Monday, January 24, 2011

American Experience Unearths "Dinosaur Wars"

In the summer of 1868, paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh boarded a Union Pacific train for a sight-seeing excursion through the heart of the newly-opened American West. While most passengers simply saw magnificent landscapes, Marsh soon realized he was traveling through the greatest dinosaur burial ground of all time. Ruthless, jealous and insanely competitive, Marsh would wrestle over the discovery with the other leading paleontologist of his generation -- Edward Drinker Cope. Over time, the two rivals would uncover the remains of dozens of prehistoric animals, including over 130 dinosaur species, collect thousands of specimens, provide ample evidence to prove Charles Darwin's hotly disputed theory of evolution and put American science on the world stage. But their professional rivalry eventually spiraled out of control. What began with denigrating comments in scientific publications led to espionage, the destruction of fossils and political maneuvering that ultimately left both men alone and almost penniless.

Over 30 years of intense competition, a time period dubbed "The Bone Wars" by the press, Cope and Marsh laid the foundations of modern paleontology, and in the end they all but ruined each other. Cope died in 1897 at the age of 56, and Marsh followed in 1899 at the age of 67. Neither man lived to see the work of his lifetime discovered by the public. After their deaths, museums in New York, Washington, New Haven and Pittsburgh began mounting the fossil skeletons collected over the previous 30 years and putting them on public display for the first time. Monsters of the past were not just for scientists anymore, and they continue to enthrall new generations to this day.