The Bone Wars

The “first shot,” it’s been said, was fired in South Jersey.

by Vince Farinaccio

The 1858 discovery of a nearly complete dinosaur skeleton in Haddonfield contributed handsomely to the field of paleontology, but it also sounded the call to arms in the “bone wars,” a term used to describe the ruthlessness that accompanied the prestige being accorded to the profession. And the “first shot” is usually credited as being fired in South Jersey.

In 2016, the New York Times noted, “New Jersey became an early battlefield in the ‘bone wars,’ the ferocious competition between two pre-eminent American paleontologists of the 19th century, Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Othniel C. Marsh of Yale University.”

Britannica describes Cope as a “paleontologist who discovered approximately a thousand species of extinct vertebrates in the United States” during the second half of the 19th century. He taught briefly at Haverford College in Pennsylvania before devoting himself to researching and exploring fossils. His career included “the discovery and description of extinct fishes, reptiles, and mammals of the western United States, from Texas to Wyoming.”

Marsh, on the other hand, spent his career at Yale as “the first professor of vertebrate paleontology in the United States,” according to Britannica. But that did not prevent him from undertaking numerous fossil expeditions in the American West that resulted in “the discovery of more than a thousand fossil vertebrates and the description of at least 500 more…”

In this era, Cope and Marsh were destined to be competitors simply by their vocation but, in 1868 at the start of their acquaintanceship, things became irrevocably damaged. As the New York Times article explains, “Cope lived in Haddonfield and collected fossils in the area. After inviting Marsh for a visit, Cope claimed that his guest paid the Haddonfield quarry owners to send fossils to Yale, not to the Academy [of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia].”

Any possibility of a reconciliation between the two paleontologists certainly ended when, according to Britannica, “in 1882 [Marsh] was placed in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s work in vertebrate paleontology, aggravating a fierce rivalry that existed between him and the American paleontologist Edward Cope.”

While the “bone wars” were of a personal nature, another paleontological battle, no less heated, has been carried out on a theoretical level concerning the exact cause of the dinosaurs’ demise.

The New York Times article, centering on fossil discoveries in Mantua Township, noted that dinosaur skeletons here are largely intact, which may suggest “they all died at the same time and then settled gently on the sea bottom. The dating of the fossil layer puts their deaths tantalizingly close in time to the impact of a meteor off what is now the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Most paleontologists think that the climatic cataclysm that followed killed three-quarters of the species living on Earth—and all of the dinosaurs except those that evolved into birds.”

This notion is also referenced in a 1986 South Jersey Magazine article by Dr. Harry Gershenowitz, who identifies it as the 1979 theory of “Nobelist Luis Alvarez [who] conjectured that this single catastrophic event lowered the Earth’s temperature to a degree which eliminated the dinosaur’s food chain…”

But Gershenowitz also offers other theories proposed during the late 20th century, including “environmental cataclysmic evolution,” which drastically altered the living conditions on the planet, and cites Steven Jay Gould’s 1972 “punctuated equilibrium theory,” which “affirms that species change or disappear in spurts of 50,000-year periods between long eons and epochs.”

Yet another notion, wrote Gershenowitz, is a 1980s theory proposing “that a star orbits our sun every 26 million years and produces a large increase in cosmic radiation,” which may account for the destruction of animal life 65 million years ago.

With enough theories to fuel this paleontological war, there’s no discernable ceasefire in sight.

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