The Bone Wars: Bye Bye Brontosaurus



When most people think of the Wild West, they picture Buffalo Bill, Jesse James, and caravans of settlers in covered wagons. But for paleontologists, the American west in the late 19th century conjures up one image above all: the enduring rivalry between two of this country’s greatest fossil hunters, Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. The “Bone Wars,” as their feud became known, stretched from the 1870’s well into the 1890’s, and resulted in hundreds of new dinosaur finds, not to mention reams of bribery, trickery, and outright theft.

Cope was born into a wealthy Quaker family in Pennsylvania, while Marsh’s family in upstate New York was comparatively poor. It’s probable that due to their different backgrounds, that Marsh considered Cope a bit of a dilettante, not really serious about paleontology, while Cope saw Marsh as too rough and uncouth to be a true scientist.

The Fateful Elasmosaurus

1870marshMost historians trace the start of the Bone Wars to 1868, when Cope reconstructed a strange fossil sent to him from Kansas by a military doctor. Naming the specimen Elasmosaurus, he placed its skull on the end of its short tail, rather than its long neck (to be fair to Cope, to that date no one had ever seen an aquatic reptile with such out-of-whack proportions). When he discovered this error, Marsh humiliated Cope by pointing it out in public, at which point Cope tried to buy (and destroy) every copy of the scientific journal in which he had published his incorrect reconstruction.

After Cope had discovered the fossil site in New Jersey that yielded the fossil of Hadrosaurus, and Marsh saw how many bones had yet to be recovered from the site, Marsh paid the excavators to send any interesting finds to him, rather than to Cope. Cope soon found out about this gross violation of scientific decorum, and the Bone Wars began in earnest.

Into the West

What kicked the Bone Wars into high gear was the discovery, in the 1870’s, of numerous dinosaur fossils in the American west (some of these finds were made accidentally, during excavation work for the Transcontinental Railroad). In 1877, Marsh received a letter from Colorado schoolteacher Arthur Lakes, describing the “saurian” bones he had found during a hiking expedition; Lakes sent sample fossils to both Marsh and (because he didn’t know if Marsh was interested) Cope. Characteristically, Marsh paid Lakes $100 to keep his discovery a secret–and when he discovered that Cope had been notified, dispatched an agent west to secure his claim. Around the same time, Cope was tipped off to another fossil site in Colorado, which Marsh tried (unsuccessfully) to horn in on.

Como Bluff

A watercolor sketch by Arthur Lakes showing expedition members E. Kennedy and Bill Reed with dinosaur bones at Como Bluff, Wyoming. (Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History)

By this time, it was common knowledge that Marsh and Cope were competing for the best dinosaur fossils–which explains the subsequent intrigues centered on Como Bluff, Wyoming. Using pseudonyms, two workers for the Union Pacific Railroad alerted Marsh to their fossil finds, hinting (but not stating explicitly) that they might strike a deal with Cope if Marsh didn’t offer generous terms. True to form, Marsh dispatched another agent, who made the necessary financial arrangements–and soon the Yale-based paleontologist was receiving boxcars of fossils, including the first specimens of Diplodocus, Allosaurus and Stegosaurus.

Word about this exclusive arrangement soon spread– the wealthier Cope sent his own agent westward, and when these negotiations proved unsuccessful (possibly because he wasn’t willing to pony up enough money), he instructed his prospector to engage in a bit of fossil-rustling and steal bones from the Como Bluff site, right under Marsh’s nose.

Soon afterward, fed up with Marsh’s erratic payments, one of the railroad men began working for Cope instead, turning Como Bluff into the epicenter of the Bone Wars. By this time, both Marsh and Cope had relocated westward, and over the next few years engaged in such hijinks as deliberately destroying uncollected fossils and fossil sites (so as to keep them out of each other’s hands), spying on each other’s excavations, bribing employees, and even stealing bones outright. According to one account, workers on the rival digs once took time out from their labors to pelt each other with stones!

Cope and Marsh, Bitter Enemies to the Last


The rivalry between Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope (right) sparked the Bone Wars.

By the 1880’s, it was clear that Othniel C. Marsh was “winning” the Bone Wars. Thanks to the support of his wealthy uncle, George Peabody (who lent his name to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History), Marsh could hire more employees and open more dig sites, while Edward Drinker Cope slowly but surely fell behind. It didn’t help matters that other parties, including a team from Harvard University, now joined the dinosaur gold rush. Cope continued to publish numerous papers, but, like a political candidate taking the low road, Marsh made hay out of every tiny mistake he could find.

