Great Dinosaur Rush- The bone war

bone war

When we talk about science, especially paleontology, the great dinosaurs rush ‘the bone wars’ cannot be missed to explore the deepest secret of the pre-historic life on earth.  Just like every field has its own superstar, like Einstein in Physics or Srinivasa Ramanujan in mathematics, similarly, paleontology has Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, the two great minds who led to the discovery of more than 100 dinosaur species.

The story of these fossil hunters is full of enmity, gabbling, hatred, and distrust. Though being considered some of the greatest minds of the 19th century, both were in rush to prove themselves better than the other. Yet their everlasting enmity started with the dose of friendship, a bond that soon turned sour and bitter. What’s the whole story? Let’s check that out!

The Bone War

The bone war was a period of ruthless fossil hunting and rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Both of them used underhanded methods to try to undo each other’s glory and fame. Edward Drinker Cope was an American paleontologist, comparative anatomist, herpetologist, and ichthyologist whereas Othniel Charles Marsh was a professor of Paleontology at Yale College and President of the National Academy of Sciences. They both had a keen interest in fossil hunting. Cole comes from a wealthy family, and Marsh was born poor but inherited his uncle’s (philanthropist George Peabody) fortune.

The duo first met in Berlin in 1864 and shared a great bond. They even named species after each other. Cope named Colosteus marshii for Marsh in 1867, and Marsh returned the favor, naming Mosasaurus copeanus for Cope in 1869. But with time their relationship soured as Cope was a quick-tempered person while Marsh is remembered as methodical. Both strongly disagreed with each other works, but that was just a part of their thought until Cope invited Marsh to New Jersey (1868) for fossil hunting. There they have found a holotype specimen of Hadrosaurus foulkii, the first American Dinosaur finds. It was when Marsh bribed the miners to supply all their findings to him instead of Cole, Cole was infuriated and this marks the starting of the 15 years long ‘Bone War’. In one of the incidents, Marsh humiliated Cole by stating that his construction of plesiosaur Elasmosaurus was flawed, as he had marked the tail as the neck and the neck as its tail. Cole desperately bought all the journals conducting his research and destroys them to avoid any further defamation.

bone war

But this was just the beginning; soon both of them started using cheap tactics pointing out each other’s flaws. When Cope was given a position in U.S. Geological Survey, he readily accepted it. The job doesn’t pay any salary yet a great opportunity to collect fossil fuels in the West. They both even used their personal fortune to fund their future expenditure.

Things became further spoiled when Marsh send secret agents to Cope’s expenditure in order to extract secret information and supplying the fossil findings to him instead. They both made great discoveries of pre-historic creatures such as reptiles and mammals in the West. They both were so competitive that they rushed to name their discoveries even knowing the fact that many of their discoveries had already been discovered. They named Uintatherium, Loxolophodon, Eobasileus, Dinoceras, and Tinoceras. In turn, Marsh’s few names were valid while Cope’s none. Humiliated Cope as an act of revenge marked Marsh’s genera of Eocene mammals incorrect. Marsh didn’t accept and kept on claiming Cope’s remark as incorrect. They both claim to identify more than 125 new species but less than today 40 of their discoveries are considered valid.

The duo hired several fossil hustlers and armed thugs to steal their rival’s discoveries. Marsh had more money to burn than Cope and so he even started bribing the contractors into supplying him the new fossils. These spies would steal fossils and even destroy them in an attempt to mislead the opponent. In an attempt to claim all of Cope’s findings, in the 1880s when Marsh become the head of the US geological survey, he proposed a law that any fossil discovered through government funding will automatically belong to him. Though Cope was a good record keeper and had receipt of every fossil he bought on his own funds. In turn, Cope blew up many of Marsh’s illegal stealing and gambling of fossils which ultimately resulted in Marsh’s push to resign from the position. This was the extreme of their rivalry to outdo each other.

Marsh’s final expenditure was back in Yale in 1873, this proved to be his last as he had lost all his fortune in the previous expenditures. For the remaining years, Marsh relied on private contractors despite having enough fossils to study for the rest of his life. While Cope found a paying job with the Army Corps of Engineers as he too had lost everything he had to his research. Still desperate to compete, in 1873, Cope bought the editors of the scientific journal The American Naturalist for his personal publication. However, the journal soon refused to play any more roles in the contest. 

 bone war

The Result of Bone war

Decades of theft, gambling, and distrust resulted in the defeat of both men. They exhausted their time, mind, and even fortune just to satisfy their personal grudge. Surrounded by fossils for all their life resulted in great discoveries of Triceratops, Brontosaurus, and Ceratosaurus but this didn’t satisfy their thirst to outdo each other. Both of them made immense scientific discoveries, while Cope discovered a total of 56 new dinosaur species, Marsh on the other hand discovered 80 in total. This was the reason why many believe that the Bone war was won by Marsh. Before their feud, there were only 9 discovered species in North America, thanks to the war that the world was introduced to Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Camarasaurus, and Coelophysis.

But this isn’t ‘The End’! In fact, Cope decided on taking the war even to his afterlife. Surrounded by fossils, when he died in 1897, he donated his brain to the Anthropometric Society for an autopsy. He set his final challenge for the rival by doing this, as during those days it was considered that grey matter of the brain defines a person’s intelligence. His nemesis though never accepted the challenge. In the end, it can be concluded that the great dinosaur rush ‘The Bone War’ completely changed the course of Paleontology and introduced the world to the new possibilities of discoveries beneath the depth of the earth.


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