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Real or not real? This is an obsolete model of an apatosaurine with a sculpted head (Source: American Museum of Natural History/Wikimedia Commons)

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Brontosaurus and the Bone Wars

Tuesday 14th July 2015 12:41 pm

Most of us have a big soft spot for dinosaurs, and have picked up a bunch of facts about them. Even amateur dinosaur enthusiasts — especially eight-year-olds — know that the name Brontosaurus is just plain wrong. The correct name, apparently, is Apatosaurus. Well, it doesn’t happen often, but it seems that the eight-year-olds were wrong.

Dinosaurs came in three main body shapes. There was the two-legged dinosaur, the four-legged dinosaur with a short neck, and the four-legged dinosaur with a long neck. BothApatosaurus and Brontosaurus belonged to this last category — they had four sturdy legs, and really long necks and long tapering tails. These vegetarians lived about 150 million years ago. They came in different sizes, but the really big ones were some 30 metres long and weighed around 40 tonnes — they were among the largest land animals ever to walk the Earth.

These dinosaurs were discovered as a result of the infamous ‘Bone Wars’, also called the ‘Great Dinosaur Rush’. Over a 20-year period from around 1872 to 1892, two American palaeontologists, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, engaged in a bitter competition to find more dinosaur fossils than the other. Before they started, there were only nine named species of dinosaur in the USA.

By the end of the Bone Wars, between them, Marsh and Cope had discovered and described some 142 new species of dinosaur. However, only 32 or so are considered valid today — it seems their bitter rivalry led to shoddy science.

They first met in Berlin around 1864. Initially, they were quite friendly, spent time together, and even named species after each other. But over time, their differences contributed to what would become an acrimonious affair.

Othniel Charles Marsh supported Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and tended towards being methodical and thorough, and somewhat introverted. He had grown up in a poor family. But he was lucky enough to have a wealthy uncle, the businessman and philanthropist, George Peabody. In fact, George Peabody is known as the ‘Father of Modern Philanthropy’. Peabody built the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, made his nephew Marsh the head of the museum, and even left him an inheritance after he died. So Marsh was then financially secure.

On the other hand, Edward Drinker Cope came from a wealthy and influential family, supported Neo-Lamarkism (a theory about inherited characteristics) rather than Darwin’s Theory, and tended towards being quarrelsome and having a quick temper. Despite having little formal education, Cope became a professor at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

It’s said that there’s a fine line between love and hate.

Their competitive desire to be the first with a new dinosaur find meant that their initial cordiality drifted into outright antagonism and resentment. Their battlefield was the newly discovered fossil beds of the American West in Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. They would excavate in the summer, and publish in the winter. They each used their personal wealth to mount their own expeditions, but they also bought dinosaur fossils from third parties. Soon they were sending tonnes of dinosaur fossils back to their bases on the East Coast of the USA. They used bribery and theft to get access to dinosaur fossils, stole from each other, and even destroyed bones and covered up digging sites to obstruct each other. On occasion, their rival digging teams would literally cast stones at each other. They also attacked each other in print, trying to ruin their rival’s professional credibility, by making claims of outright errors, plagiarism and financial mismanagement.

In their efforts to outdo the other and to gain scientific precedence, they would dash off hasty and slapdash telegrams describing their finds, and only later formally publish a fuller account. As a result, their science was often shoddy and careless. For example, they would sometimes haphazardly assemble the bones of two or even more different species, into the same skeleton.

In their later years, they each became financially ruined by their unrelenting rivalry and shameful conduct. In fact, Cope even tried to continue the battle with Marsh from beyond the grave. He specified that after he died, his brain was to be measured, with a view to showing that his brain was larger than Marsh’s brain — and therefore, supposedly more intelligent. Marsh however, never accepted the challenge.

So, getting back to the Brontosaurus vs Apatosaurus stoush, in the December 1877 issue of the American Journal of Science, Marsh described and named three new dinosaurs, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus and yes, Apatosaurus.

Apatosaurus means ‘deceptive lizard’. Two years later, he published another brief note about another dinosaur which was somewhat similar, and which he called Brontosaurus, meaning ‘thunder lizard’.

Brontosaurus however got sent into the shadows for quite a long time. So I’ll talk more about that, next time …

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This blog first appeared on Dr Karl's Great Moments in Science

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