O.C. Marsh, Before the Bone Wars

E.D. Cope or O.C. Marsh – which Bone Wars icon do you prefer? The question pops up every now and then among paleontologists. (Tetrapod Zoology blogger Darren Naish asked just the other day over Twitter.) Given the choice, I’d say “Neither.”

Both Cope and Marsh were brilliant in their own ways and helped establish paleontology in North America, but that was almost an accident of their own egos. Their race to outdo each other opened quarries, trained the next generation of paleontologists, brought the study of prehistoric life into American educational institutions, and described scores of species, but both were notoriously abrasive and cantankerous. (Hell, a major reason Philadelphia polymath Joseph Leidy left paleontology altogether was because of their incessant squabbling and one-upmanship.) I don’t think I’d care to be in a room with either of them for an extended period of time, regardless of their prominence in late 19th century paleontology. Attitude ain’t everything in science – how many exceptional researchers are downright jerks? – but I can’t say that I particularly like Cope any more than I like Marsh.

Admittedly, though, I know far more about the acrimonious relationship between the two men than their individual lives. Most books which feature them – such as The Bonehunter’s Revenge, The Gilded Dinosaur, and The Legacy of the Mastodon – focus on the most publicly contentious period in their lives, when their long-running spat spilled over into the daily headlines. That’s why I resolved to read the individual biographies about each naturalist – Jane P. Davidson’s The Bone Sharp about Cope and the biography O.C. Marsh by Charles Schuchert and Clara Mae LeVene.

I picked Marsh first. Apparently, he gained a reputation as a hard-nosed field naturalist early on in his studies at Yale. A freshman at 24, he was older than his classmates and had a sharply serious demeanor which earned him the nickname “Captain.” (Though his peers also called him “Daddy”, which I can’t help but laugh at when I think of Marsh’s perpetual scowl in his photo portraits.) A short description of Marsh during his Yale days – written by classmate Charles H. Owen in 1860 – gives us some idea of his intense character:

Captain’s portly form looks odd enough in his well-worn shooting jacket; which tells, however, many a tale of swift destruction to innocent snipe and plover, in its ooze-drabbled edges, and the evident traces of Charm’s [his dog] muddy paws. His moustache, too, takes a still fiercer curl as he carefully sifts the powder into his flask. One cannot look at him without thinking of Kingsley’s ideal naturalist.

Not everyone admired Marsh’s seriousness. Mrs. E.L. Curial, who was a small girl when Marsh was a boarder in her home, later told her daughter that, for many, getting to know him was “like running against a pitchfork.”

Paleontology had not been Marsh’s focus at Yale. In fact, his entrance into that field was a combination of mild interest and a few happy accidents. If things had worked out differently, we might remember him today as an especially ornery mineralogist. And if that were the case, maybe we wouldn’t remember him at all. “Bone Wars” sounds better than “Quartz Wars” or “Agate Battles.”

Marsh’s decision to become a paleontologist was made while he was traveling aboard. After finishing at Yale, Marsh went to Germany in 1862bto continue his education, and wrote back to his friends and advisors in New Haven – particularly geologist James D. Dana and chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr. – to ask what subdiscipline of geology might be best for him to pursue. Writing to Silliman Jr. from Heidelberg on May 10, 1863, Marsh confided:

Hitherto, as you know, I have devoted a good deal of time to Natural Science; but my studies have been much more general than I intend them to be in the future. I am now sufficiently familiar with the German language and with scientific matters in Germany to pursue with advantage some particular branch of study, and I wish to commence upon it as soon as possible, and to concentrate all my efforts upon it. I am, however, nearly equally interested in Chemical Geology, Mineralogy, and Palaeontology; and my choice of one of these will depend on the prospect of making the result of my studies available on my return to America. Chemical Geology or Mineralogy I should certainly prefer, as my previous studies have been much more in that direction, and my cabinet and library, on which I have spent and am spending a good deal of time and money, relate more especially to these departments.

The only position Yale could offer Marsh was in paleontology. Silliman replied that “It now seems clear that you have to fit yourself by suitable studies for duty here in connection with the science of Geology and Palaeontology”, and he suggested that his friend focus on vertebrate life from before the time of the dinosaurs. Should Marsh do this, then an appointment in paleontology at Yale was practically assured – provided, of course, that Marsh procure a suitable endowment for his new department. Fortunately Marsh had the ear of his super-rich uncle George Peabody, and by 1866 nearly everything fell into place. (The only hiccup was that the university was not able to provide Marsh with a salary, so Marsh subsisted on an allowance provided by Peabody for 26 years).

