazine interview, \"(they were located) where they were perhaps able to see the asteroid crashing through the atmosphere!\" But, even more interesting than the possibility of seeing the infamous asteroid are the odd evolutionary features exhibited in these dinosaurs. As Don Lessem writes in Dinosaurs Rediscovered, \"since the dinosaurs of Romania were among the last of their kinds, one might expect them to be the most advanced in form. On the contrary, the Transylvanian dinosaurs.were peculiarly small and primitive and less diverse than mainland dinosaurs of the time.\"
Just why would dinosaurs living in the late Cretaceous be so primitive? Weishampel, and Nopcsa before him, believe that the fact these dinosaurs were living on an island may hold the key. Diminished body size is common on islands, as Lessem and Weishampel point out. \"Limited resources available might have favored the survival of smaller animals, and isolation may have insulated that population from the effects of competition with more advanced invading dinosaurs,\" Lessem wrote. \"Evolution on an island is a bit like going for a ride with no return ticket. You\'re stuck the way you are,\" Weishampel said.\"Dwarfing on islands is a very interesting phenomenon,\" Weishampel told Allen Debus in the Dinosaur World interview, \"plus it may be a way to evolve the complex dental batteries that hadrosaurids are famous for.
Indeed, these batteries may well be due to the retention of the dwarfed dentition into the much larger descendant species!\" The mysteries of island effects and dwarfing are so great that Weishampel plans to continue to study them, but in the meantime, he is also planning on writing two books, re-writing another, working on Asian dinosaurs, and helping on creating a giant diorama explaining his Transylvanian dinosaurs to the locals. Currently there is a diorama focusing on the Transylvanian dinosaurs located in the Muzeul Civilizatiei Dacice si Romane (Museum of Daciand and Romanian Civilization) in Deva, Romania, but it is \"rather crude and in great need or renovation.\" Weishampel and his collaborator, Coralia-Maria Jianu of the museum, are planning full sized head models and a full renovation of the diorama.
Hopefully, as Weishampel wishes, the exhibit will be completed over the next 2-3 years. Until then Weishampel, along with colleagues Peter Dodson and H. Osmolska, is planning to release a revised edition of his critically acclaimed dinosaur reference book the Dinosauria. He is also planning a full-length biography on Nopcsa, which should be available from Harvard University Press around 2002, and a large book on the Transylvanian dinosaurs, which should be available near 2001. Throughout his relatively short paleontological career (he is still in his 40\'s) David Weishampel has made several important contributions to modern paleontology.
Among them are his recreation of the sound of Parasaurolophus, his studies of duckbilled chewing habits, his work on dinosaur social and parenting behaviors with Jack Horner, and of course his work on European dinosaur faunas and the island dwarfing effect. And, he has shown no signs of slowing down. You can definitely look for more from David Weishampel in the near future, and I urge you to pick up a copy of his book on Romanian dinosaurs when it hits the shelf!