Revisiting the “Dinosaur Wars,” and scientists behaving badly

A biologist-artist’s ruminations about our roles in a science-inspired world

PHOTO BY SHARON RAHAM The author atop "Cope's Nipple"

Bio Bites

By R. Gary Raham

WE ARE ALREADY GIVING YOU THE LOCAL NEWS FOR FREE. We do it because we believe and support Northern Colorado. Help us cover more with your OPTIONAL monthly donation. We'll automatically put you on our daily AD FREE email - the Daily Digest..
Help NFN Grow

            My wife and I spent a pleasant October weekend recently “leaf peeking” in southern Colorado and visiting a historic site near Canõn City: the dinosaur quarries of the feuding paleontologists of the 19th century, Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899) and Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897). The feud, for me, illustrates two things. The first is that scientists, like all humans, succumb to pride and jealousy. The second is that truth will prevail—eventually—using the process of science correctly. We trekked to Cope’s Nipple to find out how.

Cope’s Nipple is a suggestive mound of red soil capped by a cluster of rocks. (I suspect field geologists long for companionship on remote digs.) Just below this site rested the dinosaur bones of Camarasaurus, a beast with leg bones as tall as a man and as wide as a small tree trunk. A part-time schoolteacher named Ormel W. Lucas notified Cope about these huge dinosaur bones in 1877. Cope was delighted, as he still nursed the loss of a fossil bone discovery near Morrison Colorado to his rival—but once friend—O. C. Marsh. This new discovery appeared to be the remains of a bigger, more spectacular animal.

PHOTO BY R. GARY RAHAM Cope’s Nipple as seen from the saddle of land below

How did two friends become bitter enemies? In 1868, Cope held a position as curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Some of the first dinosaurs discovered in North America had been found in a quarry about 15 miles away in Southern New Jersey. Cope had made arrangements with quarry workers to receive any new bones they found for a fee. Marsh, who held a position with the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (courtesy of his rich uncle George Peabody), came to visit.

Cope was delighted to show his colleague around the quarry. It was only after Cope’s supply of new bones began to dwindle that he discovered that Marsh had made a deal with the quarrymen to send him the best fossils. Cope felt betrayed. Fossil Feud by Thom Holmes (Simon and Schuster, 1998) summarizes the tale. When schoolteacher, Arthur Lakes (1844-1917), discovered huge dinosaur bones in Morrison Colorado, and ended up sending some to Marsh (who was slow to respond, but eventually sent money), and then some to Cope (who responded quickly, but lost first dibs), the conflict intensified.

After Cope’s discovery near Canõn City, Marsh sent men to establish a quarry less than a mile away. My wife and I easily walked with our group of fellow paleo nerds between the two locations, learning how the conflict between the paleontologists sometimes degenerated into crimes when their field crews destroyed some fossils rather than letting the other group access them later.

PHOTO BY R. GARY RAHAM Paleo enthusiasts from WIPS standing on the location where Cope buried Camarasaurus bones

Overall, the competition between the two men resulted in the discovery and description of 1,282 species of fossil vertebrates by Cope and 536 by Marsh. Some mistakes they made in their rush to publication were later corrected by the traditional back-and-forth examination that occurs as other scientists review the material, both printed and in the field. In the 1990s, for example, scientists found dinosaur bones Cope had buried under the saddle of land beneath Cope’s Nipple because he couldn’t afford to ship them back east.

Yes, scientists are fallibly human. Fortunately, the scientific process can transcend some of those failings. We enjoyed following the trails of Cope and Marsh, learning their stories, and wondering about the lost worlds we would otherwise know nothing about.

 

Footnote: My trip to the dinosaur quarries came through my membership in the Western Interior Paleontological Society (WIPS), a group of amateur paleontologists dedicated to nurturing an interest in the responsible discovery and use of fossils. Visit westernpaleo.org for more information.