Cope soon had his opportunity for revenge. In 1884, Congress began an investigation into the U.S. Geological Survey, which Marsh had been appointed the head of a few years before. Cope recruited a number of Marsh’s employees to testify against their boss (who wasn’t the easiest person in the world to work for), but Marsh connived to keep their grievances out of the newspapers. Cope then upped the ante: drawing on a journal he had kept for two decades, in which he meticulously listed Marsh’s numerous felonies, misdemeanors and scientific errors, he supplied the information to a journalist for the New York Herald, which ran a sensational series about the Bone Wars. Marsh issued a rebuttal in the same newspaper, hurling similar accusations against Cope.

In the end, this public airing of dirty laundry (and dirty fossils) didn’t benefit either party. Marsh was asked to resign his lucrative position at the Geological Survey, and Cope, after a brief interval of success (he was appointed head of the National Association for the Advancement of Science), was beset by poor health and had to sell off portions of his hard-won fossil collection. By the time Cope died in 1897, both men had squandered their considerable fortunes.

Characteristically, though, Cope prolonged the Bone Wars even from his grave. One of his last requests was that scientists dissect his head after his death to determine the size of his brain, which he was certain would be bigger than Marsh’s. Wisely, perhaps, Marsh declined the challenge, and to this day, Cope’s unexamined head rests in storage at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Bone Wars: Let History Judge

As tawdry, undignified, and out-and-out ridiculous as the Bone Wars occasionally were, they had a profound effect on American paleontology. In the same way competition is good for commerce, it can also be good for science: so eager were Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope to one-up each other that they discovered many more dinosaurs than if they’d merely engaged in a friendly rivalry. The final tally was truly impressive: Marsh discovered 80 new dinosaur genera and species, while Cope named a more-than-respectable 56.

The fossils discovered by Marsh and Cope also helped to feed the American public’s increasing hunger for new dinosaurs. Each major discovery was accompanied by a wave of publicity, as magazines and newspapers illustrated the latest amazing finds–and the reconstructed skeletons slowly but surely made their way to major museums, where they still reside to the present day. You might say that popular interest in dinosaurs really began with the Bone Wars.

Negative consequences of The Bone Wars stemmed from the fact that Cope and Marsh described and reassembled their dinosaur finds so quickly that they were often careless. For example, a hundred years of confusion about Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus can be traced directly back to Marsh, who put a skull on the wrong body–the same way Cope did with Elasmosaurus, the incident that started the Bone Wars in the first place!

Apatosaurus – the “Deceptive Lizard”.

In 1877, Marsh bestowed the name Apatosaurus on a new dinosaur–and two years later, he did the same for a second discovery, which he named Brontosaurus. Later, it was determined that the two fossils belonged to the same genus–so the name Apatosaurus had priority, even though Brontosaurus had become more popular.

The name Apatosaurus wasn’t inspired by the mixup described above; rather, Marsh was referring to the fact that this dinosaur’s vertebrae resembled those of mosasaurs, sleek, vicious marine predators of the late Cretaceous period. You can imagine why Brontosaurus, Greek for “thunder lizard,” had more traction with the general public!

Apatosaurus was discovered in the same year as Diplodocus, yet another gigantic sauropod named by Marsh. These two dinosaurs were closely related, but Apatosaurus was more heavily built, with stockier legs and differently shaped vertebrae. Despite the fact that it was named first, Apatosaurus is still classified as a “diplodocid” sauropod.

Marsh’s mistake was called out by scientists long before the public was willing to let the Brontosaurus go, with the record being set straight over a century ago in 1903. Even the Carnegie Museum itself placed the wrong head on a Apatosaurus skeleton in 1932, calling it a Brontosaurus.


A 1934 photo showing the “Brontosaurus” wearing the wrong skull (Carnegie Museum)

Finally, in the 1979, two Carnegie researchers matched the skeleton with an actual Apatosaurus skull that was discovered in Utah in 1910.

Nonetheless, the Brontosaurus has remained a fixture in popular culture. Is it simple ignorance, or something deeper? As the Discovery Channel notes, “When music star Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph, everyone still called him ’Prince.’ Similar confusion surrounds the dinosaur Apatosaurus, which many still refer to as ’Brontosaurus.’”

Many paleontologists still lament the demise of Brontosaurus, a name familiar to them from their childhoods. Robert Bakker, who’s a bit of a maverick in the dinosaur community, has proposed that Othniel C. Marsh’s Brontosaurus deserves to be assigned to its own genus after all, and not lumped in with Apatosaurus, but don’t expect this change to happen any time soon, if ever!

Source: (1), (2), (3), (4)

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