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The Bone Wars

A Frenzied Pursuit of Prehistoric Giants in America


The “Bone Wars” were a remarkable and tumultuous period in the history of American paleontology that unfolded during the late 19th century. Also known as the “Great Dinosaur Rush,” this rivalry between two eminent paleontologists, Edward Drinker Cope, and Othniel Charles Marsh, had far-reaching implications for the field of science, the expansion of museums, and our understanding of prehistoric life.

The Roots of Rivalry

In the early 1870s, paleontology in the United States was still in its infancy, and the discoveries of dinosaur fossils in the western territories captivated the public’s imagination. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were both eminent paleontologists, eager to make a name for themselves and gain recognition within the scientific community. Born into modestly prominent families, both were well-educated, resourceful, and fiercely competitive.

Their rivalry began with an unfortunate incident when Cope, already an established paleontologist, hired Marsh as his assistant. However, as Cope introduced Marsh to the world of paleontology, Marsh used the opportunity to gain his own knowledge and eventually turned against his former mentor. Their personalities clashed, and what initially was a mentor-mentee relationship soon evolved into a bitter feud that would consume both scientists for the next three decades.

The Race for Discoveries

The Great Dinosaur Rush was characterized by a frenzied race to find, identify, and name as many new dinosaur species as possible. The two scientists were quick to claim discoveries and fiercely competitive in publishing their findings. They frequently undercut each other in academic journals, resorting to mudslinging and name-calling, which overshadowed their genuine contributions to the field.

In their fervor to outdo one another, both Cope and Marsh depended heavily on the financial and logistical support of various organizations, such as the United States Geological Survey and wealthy benefactors. This financial backing allowed them to dispatch fossil-hunting teams across the western territories, particularly in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana.

Monumental Discoveries

Despite the bitter rivalry, Cope and Marsh made many monumental discoveries during this time that significantly expanded our understanding of prehistoric life. Marsh, for instance, discovered the sauropod now known as the Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus), as well as Stegosaurus and the Triceratops. Cope’s contributions included the discovery of Elasmosaurus and the Mosasaurus, the latter of which was not a dinosaur but an ancient marine reptile.

These discoveries fueled public interest in paleontology, inspiring a sense of awe and wonder about the ancient creatures that once roamed the Earth. Newspapers across the country eagerly reported on the ongoing feud between the two paleontologists, elevating their rivalry to national fame.

Consequences of the Feud

Despite the significant contributions made by Cope and Marsh during the Bone Wars, their rivalry also had negative consequences. The haste with which they named and described new species sometimes led to errors in identification, leading to confusion among the scientific community.

Additionally, their intense competition and focus on outdoing each other took attention away from collaborative research and methodical scientific study.

Moreover, the public feud had a negative impact on their respective careers, with other scientists distancing themselves from the controversial duo. Both Cope and Marsh saw their reputations tarnished, and their financial backers eventually withdrew support as the spectacle became increasingly detrimental to their reputations.

Legacy and Impact

The Bone Wars undeniably left an important and positive (if dented) legacy. The discoveries made during this period laid the foundation for the expanding American paleontology and inspired generations of scientists down to today. The fierce competition spurred numerous expeditions, leading to the establishment of new museums and institutions dedicated to the study of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University are just two examples of institutions that benefited greatly from the fossils collected during the Bone Wars. These institutions and others like them became vital centers for the study and exhibition of prehistoric fossils, engaging the public and helping to popularize the field of paleontology.


The Bone Wars, driven by the relentless rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, marked a tumultuous but transformative period in the history of American paleontology. Despite the negative aspects of their feud, their discoveries and contributions significantly expanded our understanding of prehistoric life and laid the groundwork for future paleontological research. The legacy of the Bone Wars endures in the form of the numerous museums and institutions dedicated to the study of dinosaurs and the lasting impact on public fascination with these ancient giants.