Othniel Charles Marsh

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Othniel Charles Marsh (1831–1899) was an American paleontologist and professor of paleontology at Yale UniversityWikipedia.[1] He is most notable for his participation in the Bone WarsWikipedia with his arch-rival, fellow paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. It was a tumultuous affair that led to the ruin of both men, but considerably enriched paleontology in the process.[2]

Bone Wars[edit]

Marsh first met Cope in Berlin in 1861. Marsh already had two university degrees, as compared to Cope's lack of formal educational training past high-school age, but Cope already had 37 papers to his name, unlike Marsh. The two men took a liking to each other, and Marsh led Cope on a tour of the city.[2] The Bone Wars proper began when Marsh pointed out that Cope had placed the head of an Elasmosaurus on the wrong end of the reconstructed skeleton, placing it on the tail and not the neck. Cope was deeply embarrassed by this, and tried to buy up the remaining copies of paper where he had published about the reconstruction, but it was too late: a fellow paleontologist named Joseph LeidyWikipedia exposed Cope's attempted coverup at a meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences.[2]:4

The two men proceeded to duke it out amongst themselves for the rest of the century. They often dynamited fossil sites in the hopes that their rival wouldn't upstage their hunting grounds, they slandered and attacked each other in print, while their hired crews raced each other to discover new fossils.[3] The two scientists worked hastily to describe any new fossils, often based on scanty materials. They gave different names to the same animal, and they mixed up different skeletons together.[3] Ultimately, they ended up destroying each other's reputations to the point that no other paleontologist wanted anything to do with either of them.


The two men proceeded to name and describe over 130 new species of dinosaur, greatly enriching the then scanty corpus of knowledge we had on the magnificent beasts. They discovered treasure troves of new mammals, birds, and non-dinosaur reptiles, and while not the first to explore the American West in search of fossils, they were the most prolific up until that point.[3] Among the many feathers in Marsh's cap was the discovery of the toothed birds Icthyornis and Hesperornis, which showed that birds at one point possessed teeth, thereby enriching our then scant knowledge of bird evolution.[3] Marsh also proposed the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs, a theory far ahead of his time.[3]

Marsh's seminal work on horse evolution provided a huge boon of evidence for Darwin's theory of evolution. Already new transitional species were being discovered, and Marsh had managed to work out a rough sequence of transitional taxa leading up to, in his view, modern day Equus. Marsh's work on horse evolution actually managed to convince Thomas Henry Huxley that the epicenter of horse evolution was in North America, and not in Europe as he had earlier supposed.[4]


  1. "Othniel Charles Marsh". Scientific American (May 1886) 54 (18): 279. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Jaffe, Mark (2000). The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E. D. Cope and O. C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science. New York: Crown Publishing Group. ISBN 0-517-70760-8. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Othniel C Marsh biography courtesy of the University of California Museum of Paleontology]
  4. "The evolution of the horse: History and techniques of study"