Bone wars chronicles race between palaeontologists

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It’s known as the Great Dinosaur Rush, the frenzied, 15-year race between two egotistical palaeontologists to discover, dig and name dinosaurs from Wyoming and surrounding states. You could say it started with a single mistake.

William Reed leans against a large dinosaur leg in the University of Wyoming Geological Museum [Credit: Billings Gazette]

It was a big mistake, sure. But everyone was making them in those early days of American science. 

And, true, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh would almost certainly have found other excuses to bicker and spy and blow up bones rather than allow the other to catch a glimpse of their latest finds.

But the rivals didn’t need another reason. Copes’ misplaced skull was the bone that broke the pleiosaur’s back.

In 1863, the word “dinosaur” was just 30 years old. In America, science was considered a pursuit for those with time to kill or money to burn. Cope and Marsh started out friendly, two pioneers in a brand new field.

They met in Berlin where Marsh, 32, was studying and Cope, 23, was touring. (Then, Europe was the natural science mecca. Cope arrived to see museums, meet scientists and escape from girl trouble and the Civil War.)

After the meeting, Cope and Marsh exchanged letters, fossils and “kind regards.” They named fossilized amphibians and serpents after one another, says author Mark Jaffe in “The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science.”

In 1869, a plesiosaur arrived at Cope’s office. He assembled the bones and presented his findings to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia: The specimen’s tail was longer than other plesiosauruses while its neck was shorter, Cope reported. He named it Elasmosaurus platypus and, after more than a year, showed his project to Marsh.

It was, Marsh would say years later, “like Barnum’s famous woolly horse, the head was where its tail should be.” Marsh pointed out the mistake — gently he claimed.

Cope, deeply embarrassed, disagreed. It was the beginning of the end for amicable pretense. By 1872, they were full-fledged enemies.

“They hated each other so much, but out of that conflict came a huge boon to science,” said Tom Rea of Casper, author of “Bone Wars: The Excavation and Celebrity of Andrew Carnegie’s Dinosaur.”

And when reports of big fossilized bones came from Kansas, Nebraska and other states, the two palaeontologists set their sights westward.

The race to publish resulted in the discovery of some 1,600 species of previously unknown extinct vertebrates — mammals, reptiles and dinosaurs. But it made for sometimes sloppy science.

Once, at Bridger Basin near Green River, Cope reportedly spied on a Marsh dig, then snuck in to examine the site. Cope found a skull and teeth of a new animal and described it in papers.

The problem was Marsh had left the skull on purpose, alongside teeth from another animal altogether. Cope fell for the trick and his mistake wasn’t corrected for 20 more years.

Cope and Marsh paid for summer exhibitions for the next 15 years, spending the winters describing what had been found. Mule-drawn wagons and train cars shipped tons of fossils east. Men spied on the other camps, sabotaged quarries, destroyed fossils they couldn’t collect and the two teams even resorted to throwing rocks at one another when their digs got too close.

When the dust cleared, other Eastern museums had arrived at Como Bluff and Cope and Marsh were on their way to being broke. Some of the bones their teams collected weren’t examined until years later, including an almost complete Allosaurus not unpacked until after Cope’s death.

“It really divided the natural sciences for a long time. Either you were a Cope man or you were a Marsh man,” Rea said.

“It was also a great window into the changing nature of the natural sciences at that time.”

Before Marsh and Cope, there were nine named North American dinosaur species. After, Marsh had named 80 new species and Cope 56.

More importantly, the dinosaurs they found would be written about, mounted and drawn for books and movies. The public had fallen in love with the “terrible lizards,” a love affair that continues today.

So why all the fuss? Why do creatures like Diplodocus and Triceratops still inspire imagination as they did 100 years ago?

“Well, they are big, but they are dead. If you are a kid, that’s a delightful combination,” Rea said.

“They aren’t going to eat you.” 

Author: Kristy Gray | Source: Billings Gazette [July 18, 2011]

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