200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 106: “Crucible of the Bone Wars ”

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illustration of uintathere skulls
Reconstructions of the skull of Uintatherium robustum by Joseph Leidy (left), Eobasileus cornutus by Edward Drinker Cope (center), and Dinoceras mirabilis by Othniel Charles Marsh.

Crucible of the Bone Wars

Accounts of the Bone Wars between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh commonly focus on their squabbles over dinosaur fossils, but their epic and vitriolic rivalry really erupted over a group of enigmatic and spectacularly bizarre mammals from southwestern Wyoming. These creatures were as large as rhinos, but their legs were disproportionately short. They also bore huge canine tusks and sported two or three pairs of bony knobs on top of their skulls. Now known as dinoceratans or uinitatheres, these animals have no living relatives. Scientists still puzzle over their relationship to other mammals.

The paleontological treasures from Wyoming first came to light when Joseph Leidy published an 1868 account of an unusual fossil mammal donated by two physicians stationed at Fort Bridger. Marsh quickly mobilized an expedition to the region in 1870 and returned with a trove of fossils. He sent a second expedition in 1871, but he spent the summer in New Haven, Connecticut, to work on the fossils collected the year before. When Marsh got wind of impending trips by Leidy and Cope to Fort Bridger, he did what he could to discourage Leidy and sabotage Cope. Despite Marsh’s efforts, Leidy found a skull fragment and other bones that he named Uintatherium robustum in a letter he sent to the Academy in 1872. Cope suffered numerous setbacks and a severe illness, but he ultimately discovered and named another of these animals, which he named Eobasileus, sending the notice of his discovery as quickly as he could via telegram.

Although Marsh already had excellent specimens of both species before Cope and Leidy sent the notice of their discoveries, he hadn’t publicized his findings and therefore lost the ability to name the species he discovered. He reluctantly accepted the priority of Leidy’s Uinitatherium over his Dinoceras, but he never accepted Cope’s Eobasileus over his own Tinoceras. For his part, Cope never accepted Marsh’s species. Their spat soon spilled onto the pages of the scientific journal American Naturalist. Future conflicts spread to other journals, the newspapers, and even Washington politics.

Learn more about Uintatherium and the Bone Wars.

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