Bone Wars: The Marsh-Cope Feud and Its Dinosaur Discoveries

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Bone Wars

The feud between the two men produced some of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries of all time.

As rivalries go, there's Coke versus Pepsi, Ford versus GM, Thomas Edison versus Nikola Tesla, Bill Gates versus Steve Jobs, and Nike versus Reebok, but for sheer animosity, nothing approaches the feud between the two principals of "Bone Wars" — Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope.

Bone Wars was a period of intense fossil hunting and discovery during the years 1877 and 1982. Marsh and Cope started out at opposite ends of the spectrum. Cope was born in 1840 to a wealthy and influential Quaker family in Philadelphia and went on to become a professor of zoology at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope. Source: Matthew Brady/Frederick Gutekunst/Wikimedia Commons

Marsh was born in 1831 in Lockport, New York and grew up poor, but he had the proverbial rich uncle — philanthropist George Peabody.

After receiving degrees from Yale University, Marsh persuaded Peabody to build the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, and Peabody appointed Marsh as its first head. When Peabody died in 1869, Marsh was suddenly a rich man.

A Bitter Rivalry Begins

The two men initially cooperated on a fossil-hunting expedition in New Jersey where Hadrosaurus foulkii, one of the first American dinosaurs had been found. In what would set the tone for the rest of their relations, Marsh secretly bribed the pit operators to divert future fossil finds to him rather than Cope.

When Cope reconstructed a plesiosaur Elasmosaurus, putting the head where the tail should have been, Marsh pounced in the press. Cope retaliated by moving his attention to Marsh's fossil hunting grounds in the western U.S., in the states of Kansas and Wyoming.

Marsh's 1872 expedition. Source: John Ostrom/Peabody Museum/Wikimedia Commons

In June 1872, Cope set off on a trip to the West as part of the U.S. Geological Survey. Heading to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, Cope discovered dozens of new species. After 1872, Marsh preferred to remain back East and send students and others to do his prospecting.

Three Letters

In 1877, Marsh received a letter and a shipment of bones from a school teacher in Golden, Colorado who reported finding massive bones near the town of Morrison, Colorado. When Marsh was slow to respond, the teacher also sent bones to Cope.

Then, Cope received a letter and a shipment of bones from a naturalist in Cañon City, Colorado. They turned out to be the bones of huge herbivores (plant-eating dinosaurs). Hearing of the discovery, Marsh quickly dispatched surrogates to Cañon City.

Then, a third letter arrived at Yale from two railroad workers. The men, William Harlow Reed, and William Edwards Carlin were working on the First Transcontinental Railroad through a remote area of Wyoming.

They had found large numbers of bones in the area of Como Bluff, Wyoming. Marsh sent his men, but men from Cope were also scoping out the area. Marsh advised Reed and Carlin to keep Cope out of the area.

The fossils Reed and Carlin sent in 1877 were named by Marsh and became some of the most famous dinosaurs ever found — StegosaurusAllosaurusand Apatosaurus.

News of the finds appeared in the Laramie Daily Sentinel in April 1878, and by the winter of 1878, Carlin had become disenchanted with Marsh and began working for Cope.

Stegosaurus. Source: Othniel Charles Marsh/Wikimedia Commons

Between 1877 and 1892, tons of fossils were being sent back East, but the rivalry between Marsh and Cope remained, with Reed and Carlin now on opposing sides. The discoveries of Marsh and Cope were accompanied by sensational accusations of spying, stealing each other's workers and fossils, and bribery.

A Rivalry Even in Death

In the early 1890s, Cope was elected President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and that same year, Marsh stepped down as head of the National Academy of Sciences. By 1897 when Cope died, their rivalry had financially ruined both him and Marsh, but it continued even in death.

Before he died, Cope issued a challenge to Marsh: Cope donated his skull to science so that his brain could be measured, hoping that it would be larger than that of Marsh. At that time, brain size was considered a measure of intelligence. While Marsh never accepted the challenge, Cope's skull is still preserved at the University of Pennsylvania.

ScottRobertAnselmo/Wikimedia Commons

Who Won Bone Wars?

So, who won Bone Wars? Cope discovered 56 new dinosaur species, while Marsh discovered 80 new species. Together, they discovered TriceratopsAllosaurusDiplodocusStegosaurusCamarasaurus, and Coelophysis.

Marsh is one of the first scientists to suggest that birds are descended from dinosaurs, and Bone Wars led to a rise in the popularity of dinosaurs with the public. Paleontologist Robert Bakker has said, "The dinosaurs that came from [Como Bluff] not only filled museums, they filled magazine articles, textbooks, they filled people's minds."