Bone Wars: The Texas Connection

No episode in the history of American paleontology has been as discussed, and celebrated, as the Bone Wars of the late 19th century. This contentious scientific showdown, played out during the days of the Wild West, set the foundation for fossil studies in North America, and introduced naturalists and the public alike to magnificent creatures such as Diplodocus, Uintatherium, and Dimetrodon (to pick just three of dozens).

The main figures during this controversial episode were friends-turned-rivals E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh. Both were experienced in the field, but, especially as they cemented their credentials as America’s leading paleontologists, both men increasingly relied on field assistants and a network of scientific connections to keep fossils flowing to their east coast labs. As paleontologist Louis Jacobs and co-authors explain in a new Historical Biology paper, two of Cope’s important correspondents were the geologist Robert Hill and the paleontologist Jacob Boll – field naturalists who provided Cope with information and specimens from Texas. Boll’s finds, in particular, led Cope to describe thirty different taxa, including the iconic Permian amphibian Eryops. These contributions helped Cope build his reputation as one of the preeminent paleontologists in the world, and, in their own way, fueled the scientific feud that ultimately tarnished the Philadelphia naturalist’s legacy.

For more details, see this release from Southern Methodist University and the paper by Jacobs and colleagues.