The Bone Wars

24 Apr

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the field of paleontology exploded. In some cases this may have not been a metaphor. Meet Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope. Between them they discovered over 140 different dinosaur species and disgraced their profession.

Othniel Marsh (left) and Edward Cope (right)

Both men approached the burgeoning field of paleontology with a verve that bordered on the unreal. At first the two men started as amiable colleagues and friends at the University of Berlin, although their personalities were total opposites of each other. Cope was hotheaded and boisterous while Marsh tended towards introversion and introspection. Both were quarrelsome and known to bear grudges. Even so, a relationship of mutual respect flowed between them to such an extent that they named species after each other.

However, such dichotomous personalities were bound to bring trouble. Relations truly soured after Cope accidentally reconstructed his Elasmosaurus skeleton with the head on the wrong end. Marsh took the opportunity to mock Cope mercilessly, buoying his own reputation.

Taken from

Diplodocus Leg, 1898

Their true competition in the West started in 1877 after railroad workers unearthed fossils near Como Bluff, Wyoming. It seemed that The Great American Desert had not always been a desert. The grounds of Wyoming, Nebraska, and Utah were rich in an array of ancient reptiles and dinosaurs.

Both men were quickly sent out to work the fossil beds. Marsh was backed by the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University; Cope worked for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. While a history of petty crimes and bribery existed between the two beforehand, all their problems were exacerbated in the West.

For the next twenty years the two men would try to out do one another, relying not only on bribery and deception, but also on the teams of mercenary prospectors who, keen to the rivalry between the two, would sell their finds to the highest bidder. Relations got so bad that the two men resorted to outright theft, the destruction of fossils, and physically assaulting the other one’s men. There are even stories of the two using dynamite to attack each others sites (although this may have been exaggerated). As rare and as valuable as these finds were, their reputations were more important.

Ultimately, Marsh found more fossils, ‘winning’ the Bone Wars. It boiled down to money. Marsh simply had deeper pockets that Cope, allowing him to hire more men, work on larger digs, and spend more time publishing papers. However, his success was not to last. Cope would get one final laugh though, as he publicly destroyed Marsh’ reputation, listing all his misdeeds, errors, and irresponsibility to circulating newspapers. Both men would end their lives destitute and discredited within the scientific community.

The Bone Wars are responsible for nearly 150 species, including some of the most recognizable dinosaurs ever. Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Triceratops. All of these were the result of two men. However, the stain they left on the field of American paleontology was deep and lasted well after their deaths. It took a long time for American research to be respected again in the scientific community and in their haste Marsh and Cope often assembled fossils incorrectly. Not to mention the unknown number of specimens destroyed.

In a field where a single tooth can define an entire species, the destruction and disregard with which these two men acted is unforgivable, no matter their contributions.

(Sources: Wyoming Tales and Trails,, Wikipedia)

Leave a comment

Posted by on April 24, 2011 in Biography, Natural History


Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: