The Bone Wars Were a 15-Year Grudge Match Between Rival Dino Hunters

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From about 1877 to 1892, paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope waged a war of espionage, sabotage, physical violence, and occasionally dynamite. These were the Bone Wars.

Both men wanted to discover more dinosaurs than the other, and to prove their rival a fool and a charlatan along the way. But by the end, both had driven themselves into poverty, so it's hard to say that either one of them "won." The field of paleontology certainly did notch a victory, though — between them, Cope and Marsh discovered Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, and more than 100 other previously unknown species.

The Stage Is Set For War

In 1864, the long and brutal American Civil War was finally coming to a close. But across the ocean, another war between countrymen was only just getting started. Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope first met in Berlin and seemed to get along pretty well. At first. But even in the early days, scholars think that Marsh and Cope likely harbored some resentment against each other. According to "The Bonehunters' Revenge" author David Raines Wallace, "The patrician Edward may have considered Marsh not quite a gentleman. The academic Othniel probably regarded Cope as not quite a professional." Strong words, and as it turns out, pretty much true.

Neither Marsh nor Cope came out looking great by the end of their feud. But "not quite a gentleman" is a pretty mild way to describe Marsh given his tactics, which ranged from slightly sketchy to downright villain-esque. In the opening salvo of the Wars, Marsh visited Haddonfield, NJ, the site of a quarry where Cope had hit a motherlode of fossils. He oohed and ahhed over Cope's newly mounted Hadrosaurus, then on his way out of town slipped the quarry foremen bribes to ship all fossils directly to his university. Now that's cold.

But the moment that most consider the true beginning of the Bone Wars stemmed from Cope's less-than-stellar paleontological skills. Cope had unearthed and mounted a massive skeleton of the marine reptile Elasmosaurus (think Loch Ness Monster). Marsh took one look at his work and declared he'd put it together backward, with the head at the end of the tail. Cope was furious and demanded to know the opinion of the world's premier anatomist, Joseph Leidy. Leidy wordlessly picked up the head and moved it to its proper position. In a fit of embarrassed rage, Cope attempted to buy up all copies of the journal in which he'd published his erroneous skeleton and vowed to embarrass Marsh if it was the last thing he did.

The Bone Wars Begin

The war between Cope and Marsh only heated up after they headed out west. Both were known to bribe each other's laborers for info on what they'd found and where, sometimes even sending their own employees to work for their rival in order to have a man on the inside. Marsh, in particular, was known for his scorched-earth tactics, dynamiting any sites that he'd dug up just in case Cope might be able to pull up another skeleton from his leftovers. He also would occasionally have his double-agents plant unrelated fossils in Cope's crates of bones (imagine a giant jigsaw puzzle with tons of missing pieces and a handful of random bits). But Cope wasn't an innocent, either. On at least one occasion, he had a train full of Marsh's fossils diverted to Philadelphia in hopes of slowing down his research.

There was another underhanded tactic that both used to eclipse the other: inflating the number of their fossil finds by naming each animal more than once. Ever heard of the Apatosaurus vs. Brontosaurus controversy? That all stems from a question of whether Marsh had really found two different animals or if he simply gave the same animal two names. And then there's the Uintatherium, a prehistoric rhinoceros that Cope and Marsh gave a grand total of 16 different names. In the end, though, Marsh won out with about 80 different species to Cope's 56 — not to mention the fact that his theories were a lot closer than Cope's were to what we know today.

There's just one more footnote to this bizarre story of fossil warfare. Remember how we said that Cope would embarrass Marsh if it was the last thing he did? It might not have worked, but his last act on Earth was a valiant attempt. When Cope died, having sold most of his fossils in order to survive, he donated his body to science for the sole purpose of having his brain measured against Marsh's. Marsh, to his credit (or cowardice), didn't take up the bet. But who knows? Maybe in a couple million years, their fossils will have finally settled their differences.

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Hear the whole story in "The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science" by Mark Jaffe. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 9, 2017

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