At the end of the 19th century, few had heard the word dinosaur. It was Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, the paleontologists, who changed that. By the way, they had the worst argument in the history of paleontology. So much so that it was called the “War of the Bones”. More than 120 new species of dinosaurs have been discovered in just three decades.
Historian Tracey Logan tells it. In the beginning, Cope and Marsh were friends and co-workers. Cope invited Marsh to visit his newest project: a fossil dig in New Jersey. Marsh bribed the quarry owner to send him the best samples. In 1876 he made an important discovery that was actually Cope’s job.
The start of the rivalry
“Marsh fired the first shot of the War of the Bones,” says Logan. “And it sparked a duel that would last 30 years.” It is believed that Marsh did not trust the skills of his colleague, whom he considered an amateur. But maybe he was just jealous professionally.
The academic duel between Marsh and Cope was fought against the American old west. The expansion continued westward. And also the collection of fossils in places like Texas, Colorado and Wyoming. Due to the bandits and the conflict with the indigenous people, this was an extremely risky task. And in between, the battle between Marsh and Cope reached wild levels. There were rumors of fights with stones, quarries being blown up to prevent the others from accessing them.
Both scientists spent a lot of time and money attacking the other. They discredited his scientific work in order to ruin his rival’s credibility. They used all kinds of methods to try and leave each other without funding their projects. Including sabotage and corruption.
Cope used money from his wealthy Quaker family to fund his amazing job ad. Marsh was assisted by his wealthy uncle George Peabody, who founded the Yale Museum of Natural History.
Failure in the race
This rush to hoard discoveries resulted in notable mistakes. Marsh announced in June 1877 that he had discovered a giant new dinosaur. He named it Titanosaurus without realizing that the name was already taken. He later renamed it Atlantosaurus.
However, between the two, they discovered many new species. Diplodocus, Triceratops and Stegosaurus were found by Marsh. And the Camarasaurus was discovered by Cope.
Despite his fortune, Marsh suffered a major setback with his most famous discovery: the brontosaurus. In 1877, Marsh discovered the remains of one of the largest animals that ever existed on earth. He named it Apatosaurus and it was the world’s first large sauropod. Two years later, he discovered another family of giant dinosaurs that he named brontosaurs. He said they were different types. In 1903 another skeleton was found similar to that of the Apatosaurus and the Brontosaurus. The scientists confirmed that both species actually belonged to the same family.
So the iconic Brontosaurus lost its name and was renamed Apatosaurus excelsus. But popular culture never stopped using the name Brontosaurus. it doesn’t end there. In 2015, a careful study was carried out by scientists from the New University of Lisbon in Portugal. They found that Marsh was right. The Brontosaurus was again recognized as a different species from the Apatosaurus.
It wasn’t the head
Much later, another bug was fixed. Marsh found the remains of the Brontosaurus mixed with fossils of a Camarasaurus. He accidentally placed the skull of a Camarosaur on the Brontosaurus skeleton. This error was not noticed and corrected until the 1970s. Marsh would have rolled in his grave if he had known.
While Marsh won the “war of the bones” in relation to dinosaurs, Cope had the greatest impact on evolutionary biology in general. His numerous studies laid the foundation for modern paleontology. So let’s say it was a technical tie.