Bone Wars: The Great Dinosaur RushMarch 1 , 2018
The discovery of dinosaurs in the latter half of the 19th Century coincided with the westward expansion of the United States, allowing for the unearthing of many new species of prehistoric creatures. These ancient bones were such a hot commodity that two men raced to uncover the most fossils as fast as they could, often engaging in espionage and sabotage in order to win. This is the story of those two men and their contributions to the field of paleontology. To learn more, try reading "The Bonehunters' Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age."
When Was The First Dinosaur Discovered?
Though giant bones were reported as early as the late 1600s, it wasn't until 1858 when William Parker Foulke found the first complete fossil skeleton in Haddonfield, New Jersey. This creature, the Hadrosaurus foulkii, was proof that dinosaurs had actually existed, and its discovery kicked off a mad search around the globe for more fossils of these gigantic creatures.
The Feud That Rocked U.S. Paleontology
Michael Crichton's Lost Novel
In 2017, HarperCollins posthumously published "Dragon Teeth," a novel written by Michael Crichton but never released during the author's lifetime. It follows the story of William Johnson, a Yale paleontology student who gets involved in the Bone Wars between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Though the novel is a work of fiction that takes fantastical turns, it has a historical basis in fact, and the underhanded rivalry between Cope and Marsh provides fertile ground for storytelling.
Did The Brontosaurus Exist?
Fans of movies like "Jurassic World" or "The Land Before Time" probably remember learning a bit about dinosaurs in school. You may even know the names of a few of the creatures whose fossils delight attendees at museums all over the world. What you may not know is that many of these species were discovered in America, and many of those discoveries are due to a rivalry between two men.
As early as the 17th Century, there were reports of people finding bones that they believed had belonged to giant men. In the 1800s, findings of giant teeth led to the idea that large lizards or birds had roamed the Earth, and in 1841, Richard Owen coined the term "Dinosauria," meaning "terrible lizards."
In 1858, a complete skeleton of a Hadrosaurus was found in New Jersey, proving that dinosaurs had in fact existed. Because large parts of America still contained vast wilderness, it became a fertile ground in the hunt for more fossils of these humongous creatures.
This strange historical occurrence involves two men from different backgrounds. Edward Drinker Cope came from a wealthy Quaker family in Philadelphia. He was a lecturer at Haverford College and a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences. Othniel Charles Marsh came from a poor New York family, but his uncle was George Peabody, co-founder of J.P. Morgan. Marsh convinced his uncle to found the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and to make him head of the institution.
The two started out as friends when they met in Berlin in 1864, despite their differing personalities. Cope was known for being combative, while Marsh was quieter. They also had differing philosophies, with Cope a Neo-Lamarckist, a popular theory of the day, and Marsh an adherent of Charles Darwin's theories on natural selection.
Marsh accompanied Cope on a fossil-collecting expedition to New Jersey, where the Hadrosaurus had first been discovered. Without Cope's knowledge, Marsh bribed the pit workers to send any new fossils to him instead of Cope. When he found out about this, Cope was enraged, and the two attacked each other publicly through newspapers.
In 1868, Cope reconstructed a fossil sent to him from Kansas by a military doctor. He named it Elasmosaurus and reconstructed the skeleton, but made an error by placing the skull at the end of the tail instead of the neck, an easy mistake to make with so little knowledge to go on. Marsh humiliated Cope by pointing out the error in public. Cope tried to buy every copy of the scientific journal in which he had published his incorrect reconstruction and destroy them. This incident cemented their rivalry, which continued for the next three decades.
In the 1870s, westward expansion and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad brought the discovery of many new fossils. In 1877, Marsh received a letter from Colorado schoolteacher Arthur Lakes, describing bones he had found during a hiking expedition. Lakes sent sample fossils to both Marsh and Cope. Marsh paid Lakes $100 to keep his discovery a secret, and when he discovered that Cope had also been notified, dispatched an agent west to quickly secure his claim.
When word spread that Marsh and Cope were competing for fossils, railroad employees sought to enrich themselves by pitting the men against one another. They struck a rich deal with Marsh, and sent him specimens of Diplodocus, Allosaurus, and Stegosaurus. They then leaked a news story, exaggerating the prices Marsh had paid for the fossils in order to entice Cope, who had more money, to pay up.
Cope sent his own agents west, and when the price for bones was too high, he instructed his men to steal them from Marsh's dig sites. The competition between the two was so fierce that they sometimes destroyed lesser findings and filled excavation sites to keep the other from finding them. They sabotaged each other's digs and bribed men, anything to keep their rivals from finding more fossils.
Much of this was unnecessary in the long run, as each man had already found so many new fossils that they had a lifetime of work ahead of them just to study those specimens. They raced to publish findings, often laying claim to the same species, but using different names. Because he had access to his uncle's wealth and could hire more men, Marsh jumped out in front, and his nomenclature was widely adopted. He also tried to undermine Cope's findings every chance he got.
By the 1880s, it was clear Marsh was winning the bone wars. Cope saw a chance for revenge when he leaked information to the newspapers about Marsh's misdeeds and paid Marsh's employees to testify against him. The two men engaged in an ugly public battle of accusations, which ruined both their reputations. The money they spent battling each other also left both in near financial ruin.
Though they were both unnecessarily tarnished by their ugly public battle, their unquenchable desire for more fossils brought about the discovery of many new species, and created a public demand to learn more about dinosaurs. Much of what we now know about these species is due to the work of these two men. One can only wonder what we might know now had they been able to work together, but dinosaur enthusiasts can be forever grateful for their contributions to science and the study of prehistoric dinosaurs.
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