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American pioneers of dinosaur discovery were bitter rivals

Posted in Dinosaurs, Historical articles, History, Prehistory, Science on Wednesday, 5 February 2014

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This edited article about dinosaurs first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 542 published on 3 June 1972.

Ornithomimus and Ichthyornis Victor,  picture, image, illustration

The slender and graceful ostrich-like Ornithomimus

Instead of working together to form a dinosaur-digging team, the two great American pioneers of dinosaur discovery became bitter rivals, each one competing against the other in his frantic search for fossils

After the discovery of Iguanodon remains at the Bernissart coal-mine in Belgium in 1878, there followed what can only be described as a great dinosaur “rush” in America.

Dinosaurs were no longer a myth. They lay buried deep in the earth and were simply waiting to be discovered. The frantic search for dinosaurs on the North American continent was soon begun though no one could have known just how many exciting fossil finds lay in store for the American pioneers of palaeontology.

For a quarter of a century, between 1870 and 1895, two of the most famous of these pioneers, Charles Marsh and Edward Cope, opened up the way to the immense fossil fields of the American West. Both men were ardent palaeontologists, both had inherited vast fortunes, and both were to transform palaeontology into a dynamic science by charging it with an exciting and adventurous spirit of discovery.

The expeditions which they carried out were beset with difficulties from the start. Enormous distances had to be covered over trackless terrain, and once unearthed the gigantic heavy fossils had to be transported with great care to the nearest railway stations in rough rattling wagons.

Instead of combining forces to form a dinosaur-digging team, Marsh and Cope became bitter rivals, each trying to outvie the other until their respective expeditions became nothing less than a fantastic race; a competition to see who would discover the most exciting, and the greatest number of, remains.

Unlike the earliest discoveries made in the United States during the 18th century in which a single bone was dug up in one area, and a different one dug up in another, the finds of Marsh and Cope were on a very grand scale. In one area the remains were so plentiful that a cabin was built out of them. This was called Bone Cabin and eventually became the headquarters of the dinosaur “dig” in that area.

South of Bone Cabin was Como Bluff, a long ridge in South Wyoming which runs parallel with the Union Pacific Railway. In 1887 two railroad men stumbled on a great mass of fossilised bones which they passed on to Marsh. Como Bluff soon revealed its long-hidden secrets. Complete skeletons of Jurassic dinosaurs, including a fine specimen of Stegosaurus, were unearthed.

This monster, with its large and heavily-built body, had a magnificent suit of armour which consisted of two rows of large, triangular bony plates along its neck, back, and part of its tail. Another odd feature of the Stegosaurus was its tiny brain which was augmented by a nerve centre situated in the spine towards the back of the body which has often been wrongly referred to as a second “brain.”

While Marsh had been working on this mass of remains at Como Bluff, Cope had not been idle. A bagful of enormous bones discovered in the Rockies at a place called Garden Park, Colorado, had been dispatched by a local collector to Cope, and so began the conflict and rivalry between the two palaeontologists.

A year earlier Cope had made a trek to Helena, Montana, where some cretaceous remains had been discovered. The decision to make the expedition had been a difficult one for Cope for the remains were in Sioux country and the famous Indian Chief, Sitting Bull, had recently won the famous battle of Little Big Horn in which General Custer and his forces had been completely destroyed. The Sioux were reputed to be in a very warlike mood.

Luckily for Cope the Sioux gave him no trouble and the trek proved to be a very profitable one.

It was during this expedition through Sioux country that the new method of preserving dinosaur remains was first employed by Cope. Cloth strips soaked in rice boiled to a thick paste were wrapped round the bones. Later the method used to set a broken limb was adopted. This involved using porous cloth soaked in plaster of Paris and is still in use today.

Much later, in 1892, a few years before his death, Cope returned to Sioux country to look for cretaceous remains and found, among other fossils, bones of the Duck-billed dinosaurs, or Hadrosaurus, which means simply, “big dinosaur.” The body of this creature was usually about thirty feet long and weighed roughly three tons. The shape of its head and jaws has suggested the name duck-billed. The jaws were broad and flat in front and were probably covered by a duck-like horny bill. Cope was richly rewarded for making such a difficult journey for the second time, by finding a magnificent skeleton of one of these dinosaurs.

It certainly looked as though Cope had won the race. He had found a wonderfully rich hunting ground. But he did not live long enough to continue his successful work. His great fortune squandered by foolish speculation in a vain attempt to prove that he could do better than the more wealthy Marsh, he died only a few years after this second expedition leaving his rival to attain fresh honours in the field of dinosaur discovery.

Towards the end of his career, Charles Marsh also turned his attention to cretaceous remains. He discovered the armoured dinosaur Nodossaurus and the more slender and graceful ostrich-like Ornithomimus.

The deaths of Marsh and Cope did not mean that the great American dinosaur rush was over. The North American Continent was a particularly rich storehouse of dinosaur remains and there was still much to be discovered.

What they had done was to pave the way for the palaeontologists who were to come after them.

The 19th century had been an exciting age for palaeontologists because during that time they had proved that prehistoric creatures had definitely existed. The twentieth century was to reveal many more secrets of the age when monsters roamed the earth.

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