Bone Wars

(This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of I,Science and online here: http://www.isciencemag.co.uk/features/the-bone-wars/)

The story of 19th century palaeontology is one of personalities and conflicts as well as fossils. Sophie Buijsen investigates the rivalry that fuelled an unprecedented rush of discoveries.

In the ground below us lies a world that, in recent centuries, has slowly started to be uncovered. This is a world that seems almost alien to us with plants and animals that no longer exist, including the most famous of all: the dinosaurs. It was in the late 19th century that two palaeontologists started the very first ‘dinomania’, in what would later become known as the ‘Bone Wars’.

Edward Cope (1840-1897) and Othniel Marsh (1831-1899) were both wealthy and respected palaeontologists with a strong desire to find fossils. Initially on friendly terms, they even named fossils after each other. But that changed in the early 1870s, when a series of incidents developed into a fight between the most vicious fossil hunters in America.

According to Marsh, the Bone Wars started in 1870, when Cope reconstructed a dinosaur species he called Elasmosaurus. Marsh visited Cope to admire his work. Upon looking at the fossil, he suggested that the vertebrae were laid out backwards. Cope was deeply offended by this accusation and eventually Cope’s teacher Joseph Leidy gave the final verdict, proving both men wrong by simply moving the skull from one end of the spine to the other. Marsh claimed Cope never got over the humiliation of this event.
Cope however, maintained that the war started in 1872 when he accidentally hired Marsh’s crew for an expedition. Marsh was infuriated by this and bribed his men to inform him of all proceedings.

The pair never resolved their rivalry and spent nearly 15 years bribing workers, academically slating each other and even hiring so-called ‘dinosaur rustlers’ to steal fossils. Both men were held back considerably by their greed. Marsh would treat his workforce badly and thus many of his people quit to work for Cope. In turn Cope would publish hastily written work in order to be first with a new fossil. Marsh seemed to enjoy publicly pointing out Cope’s errors in these papers. But while Cope’s mistakes were plentiful, it was Marsh whose sloppiness had the most impact – in 1883, Marsh introduced the popular Brontosaurus as a new species. It was only later, in 1903, that the discovery this was in fact an Apatosaurus with a mismatched skull came to light.

In 1897 Edward Cope died and the Bone Wars ended. By this point both men had completely bankrupted themselves. However, before the Bone Wars, only seven species of dinosaur were known. By the end, a full 142 species had been recorded. With 80 species to his name, Marsh had won the war.

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