The Bone Wars

Those studying palaeontology, geology, or any science for that matter, will sometimes find that others in their fields (or relating fields) don’t actually care for science and that they just care about whether or not their name is on the cover of the Scientific American or the National Geographic magazine.

There are many people these days who do care for the actual science, those who are actually in the pursuit of knowledge; but there are almost as many scientists out there who want nothing but credit – and tenure at whichever museum or university they work at.

If you’re reading this particular post, you probably know where this whole thing really started: it started with two palaeontologists, scientists in the pursuit of knowledge.

Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh.

Between the two of them, they were the most prolific palaeontologists the world has ever seen, more so than Robert T. Bakker and John “Jack” Horner are today. Cope and Marsh worked together on several occasions, even naming species after one another, but they had opposite personalities, so much so that they couldn’t stand one another. Cope had a short temper, Marsh was slow, methodical and introverted. Cope supported Neo-Lamarckism while Marsh was a firm believer in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.

The famous Bone Wars (also known as the Great Dinosaur Rush) started when they had a disagreement over a mounted plesiosaur skeleton, Cope had mounted the head on the tip of the tail (and had thus mounted the fins, shoulder-blades and hips backwards and in the wrong places as well). Marsh corrected him and so the war started.

Each trying to discover, study and name more prehistoric species than the other. They even went as far as convincing their respective students to join their individual causes, interrupting one another’s lectures and causing trouble for one another at every opportunity. Going as far as bribery, theft and even destruction of fossils.

Their war further fueled by the fact that they worked at different institutions; Marsh at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale and Cope at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

During their war, the two used their own finances and influence to procure fossils, fossil sites and the services of fossil hunters, each attempting to bring the other down, even attacking one another in scientific papers. By the end of their fifteen-year war, they had financially ruined themselves.

The Bone Wars started in 1877 and ended in 1892, and between the two scientists, it yielded over 142 new species (of which only 32 are valid, both men had mistakenly misidentified plenty of their finds).

At the end of the day, neither man actually cared for credit, and they certainly didn’t care for science during their rivalry, each just wanted to outdo the other. Sure, right now we can look back and say their rivalry hurtled palaeontology forward, but at the time, it was nasty business; and palaeontology can still get pretty sticky from time to time today as well.


This was the Bone Wars, this has been me, and you’ve been reading Dinosaurs Made Easy.



Image credit: Pelycosaur24


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s