Paleontology had not been Marsh’s first choice for a career, but he wasn’t entirely uninterested in the topic during his college years. One of his earliest field excursions, undertaken in 1855 with his friend William Park, was to collect minerals and fossils in Nova Scotia. Among his discoveries were a pair of vertebrae from Carboniferous rocks – a time when amphibians were everywhere and early reptiles were just getting their start.

When Marsh initially found the two-inch-wide bones in the vicinity of Chignecto Bay, he thought they were unremarkable fish bits. “That is the backbone of a halibut,” he is purported to have said upon finding them, and was frustrated by the fact that no other bones from the animal turned up. In 1861, though, Marsh showed the bones to fish expert Louis Agassiz at Harvard, and he saw something in them that Marsh didn’t. In a letter about the fossils the Harvard naturalist sent to the elder Silliman, reprinted in the American Journal of Science in January of 1862, Agassiz speculated that the tiny bones Marsh found represented “a nearer approximation to a synthesis between Fish and Reptile than has yet been seen.” The key was a peculiar notch on the bones Agassiz identified as characteristic of fish but not reptiles, and therefore Marsh’s animal combined fish and reptilian traits together. “The discovery of the Ichthyosauri was not more important than that of these vertebrae”, Agassiz beamed.

A word on Agassiz’s enthusiasm. About twenty years earlier another cranky naturalist, England’s Richard Owen, proposed that all vertebrates were modified versions of a simplified, archetypal body plan. Under this framework, reptiles and amphibians could be seen as altered versions of simpler fish body plans – living lungfish and fossil creatures such Archegosaurus represented intermediate types along the fish-reptile gradient. How such transformations occurred was another matter – opinions on that matter were as different as the naturalists who speculated about them – but, at the time, the connection was primarily an anatomical one.

(Shameless plug: Check out chapter 4 of Written in Stone for the whole story, as well as the recently-reprinted On the Nature of Limbs by Owen.)

During the 1840’s and 1850’s, at least, it was possible to talk about intermediate forms and “links” between body types without necessarily appealing to some godless, natural process of change (which is what many naturalists feared). This is significant given Agassiz’s long-running and dogged resistance to Charles Darwin’s formulation of evolutionary theory. Strange as the notion may seem now, the discovery of creatures with what we call “transitional features” did not necessarily point to evolutionary change – they were simply beings which closed anatomical gaps in nature.

Even Thomas Henry Huxley, the celebrated defender of evolutionary theory during the late 19th century, initially drew vertebrate lineages together on the basis of anatomical resemblances without giving much thought at all to what those corresponding traits might mean in evolutionary terms. Huxley’s famous – and often misunderstood – idea that birds evolved from a dinosaur-like creature had its start in his early work when he lumped birds and reptiles together on anatomical grounds without considering how one group might have given rise to the other. It was only after he read the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel’s Generelle Morphologie that Huxley started scribbling evolutionary trees in his notes.

But Marsh didn’t agree with Agassiz about the potential significance of the bones for drawing fish and reptiles together, and he wasn’t too happy about having another scientist publish on his discovery. As Schuchert and LeVene put it in their biography, “Marsh, unwilling to have any more of the cream skimmed off his discovery by others, published a preliminary description of the vertebrae in the Journal for March.” The paper, which ran 16 pages, was a densely-detailed report on the two plain-looking centra – the round part of the vertebrae which make up the main body of the bones.

Marsh named the animal Eosaurus acadianus, and considered the bones to have belonged to some kind of marine reptile akin to the shark-shaped Ichthyosaurus. (At the time, marine reptiles such as Ichthyosaurus and Pleisosaurus were placed in a group called the enaliosauria, which is where Marsh dropped his creature.) This was a big deal. The ichthyosaurs and other large marine reptiles were primarily known from Jurassic rocks – much younger layers than the Carboniferous strata – and so the discovery of Eosaurus pushed the range of the group considerably further back in time.

Agassiz was roughly correct that the bones showed both reptilian and fish-like characteristics, but, in Marsh’s view, the traits confirmed that Eosaurus was a seagoing reptile about 15 feet in length. More than that, Marsh proposed that the Eosaurus vertebrae were enough to reconstruct the animal as an “air-breathing, cold-blooded, and carnivorous” creature much like the later ichthyosaurs, and the shape of its vertebrae confirmed that “Eosaurus was capable of rapid progress through the water in pursuit of its prey, which was probably fishes; and since it had then, according to our present knowledge, no superior in point of size, it must have reigned supreme in the waters of the Carboniferous era.”

