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Bone Wars: The Notorious Battle for Dinosaur Bones

There have been many feuds throughout history. The space race, for example, the intense rivalry between the U.S. and Russia on spaceflight capacities. Paleontology also has its own historical feud, one that has advanced the study of fossils but also almost tarnished the reputation of paleontology. The rivalry between two scientists, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Why did these two have such a bone to pick with each other? When did this war begin? And what impact did they make for paleontology? Here with more information on this historical feud is Perspectoverse’s Su’ad Shasmeen.

Marsh and Cope’s feud is known as the "Bone Wars" or “the Great Dinosaur Rush” which lasted from the 1870s until the 1890s. Marsh wasn’t very wealthy but did have a wealthy uncle who helped him get into Yale. He also studied paleontology in Germany. Cope was born into a wealthy quaker family, Cope became a zoology professor at Haverford College and went on an expedition with Ferdinand Hayden. Marsh and Cope competed to discover the prehistoric bones of dinosaurs, but how exactly did their feud start? Initially, they were friendly with each other. In 1864, they met in Berlin and eventually even named species after each other like the “Ptyonius marshii” and “Mosasaurus copeanus”. However things took a turn and their friendly relationship didn’t last very long.

How it all started

The start of this notorious feud began in 1868, Cope was reconstructing an unusual fossil that had been given to him from Kansas by a military doctor. He named the creature “Elasmosaurus''. He positioned its skull at the end of its short tail rather than its lengthy neck. As the tale goes, Marsh had publicly ridiculed Cope for this error which prompted Cope to try to buy and destroy every copy of the journals in which they had published his mistake. Before this incident, Cope took Marsh to a fossil-collecting expedition in a pit near his home in New Jersey, where one of the earliest finds of a dinosaur skeleton had been discovered, the Hadrosaurus, named by Joseph Leidy, a mentor for both men. Marsh saw that many bones were recovered from the pit and bribed the workers to send any fossils they discovered to him rather than Cope. Cope found out and thus the battle began.

During the battle

Both began searching the American west for fossils. They found significant discoveries like how Marsh discovered an ancient bird with teeth. Cope made some good discoveries but Marsh had invalidated many of them. Two Union Pacific Railroad workers informed Marsh of their fossil discoveries in Como Bluff, Wyoming, and implied that if Marsh didn't give them favourable incentives, they may negotiate a deal with Cope instead so in 1878 Marsh purchased a quarry in Como Bluff. He found a lot of fossils including a skeleton of a dinosaur that Marsh named “Brontosaurus”. Over the next decade, Marsh’s men sent him approximately 480 boxes of the bones of prehistoric beasts from Como Bluff. Marsh's assistants would occasionally destroy fossils in order to prevent Cope from recovering them.

Cope and Marsh would blow up their own dig sites with dynamite just so the other wouldn’t have any potential missed fossils fall into their hands. They also contributed to this feud by sending agents to search for fossils in secret. Such shenanigans went on for several years as they damaged undiscovered fossils and fossil locations, spied on one another, bribed employees, and stole bones.

How it all ends

Going by the numbers, it may seem like Marsh has “won” this war as Marsh discovered more species than Cope, he discovered 80 species and Cope discovered 56. However, Cope did get an opportunity to get his revenge. Marsh was named lead paleontologist in the US Geologist Survey and an investigation went down by Congress, Cope got some of Marsh’s employees to testify against Marsh. Cope published an incriminating record of all the felonies and misdeeds done by Marsh. In the end, neither side “won”. Marsh was asked to leave his position at the Geological Survey. Cope was unhealthy and had to sell some of his fossils after a short moment of success when he was nominated chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Science. Cope took this battle to the grave as his last wish was to donate his skull to science so he could prove his brain was heavier and larger than his rival but Marsh did not do the same.

Together they found more than 130 species but their rush to beat each other caused their findings to be less accurate and only a few of them are considered valid today. For example, it was discovered that Marsh had put a skull in the wrong body, he put a Camarasurus skull on a Brontosaurus similar to the Elasmosaurus incident that started the bone wars to begin with. Despite this, both of them have made significant discoveries, but many people feel that if they had collaborated rather than competed, they would have discovered far more.

Written by Su'ad Shasmeen

Illustrated by Anushka Doshi





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