Episode 58 – The Bone Wars

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For three decades at the end of the 1800s, two prominent paleontologists waged a war across North America. They discovered hundreds of fossil species from dozens of sites as they competed for the biggest discoveries and wrote lengthy criticisms of each other’s work. In the process, they laid the foundations of American paleontology and generated the nastiest and most infamous feud in the history of the field: the Bone Wars.

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Cope and Marsh

It was the late 1800s. Paleontology was still a new field of science and mostly limited to Europe. The word “dinosaur” had just recently been coined in 1842, and Charles Darwin had just introduced the world to the grand idea of evolution by natural selection. This was the world that witnessed the Bone Wars.

Edward Drinker Cope was born in Philadelphia in 1840 and would go on to publish over a thousand scientific papers, in the process describing dinosaurs, ancient mammals, and many, many fish, amphibians, and reptiles.

Othniel Charles Marsh was born in Lockport, NY in 1831 and armed with the support of his wealthy Uncle George Peabody became a celebrated professor and researcher of ancient birds, mammals, dinosaurs, and more.

Marsh (left) and Cope (right) in the late 1800s. Images in the public domain.

The two men first met while abroad in Germany and got along just fine. But by the start of the 1870s circumstances had brought them into conflict more than once. A rivalry had been born, and the Bone Wars began.

For the better part of three decades, the two men fought each other in a contest of discovery and publication of fossils. Each wanted the honor of discovering, describing, and naming the most ancient species and was willing to go to preposterous lengths to win the competition.

The Bone Wars

These days, the most famous stories of the Bone Wars come from the field. Cope and Marsh hired men to travel around the West and find fossils for them, and these teams carried the men’s rivalry wherever they went. They reportedly got into disputes, stole fossils from each other, and even reburied or destroyed fossils to prevent their rivals from getting hold of them. They discovered hundreds of incredible fossils in the process, and lost countless more.

Left: A sketch by Arthur Lakes of a Bone Wars-era expedition at the famous Como Bluff dinosaur site in Wyoming. Right: A photo of Como Bluff today, by Anky-man. Photos from Wikimedia Commons.

But these were also wars of words. Cope and Marsh fought each other in the scientific literature, they demeaned each other in conversation with other scientists, and they very famously fought in the press. In January, 1890, for two weeks, the New York Herald featured a series of letters and comments by Cope and Marsh and their colleagues. These featured some of their nastiest and most juvenile attacks, accusations of thievery, plagiarism, lying, and incompetence. Before this, the Bone Wars were limited to scientific circles, but the Herald brought them into the public eye.

Despite their quarreling, both men were undoubtedly successful. They achieved many honors, held important positions, and introduced the world to many of the most famous of ancient creatures, including Triceratops, Coelophysis, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Lystrosaurus, Elasmosaurus, and many more.

Two paintings by Charles R. Knight during the Bone Wars era. Left: Brontosaurus, discovered by Marsh (later re-named Apatosaurus). Right: Laelaps, discovered by Cope (later re-named Dryptosaurus). Images in the public domain.

On the other hand, their chaotic publishing created confusion for later scientists to clear up, their irresponsible excavations ruined untold numbers of fossils, and their ridiculous behavior cast more than a bit of a shadow over early American paleontology.

The Bone Wars make for an endless series of thrilling tales, but with any luck we’ll never see anything like it again.

So much more.

Much of the information for this episode came from The Bonehunters’ Revenge by David Rains Wallace.

There are a bunch of detailed write-ups of the Bone Wars online. Here are one, two, three of them.

If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:

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3 thoughts on “Episode 58 – The Bone Wars

  1. Ed Culver April 16, 2019 / 8:07 pm

    The Peabody Museum is scheduled to close for reconstruction starting in 2020. One of the issues that they’re having* is that the Age of Reptiles mural can’t be moved, so they have to do everything in the Hall of Reptiles without endangering the mural.

    *I teach physics in Connecticut; I heard this from David Heiser, the Peabody Museum’s Director of Student Programs, at a Connecticut Science Teachers’ Association event.


    • commondescentpc April 19, 2019 / 3:22 pm

      Oh, interesting. Not surprising. That mural is an incredible piece. We’ll be interested to see what the museum looks like afterward!


      • Ed C May 22, 2019 / 7:07 pm

        I’m looking forward to their renovation. I love the Yale Peabody, but outside of their Hall of Dinosaurs, it’s pretty cramped. I also suspect some fraction of the fossil exhibits and dioramas are also outdated, in that they’ve been unchanged for several decades.


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