the battle for dinosaur bones -- 3/6/19

Today's selection -- from The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte. The battle for dinosaur bones:

"The first recorded [dinosaur] bones were collected by a surveying expedition in 1859. In March 1877 the real fun started. A railroad worker named William Reed was returning home from a successful hunt, rifle and pronghorn antelope carcass in tow, when he noticed some huge bones protruding out of a long ridge called Como Bluff, not too far from the railroad tracks in an anonymous expanse of southeastern Wyoming. He didn't know it, but at the same time a college student, Oramel Lucas, was finding similar bones a few hundred miles to the south, in Garden Park, Colorado. That same month, a schoolteacher named Arthur Lakes had just found a cache of fossils near Denver. By the end of that March, the fever of discovery was spreading throughout the American West, to even the most remote villages and railway outposts.

"Like any prospecting rush, the dinosaur frenzy attracted a horde of questionable characters to the Wyoming and Colorado backcountry. Many of these men were grizzled opportunists on one mission: to convert dinosaur bones into cash. It didn't take long for them to realize who was paying top dollar: two dapper East Coast academics, Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia and Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale University, the same men we briefly met two chapters ago, who studied some of the first Trias­sic dinosaurs found in western North America. Once chummy, these two scientists had let ego and pride metastasize into a full-on feud, which was so radioactive that they would do anything to one-up each other in an insane battle to see who could name the most new dinosaurs. Cope and Marsh were opportunists, too, and with each letter from a ranch hand or railway porter reporting more new dinosaur bones from the Morrison badlands, they saw the opportunity they had been craving but had been unable to yet fulfill: a chance to beat the other guy once and for all. And they both went for it.

One of the few photographs taken shortly after the discovery of dinosaur bones in the Garden Park area. 

"Cope and Marsh treated the West like a battlefield, employing rival teams that often acted more like armies, scooping up fossils wherever they went and sabotaging the other side whenever they could. Loyalties were fluid. Lucas worked for Cope, and Lakes teamed up with Marsh. Reed worked for Marsh, but members of his team defected to Cope. Pillaging, poaching, and bribing were the rules of the game. The madness continued for over a decade, and when it was over, it was hard to separate the winners from the losers. On the plus side, the so-called Bone Wars led to the discovery of some of the most celebrated dinosaurs, the ones that roll off the tongue of every schoolchild: Allosaurus, Apato­saurus, Brontosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, just to name a few. On the other hand, the mentality of constant war­fare caused a lot of sloppiness: fossils haphazardly excavated and hastily studied, scraps of bone mistakenly christened as new spe­cies, different bits of the skeleton of the same dinosaur regarded as belonging to totally different animals."



Steve Brusatte


The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs


William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins


Copyright 2018 by Stephen Brusatte


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