The Bone Wars


May 1, 2008

Near Rocky’s home is a formation that played host to one of the biggest battles of the Bone Wars.

Prologue: Recent Carved In Stone articles have described the life of Rocky, a 1.8-billion-year-old rock from Morrison, Colo. Looking east from the quarry where I found Rocky, I can see the outcropping of rocks named the Morrison Formation, host to one of the biggest battles of the Bone Wars.

Recently, my wife, Pam, and I were watching our grandkids at the park digging up some “dinosaur bones” buried in the sand. The play ultimately turned into a sand fight. Such is the way of siblings — and two pre-eminent paleontologists of their time — Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) and Othniel Charles Marsh (circa 1832-1899).

Cope, at age 18, wrote the first of approximately 1,400 scientific papers he would publish in his lifetime. He briefly attended the University of Pennsylvania, and studied abroad, but was largely a scientist by self-study.

Marsh, at age 21, inherited a dowry that his uncle provided for Marsh’s mother. His uncle also financed Marsh’s education at Yale College and awarded money to Yale for the Peabody Museum of Natural Sciences, which Marsh would manage.

Cope and Marsh met in 1863 while attending Berlin University. Cope became a professor at Haverford College in 1864; Marsh was made Professor of Paleontology at Yale in 1866. Cope left Haverford in 1867 to study fossils in the marl pits at Haddonfield, N.J., where the first American dinosaur had been unearthed. Cope and Marsh spent a week together exploring the fossils, and, unbeknownst to Cope, Marsh made a deal with the workers to sell any new fossils to him instead of Cope. This devious behavior typified their relationship.

The race to discover new dinosaur species began in 1870 when Marsh embarked on an expedition to the American West; Cope set out in 1871. They soon began exchanging heated letters.

New fossil localities were discovered; new battles erupted. In 1877, Professor Arthur Lakes from the Colorado School of Mines unknowingly stirred the pot when he wrote to Marsh about fossil bones he discovered in Morrison, Colo., (near Rocky’s home). Marsh did not reply, so Lakes sent some of the fossils to Cope. Learning what Lakes had done, Marsh sent $100 to Lakes who, in turn, asked Cope to send the bones on to his rival.

Marsh began collecting fossil bones discovered by railroad workers near Como Bluff, Wyo. Cope accused Marsh of trespassing and stealing fossils. Marsh had fossils destroyed rather than fall into Cope’s hands. Cope bought controlling interest in the journal, American Naturalist, so he could speed his articles into publication. Marsh salted Cope’s digs with bone fragments unrelated to the local fossils. Cope rerouted a trainload of Marsh’s fossils. Marsh used his influence to prevent Cope from obtaining accommodations at army forts. These are but a few examples of their many conflicts.

Their mutual loathing became public in January 1890 when the two combatants aired their differences in the New York Herald. Cope accused Marsh of stealing fossils and plagiarism. Marsh shot back that in 1869 Cope had erroneously placed the head on the tail end of an elasmosaurus skeleton. Ironically, Marsh had discretely pointed this out to Cope at that time, sparking the feud that lasted their lifetime.

Epilogue: The Bone Wars ended in 1897 with Cope’s death, but not before both had exhausted their fortunes. Prior to 1870, nine species of North American dinosaurs had been classified. Between 1870 and 1897, Cope and Marsh classified 136 new species, much of the time behaving like a couple of kids.

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