Curiously, especially given the praise he would later receive for providing fossil evidence of evolution such as birds with teeth and horses with multiple toes, young Marsh thought Eosaurus was evidence against evolutionary change. If ichthyosaur-like creatures extended so much further back in time, then clearly the fossil record was full of surprises and the apparent progression of life through the ages was an illusion created through our narrow understanding of the past. “Occurring as they do in Palaeozoic strata,” Marsh wrote, “[the Eosaurus bones] add another to the arguments that have been brought against the so-called ‘Development Theory;’ and they show with how great caution we should receive the assertions, so frequently and confidently made on negative evidence alone, of the exact date of the creation or destruction of any form of animal or vegetable life.”

This was Marsh’s second paper – his first was a collection of mineralogical observations about Nova Scotia – and its publication gave him a bit of a boost. An abbreviated version was even read before London’s august Geological Society in November of the same year, and the group subsequently elected Marsh as a member. That isn’t to say that everyone agreed with Marsh’s assessment.

While Marsh was describing his Nova Scotia fossils, T.H. Huxley was working on a creature called AnthracosaurusT.H. Huxley was working on a creature called Anthracosaurus – an early amphibian which was placed among a group called “labyrinthodonts” at the time. Vertebrae Huxley attributed to Anthracosaurus were quite similar to the ones Marsh had described, “and it was with conviction in my mind”, Huxley wrote in an addendum to his Anthracosaurus paper, “that I ventured to caution the members of the Geological Society, on the occasion of reading Mr. Marsh’s paper on ‘Eosaurus Acadianus,’ against too hastily concluding that the vertebral centra, which he had found in the Nova-Scotian coal-field and then described, were necessarily Ichthyosaurian.” Maybe Marsh’s creature belonged to “some genus of intermediate characters, between Labyrinthodonts and Ichthyosaurians” Huxley allowed, but it seemed more likely that Marsh had found part an animal closely allied to Anthracosaurus.

So what was Eosaurus? That’s difficult to say, and depends on who you ask. While the general consensus among paleontologists has been that the creature was some sort of archaic amphibian, a paper published by John Calder on the history of Nova Scotia fossil finds charges that Marsh may have been right for the wrong reasons. According to Calder, “Legend has it that Marsh’s fossil actually was purchased from a fellow seafarer who convinced O.C. of its origins at Joggins [, Nova Scotia].” The fossils, according to this bit of scuttlebutt, really did belong to an ichthyosaur, albeit one found in along England’s Jurassic Coast and later transported across the Atlantic by whoever purchased the vertebrae. If true, Marsh would have correctly identified the fossils but entirely bungled their significance thanks to his reliance on a sailor’s say-so.

Like many other paleontological legends and rumors, the hearsay about Eosaurus is difficult to confirm or deny. Had Marsh recorded the spot where he found the fossils then paleontologists could return to the site in an attempt to find additional fossils from the same sort of creature, but, alas, young Marsh does not appear to have done so. Likewise, the pair of vertebral centra are not especially distinctive fossils – determining what they belonged to requires a great deal of detailed anatomical knowledge. Perhaps another look at Marsh’s Eosaurus, as well as his notes from his 1855 trip, might be worthwhile for a paleontologist with an interest in the history of science.

Regardless of what Eosaurus actually was, the episode played out before Marsh had made up his mind about paleontology. Rather than being a brilliant first glimmering of a man who would become one of the most important vertebrate paleontologists of all time, though, I think the exchange is more telling in terms of Marsh’s personality. He sat on the bones for seven years and apparently did not think very much of them, at least until Agassiz threatened to scoop him. (Had Agassiz not been involved I think it is entirely possible that Marsh would have continued to let the bones collect dust.) This was Marsh’s introduction to the contentious world of scientific publication – early practice for the acrimonious race to master America’s dinosaurs he would later run against his rival Cope.

Top Image: The Joggins fossil cliffs at Nova Scotia, near where Marsh found his Eosaurus vertebrae. Photo by M.C. Rygel, image from Wikipedia.


Calder, J. 2006. “Coal Age Galapagos”: Joggins and the Lions of Nineteenth Century Geology. Atlantic Geology, 42, 37-51

Huxley, T. 1862. Description of Anthracosaurus Russelli, a new Labyrinthodont from the Lanarkshire Coal-Field. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 19, 56-68

Marsh, O. 1862. Description of the remains of a new enaliosaurian (Eosaurus acadianus), from the coal formation of Nova Scotia. American Journal of Science and Arts, 34, pp. 1–16.

Schuchert, C. and LeVene, C. 1940. O.C. Marsh: Pioneer in Paleontology. Yale University Press: New Haven. pp. 42-66

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