Enter the Bone Wars: An Intense Rivalry between America’s Leading Paleontologists

Enter the Bone Wars: An Intense Rivalry between America’s Leading Paleontologists

This is a story about how the heated competitiveness between two men led to, arguably, the most productive paleontological period in American history. In one corner, we have Edward Drinker Cope, a man born into a rich Quaker family, regarded by his opponent as someone who simply bought his way into paleontology with little interest or professionalism showed for the field. In the other corner, we have Othniel Charles Marsh, a man coming from a modest family who managed to gain higher education through the generosity of a rich uncle, regarded by his opponent as rough and unpolished, the complete opposite of a gentleman. Place your bets!

Marsh on the left and Cope on the right

Marsh on the left and Cope on the right

The rivalry developed between the two would last for decades during America’s Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. The pair initially met during the 1860s while studying abroad in Germany. Back then Western Europe was the premiere location for paleontologists because all of the extensive deposits of fossils in America haven’t been discovered yet. There didn’t appear to be any animosity between the two men initially. At least in public, they acted cordially with one another.

At one point, Cope unveiled a reconstruction of a new species of aquatic dinosaur he discovered, the Elasmosaurus. It would have been his greatest achievement up until that point. It would have been…weren’t for the fact that Marsh pointed out publicly that Cope made the spectacular mistake of placing the head of the dinosaur at the wrong end. The Elasmosaurus was a creature with an extremely long neck and a relatively short tail. Although we now know that there were plenty of dinosaurs like that, back then this phenomenon was rare so Cope’s mistake is relatively understandable.

Cope was definitely embarrassed by the whole event. He already published the mistake in scientific journals which he then tried to buy and destroy. However, his gaffe was made public by Joseph Leidy, another famed paleontologist (their mentor, in fact) who published a correction of Cope’s mistake. Marsh’s role in all of this remains in doubt. He maintained in a journal that he was the one who noticed Cope’s error while others agree that Leidy was, in fact, the one who noticed, pointed out and corrected Cope’s mistake.

Cope Elasmosaurus

Cope’s Butthead Elasmosaurus

By this time, America had proven to be a very rich source of fossils. New pits were being discovered all the time, mostly by accidents while building the railroad system. Supposedly, at one point Marsh visited one of Cope’s sites and, when he left, he bribed the operators to divert all new findings to him instead of Cope, something which Cope was made aware of.

By the early 1870s, the gloves were off and the two paleontologists shrugged off any pretension of amicability. They were openly feuding, constantly vying for the best places to excavate. Cope managed to secure a position at the US Geological Survey, allowing him access to many privileged areas. He also began digging in Leidy’s territory, also causing a falling out between the two. At the same time, Marsh struck a deal with several Union Pacific railway workers who would send him all the fossils they found. However, those same workers leaked the story to the press, hoping to get a better offer from Cope. They didn’t. Cope simply sent agents to the site to steal bones.

This marked the beginning of decades of using underhanded tactics in order to gain the upper hand. Both men would bribe each others’ workers, steal whenever possible and use any opportunity to humiliate each other. Whenever one of them published a scientific paper, the other would quickly put out a rebuttal highlighting all of the mistakes.

Cope lost his position at the US Geological Survey and, after a few years, Marsh took on that role. He saw this as a triumph but he soon found himself under investigation for the way the organization was run. Unsurprisingly, Cope did all he could to cause trouble for Marsh by securing testimonies from his employees regarding Marsh’s unprofessional business practices. Even though Marsh lost his job, he managed to bribe the workers in order to keep their stories out of the newspapers.

This wasn’t enough for Cope. During the decades their rivalry went on, Cope kept a journal with detailed entries on everything Marsh did wrong or poorly. He gave it to a journalist who went on to sensationalize the story of the Bone Wars. As it turned out, Marsh did the same thing and soon published his own account.

While this bitter rivalry didn’t have any positive effects on the two men, it was a boon for paleontology as a whole. Both of them ended up wasting most of their fortunes during their careers but, by the end of the rivalry, they had discovered and described around 140 new species of dinosaurs. However, only around 30 are still valid today. In their effort to one-up each other, both men made numerous mistakes and often presented as new specimens dinosaurs that were already known.

Bonus Fact: Cope couldn’t let this rivalry die. Even after his death, he specified in his will that he wanted his brain examined in order to determine its size as he was sure that it would be bigger than Marsh’s. Back then it was thought that a direct correlation existed between brain size and intelligence. Marsh declined the challenge.

TL;DR Version

  • Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were two paleontologist during the late 19th
  • Although friendly with each other at first, they became rivals when Marsh pointed out that Cope placed the head of a dinosaur at the wrong end for a reconstruction of a new species he discovered.
  • The two men would spend the next decades fighting each other over the best digging sites in America.
  • They would often use bribery and theft in order to secure fossils from one another.
  • They took every possible chance to humiliate each other publicly.
  • They each published journals detailing the other one’s mistakes and wrongful actions.
  • Despite all of this, the two were responsible for discovering 140 new species of dinosaurs. However, only around 30 are still valid today.
  • When he died, Cope wanted his brain weighed in order to show that it was heavier than Marsh’s. Marsh declined.


Featured image courtesy of Daderot (Daderot) [CC0 or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.