July 28 – Cope With It

Today’s factismal: Edward Drinker Cope is roughly one million times younger than the dinosaur named for him.

In the annals of paleontology, two names stand before all of the others: Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. These two got along about as well as an allosaurus (discovered by Marsh) and a amphicoelias (discovered by Cope). In part, their rivalry was because both men had egos almost as large as the animals that they dug up. And in part, their rivalry was due to their very different backgrounds; where Marsh was an old-fashioned, old-style gentleman who was astute enough to have a rich uncle, Cope was an entrepreneur who paid for many of his digs using the profits from a silver mine that he discovered.

Drinker (the man, not the dinosaur) (Image courtesy Oceans of Kansas)

Drinker (the man, not the dinosaur)
(Image courtesy Oceans of Kansas)

Those backgrounds showed in the quality and quantity of their publications. Cope had to publish his papers quickly between his other work; as a result, he published a lot of papers, but they were filled with errors which led to personal embarrassment when Marsh would publicly correct them. Marsh could afford to take the time to triple-check every detail before submitting his papers, and so he published fewer papers that were less likely to have errors (though Marsh did commit the biggest blunder ever in paleontology). Over the course of fifteen years, they would engage in a public “duel” in which they vied to name the most, the biggest, and the best preserved dinosaurs. Who won is debatable (unless you say it is science, thanks to all the new data we gained). Marsh found more species (80 to 56) but Cope published more papers (1,400 to 200) and found bigger specimens.

Thanks to Cope’s influence in the field, he has had a dinosaur named after him. The Drinker nisti (“Drinker from National Institute of Standards and Technology {who paid for the dig}”) is actually related to the one named for Marsh, which just means that the rivalry is older than you thought! Drinker (the man) was born 173 years ago today, and Drinker (the dinosaur) lived 155 million years ago, which means that the man is about one millionth as old as the dino.

If you’d like to get involved with your very own bone wars, why not join the Open Dinosaur Project? You’ll get to measure bones and make a very real contribution to our understanding of how dinosaurs evolved. To participate, head over to:
http://opendino.wordpress.com/

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