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The Bone Wars: A Feud That Rocked U.S. Paleontology

The Bone Wars: A Feud That Rocked U.S. Paleontology
    The world is full of great rivalries, like Marvel and DC, or Ali and Frazier.
    Science has its fair share too—just look at Tesla and Edison.
    And in the late 19th Century, two paleontologists named Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker
    Cope entered a feud that would eventually be known as the Bone Wars.
    While trying to one-up each other, they found and named some of today’s most famous dinosaurs,
    but they also made some pretty big mistakes.
    At this point in history, paleontology was still taking its first clumsy steps.
    In 1824, a British geologist named William Buckland published a paper about some bones
    that he thought were from a huge extinct lizard.
    He called it a Megalosaurus.
    And even though “dinosaur” wouldn’t become a word until nearly 20 years later,
    Megalosaurus was the first one to be scientifically described.
    That’s when a researcher formally writes about what makes an animal, or a type of animal,
    unique, and where it fits into the tree of life.
    A few decades later, in 1858, the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton was found in America.
    The Hadrosaurus was described and named by Joseph Leidy, an academic who switched from
    medicine to natural history, and would play a huge part in early paleontology.
    So Marsh and Cope basically grew up alongside the field.
    Marsh was born in 1831 in New York, went to Yale thanks to his wealthy uncle, and ended
    up studying paleontology in Germany.
    Meanwhile, Cope was born in 1840 to a wealthy Quaker family.
    He didn’t have as much formal scientific training as Marsh, but thanks to jobs in museums,
    he learned about natural history and published a lot of papers.
    After the American Civil War started, Cope’s father sent him off to Europe, and he met
    Marsh in Berlin in 1863.
    They started out friendly.
    When they went back to America, they visited different dig sites.
    And because they were rich, they could hire excavation teams to ship fossils back to them.
    Sometimes with help from other experts, Marsh and Cope thoughtfully analyzed and published
    descriptions of new specimens without stepping on each other’s toes.
    But soon, their friendship would come crashing down.
    The feud really began when Cope was describing the marine reptile Elasmosaurus in 1868.
    Instead of taking his time to reconstruct the skeleton, he raced to get some information
    out in just a few weeks.
    That eventually led him to misunderstand how the bones of its spine lined up.
    He figured, like more modern lizards, Elasmosaurus would have a long tail instead of a long neck.
    So in a figure he published in 1869, he drew its head at the wrong end of the spine.
    He was publicly corrected in 1870 by Joseph Leidy, who studied the bones and noticed some
    key details that Cope overlooked.
    By some accounts, Marsh insisted he caught the mistake, or at the very least rubbed it
    Cope tried to save his bacon by retracting all copies of his paper and republishing…which
    didn’t exactly work.
    And things got more petty from there.
    The meat of the Bone Wars started around 1877, when they fought over fossils at the same
    dig sites, like Como Bluffs in Wyoming, which was a treasure trove of specimens.
    And they started playing dirty—spying, bribing people to switch employers, chucking rocks
    to start fights, or even straight-up destroying fossils to keep them out of each other’s
    Between them, Cope and Marsh claimed to have described over 130 kinds of dinosaurs, among
    other ancient animals.
    But they rushed to publish and made a lot of mistakes, like giving new names to already-discovered
    dinosaurs, or counting inconclusive fragments as a whole new animal.
    For instance, when Marsh was sent the headless skeleton of a long-necked dinosaur in 1877,
    he called it Apatosaurus.
    But when he tried to scientifically describe the creature, he reconstructed it with a totally
    wrong skull.
    Then, a couple years later, he was sent another Apatosaurus skeleton with a skull, and called
    it Brontosaurus.
    And this naming confusion has lasted to this day.
    Really, Cope and Marsh had a lot more success when they took their time with fossils, and
    worked with other scientists instead of just feuding.
    When Marsh described Triceratops, for example, he was only sent bits of the horns at first,
    so he thought it was some kind of bison.
    But when the geologist who had found the skull fossils said that it wouldn’t make sense
    for a lone bison to be mixed in with all these dinosaur fossils, Marsh reconsidered.
    With more input from peers, Marsh thought these fossils might’ve come from another
    dinosaur with spikes like a Stegosaurus.
    And he eventually landed on the idea of a dinosaur with horns, which hadn’t really
    been dreamt up before.
    Now, eventually, Cope and Marsh were left penniless by the Bone Wars.
    And their papers had so much sniping and so little science that journals refused to publish
    While they did a lot for paleontology, they also were reckless and gave the field a bad
    Their constant sabotaging even made Joseph Leidy quit paleontology altogether in the
    mid 1870s.
    So it’s an interesting story, and one we’ve hopefully learned from.
    Today we have a better understanding that science depends on things like collaboration
    and sharing information—and less, y’know, throwing rocks at each other.
    Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow!
    And thanks especially to our President of Space, you all know him by now…
    SR Foxley!
    Thank you so much SR for your continued support of SciShow.
    You rock!
    If you want to hear more stories about paleontology, and what the Earth was like when these creatures
    we were talking about in this video were still alive, you can check out our sister channel
    Eons at!
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