What To Know About The Feuding Scientists Who RUINED Paleontology

A day at the museum

It’s the1870s American west! There are red bluffs, cowboys, pioneers, dust storms, new railways, gold mines. Also, mines of untapped fossil records just waiting to be discovered! 

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In the 19th century, we did not know nearly as much about dinosaurs. It was this new, exciting thing and they were pulling ACTUAL dragons out of the earth every day! 

Two men on the case were Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh. 

Have you ever had a friend who you shared every common interest with, but then you started copying each other a BIT too much, then it became this petty feud where you had to out-compete the other? That’s how these two were. Besties turned enemies. They even had a lot of the same mentors, and named species after each other before things took a turn for the worst. 

The thing is, new scientific discoveries are hard to come by! It’s a limited resource (there’s only so many fossils in the world, after all). Plus you have to go on a whole adventure to find them, not to mention knowing enough to understand it and proclaim it as your own – all before some OTHER dude does it! It’s a race against time. And the other guy. 

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Marsh and Cope both rushed out to find as many new discoveries in paleontology as they could, as fast as they could. Even if it meant sabotaging the other man. This sparked what is now known as the Bone Wars. 

It all started when Cope put together some bones of an Elasmosaurus, a giant aquatic sea serpent that basically resembles the Loch Ness Monster. 

Cope sent it to the museum all reconstructed. BUT, he mistakenly put the skull at the end of the tail instead of the neck, mixing the two up

Marsh mercilessly called Cope out in public over the huge blunder, in front of everyone at the museum! Rumor has it that Marsh tried to purchase every copy of the scientific journal that he published the blundered discovery in to destroy them. HOW. EMBARRASSING.

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The Bone Wars really took off when Cope and Marsh were working on a fossil site and Cope started to pay excavators to send bones or other good finds to Cope rather than Marsh. In science, this is a GROSS misuse of resources and an utter violation of any kind of honorable decorum! It was an INSULT. 

From then on, the two paleontologists set off to name as many new species as possible in as little time as they could afford. But they also had the side mission of trying to impede the other at any possible turn. 

They started spending larger amounts of money to make sure they could secure the exclusive rights to any new potential fossil sites, even paying the ones who alerted the men to the finds to keep the discovery under wraps. They burned through a lot of cash on their path into the west, through Wyoming, Colorado, the Dakota territories, plus more and more places as railway workers continued to push into the west. 

Things escalated quickly. It wasn’t enough to find new species, they had to find big exciting new ones! And who knew where a gem like that might be hiding out here?

Exclusive rights to new dig sites wasn’t enough. They started spending more to bribe employees of the other competitor. They paid spies to track the other’s movement, then started to outright STEAL bones in the night to claim as their own! 

They say that competing workers at both excavations would pelt each other with rocks. Unconfirmed legends even report the use of dynamite to destroy dig sites. Better to destroy the highly valuable fossils so nobody can have them rather than let them fall into the hands of my sworn enemy! 

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They discovered tons of amazing fossils during this feud, like Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, Allosaurus, and more. But also, who knows how much research we lost from their bitterness toward each other? 

They both eventually ran out of money trying to tear the other down, and died rivals in the end. Hell, even after they died, one of Cope’s last wishes was that his brain be examined because it would surely be bigger than Marsh’s. Is that petty or what? 

To this day, paleontologists fear fossil vandalism, even if modern scientists don’t use cartoonish levels of extreme fuckery as they did in the 1800s. 

Paleontological fossils are considered a Finite Resource, and there are laws coming into place to protect them from trade, theft, and forgery. Crazy how two besties-turned-nemeses forged so much of modern paleontology understanding, and yet lost so much. Is this the bitter rivalry that represents the American spirit? Is it worth it to have their name emblazoned in history? You decide. 


Strauss, B. (2020, January 26). The 20-year Bone Wars that changed history. ThoughtCo. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-bone-wars-1092038

Switek, B. (2022, June 28). The bone wars: How a bitter rivalry drove progress in palaeontology. BBC Science Focus Magazine. Retrieved November 8, 2022, from https://www.sciencefocus.com/nature/the-bone-wars-how-a-bitter-rivalry-drove-progress-in-palaeontology/

Featured image via Unsplash


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