In the last third of the 19th century, a war began. Echoes of that war continue to reverberate today — “The Bone Wars.” There was an explosion in interest in fossils in the mid-1800s. Scientists were finding them so fast they wouldn’t do their own research.
Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1894) (Right) a professor at Yale became fascinated with fossils. He had a reputation as an “armchair paleontologist,” too busy to work in the field, who owed his high standing not to genius, but to luck and to his family’s money. However, his research led to the identification of 80 new species of dinosaur over his lifetime.
Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) (Left) distinguished himself as a child prodigy interested in science; he published his first scientific paper at the age of nineteen. In total he discovered and described over 1,000 species of fossil vertebrates, including 56 new dinosaur species. In total he discovered and described over 1,000 species of fossil vertebrates and published 600 separate titles.
As it turned out, Marsh and Cope had egos larger than the dinosaurs they were identifying. In 1877, Railroad workers discovered large bones near Como Bluff, Wyoming and notified Professor Marsh.
The Bone Cabin Quarry at Como Bluff took its name from the fact that a cabin belonging to a local trapper was made of dinosaur bones. In one year alone, some 30 tons of dinosaur bones consisting of some 141 individual critters were removed from the quarry.
Como Bluff became known as the Dinosaur Graveyard.
In the race to control these finds, Marsh and Cope, once friends, became bitter rivels. Marsh began bribing Cope’s workers to send him, Marsh, new fossils from Cope’s fossil pits. Marsh using the military to provide protection from Indians and he interfered with Cope’s ability to obtain accommodations or assistants at Fort Bridger. Cope had to sleep in the Fort’s hay yard.
If you can see it, Marsh’s name is on the bottom of this picture of the Brontosaurus. He was the first to identify that species. He also identified the Triceratops and the Stegasaurus. Marsh was wealthy and had a paleontology department created at Yale at his family’s expense, on the condition he was put in charge of the department. He spent four short seasons doing field research.
The second picture is a plesiosaur, one of over 1000 species (most neither dinosaur, nor extinct, but to that time unstudied) identified by Cope.
Cope spent 22 years in the field and, though he lacked the social position and formal scientific education of Marsh his work was more groundbreaking.
In their rivalry, Cope once had a train load of Marsh’s fossils diverted to Philadelphia. Marsh salted Cope’s digs with odd pieces of bone fragments unrelated to the fossils from the period in question. In 1879, Cope showed up at the Como Bluff accusing Marsh of “trespassing” and stealing his fossils. Marsh directed that the dinosaur pits be dynamited rather than allow fossils to fall into the “wrong hands.”
Because they were racing each other, they often based descriptions of new species on sparse material, and sometimes mixed up bones from different animals, or gave different names to the same animal. Despite such shenanigans, the feud between Marsh and Cope benefitted paleontology immensely. When Marsh and Cope began to work, only eighteen dinosaur species were known from North America — many only known from isolated teeth or vertebrae. Between them, the two men described over 130 species of dinosaurs.
The animosity became public in January 1890. Cope had gathered numerous fossils, spending some $80,000.00 in his own funds on the effort. The federal government required that the fossils be turned over to the government. Cope blamed Marsh who had been successful in obtaining the upper hand with the Geological Survey. In the New York Herald Cope accused Marsh of stealing work from other paleontologists. The following week, Marsh claimed that Cope had committed “a series of blunders, which are without parallel in the annals of science.” Marsh indicated that he doubted Cope’s sanity. The end result of the Bone Wars was that each exhausted their respective fortunes. Cope had to sell part of his collections. Marsh had to mortgage his house. Today, Cope is regarded as careless. Marsh has been accused of taking credit for the work of his students. But when you get beyond the personal conflict of the Bone Wars, you find two men who discovered and documented a whole lotta dinosaurs.
And yes, there may be some fossils in an upcoming book. That’ll be fun. There is a really cool museum in Lincoln, NE with Mammoth skeletons and huge rhinos, all found in America. I got to see it once of twice as a kid and was really entranced by it. Anyone done any studies of skeletons or dinosaurs? Did you read Danny and the Dinosaur when you were a kid? Any Flintstones fans? Jurassic Park? Why do you think dinosaurs are so fun? 🙂