The Academic Rivalry That Uncovered More Than 140 New Dinosaur Species

Illustration for article titled The Academic Rivalry That Uncovered More Than 140 New Dinosaur Species

Academic rivalries can sometimes result in some pretty impressive science. Here’s how a war between two paleontologists ended up yielding over 140 new species — but also destroyed a lot of things on its way.


io9’s comment of the day comes from commenter iCowboy who shared this idea for how best to tell the story of the rivalry between two paleontologists that shaped a lot of what we know about dinosaurs today:

How about two - Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh and what is known as ‘The Bone Wars’?

Over more than two decades, two rival teams from the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Peabody Museum at Yale raced across the newly opened up American West to try and collect the most dinosaur skeletons. Between them they discovered about 140 species - including Apatosaurus (and now we know - Brontosaurus), Allosaurus, Stegosaurus and Elasmosaurus - in short a good part of your childhood. They found some of the first complete skeletons of dinosaurs (the original dinosaur bones from Britain were very fragmentary) which turned dinosaurs into sensations and fired a billion childhood imaginations into overdrive...


... this wasn’t your usual academic rivalry, no siree - this involved the bribery of one another’s teams, stealing labour, hush money to keep the best discoveries secret, fossils stolen from under one another’s noses, teams deliberately misled into where they should explore, fossils being destroyed rather than going to the other side, the US Army, furtive expeditions into tribal lands, smearing of one another’s reputations, lawsuits, plagiarism and finally - complete financial ruin for the pair of them.

It could either be a sweeping epic full of the Western States’ majestic scenery and a gorgeous soaring score - or a screwball comedy. There will be truly magnificent facial hair.


HBO actually did plan to make a “Bone Wars” movie starring Steve Carell as Cope and James Gandolfini as Marsh. Tragically, Gandolfini passed away before the project came to fruition.

Image: 1920 painting of a Stegosaurus / Heinrich Harder

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I will forever be grateful for Louis Psihoyos’ book Hunting Dinosaurs. Not only did it introduce me to one of my academic idoles (Giuseppe Loenardi: a man who literally wrote the book on Ichnological terminology... though being a Catholic priest he might not like the term idole... but that’s a story for a different time), it also contains the true story of how Cope attempted to one up Marsh by having his skeleton preserved as the holotype for Homo sapiens. Unfortunately for Cope this didn’t work out* but it did allow Psihoyos to take one crazy road trip through “dinosaur country” with one of the grandfathers of North American palaeontology.

*for reasons... lets just say not the most average skeleton

Image stolen from who got it from Psihoyos... I’m going to call it “Cope-in-a-box”