September 12, 2012

Century-Old Bone Wars Fossil Dispute Unearthed From University Archives

John Neumann for — Your Universe Online

America has seen its share of wars, but did you hear about the Bone Wars? The late 1800s found archeologists digging furiously throughout the newly settled American west in a mad dash to find fossils. This lead to fighting in academic circles, and occasionally in the field itself, over disputes that became known as the Bone Wars.

Leading the search in western Texas were geologist Robert T. Hill, now acclaimed as the Father of Texas Geology, and naturalist Jacob Boll, who made many of the state´s earliest fossil discoveries, writes Margaret Alle for Southern Methodist University (SMU).

Both Hill and Boll had supporting roles in the Bone Wars through their work for one of the feud´s antagonists, Edward Drinker Cope, according to a new study by vertebrate paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs. The study by Jacobs expands knowledge about Cope´s work with Hill and Boll.

The study unveils new details about the Bone Wars in Texas that Jacobs deciphered from 13 letters written by Cope to Hill, discovered in an archive of Hill´s papers at SMU´s DeGolyer Library. The letters span seven years, from 1887 to 1894.

Working for the U.S. Geological Survey, Hill not only provided Cope with fossils of interest but also shared geological information about fossil locales. Boll, who was a paid collector for Cope – as was the practice at the time – supplied the well-known paleontologist with many fossils from Texas.

“Fossils collected by Boll and studied by Cope have become some of the most significant icons in paleontology,” said Jacobs, an SMU professor of earth sciences and president of SMU´s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

The Bone Wars were financed and driven by Cope and his archenemy, Othniel Charles Marsh, during a period of intense fossil collecting. The two were both giants of paleontology with a very public feud that brought the discovery of dinosaur fossils to the forefront of the American psyche.

The two began their scientific quests as a friendly endeavor to discover fossils. They each prospected the American frontier and also hired collectors to supply them with specimens. Over the years, Cope and Marsh identified and named hundreds of discoveries and published their results in scientific journals.

Their competition, however, evolved into a costly, self-destructive, vicious all-out war to see who could outdo the other. Despite their aggressive and sometimes unethical tactics to outwit one another and steal each other´s hired collectors, Cope and Marsh made major contributions to the field of paleontology, Jacobs said.

Born in 1858, Hill was a teenager when he left Tennessee as an orphan and arrived on the Texas frontier in 1874, eventually earning a Bachelor of Science in geology from Cornell and working as a field geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Hill was the first to identify and map the distinct rock formations in North Texas that correspond to the Earth´s Cretaceous geologic period, Jacobs said. For much of the Cretaceous, a shallow sea cut North America in half from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. Dinosaurs roamed the coastal shoreline and huge reptiles swam the waters.

Through his reading of the letters, Jacobs found that Cope disagreed with the way Hill named the Cretaceous rock units, and told him so. Cope counseled Hill: “You mustn´t mind criticism. We all get it and get used to it; but it isn´t comfortable at first.”

In subsequent letters, said Jacobs, it´s apparent Hill had changed his approach, for which Cope offered him high praise: “I wish to say definitely that your discovery of the lower Cretaceous series in this country is the most important addition to our geology that has been heard for a long time.”

Cope´s other Texas connection was through Jacob Boll, a much larger supplier to Cope who ultimately made significant contributions to the field of paleontology. Boll “is mentioned, usually in passing, in virtually every history of the subject,” according to Jacobs.

Born in 1828 in Switzerland, Boll was the first to discover vertebrate fossils in the Permian red beds along the drainages of the Wichita and Red rivers and their tributaries. “The discoveries opened up an entirely new chapter in vertebrate evolution some 280 million years old,” Jacobs said. “Boll´s finds include some of the oldest close relatives of mammals whose evolution eventually led to humans.”

While Hill and Boll were linked by their relationship to Cope, it isn´t known whether the two of them ever met, according to Jacobs. "Hill and Boll both made major contributions to frontier science at an important time in American history,” Jacobs said. “They may have been nearly forgotten, but their lives have influenced much that came later.”

At least one scholar has asserted that Cope – to keep the identity of his collectors secret from Marsh – never credited Boll for the Texan´s many fossil discoveries. Jacobs, however, found evidence that in 1878 Cope, in fact, did acknowledge Boll´s contribution, at least for the big-headed, semi-aquatic amphibian Eryops. Cope wrote that the fossil was “found “¦ by my friend Jacob Boll.”

During a break in his field labors, Boll´s fascination with ancient bones prompted him to write in his native German an ode to fossils. Jacobs found the poem in the American Museum of Natural History on a label on the back of Eryops specimen No. AMNH 4183.

SMU biology professor Pia Vogel translated the poem. Vogel and Jacobs worked with SMU English professor John M. Lewis to retain the essence of the poem in English.

“Now you will with some few others
Trek to the professor´s seat.
Awakened through his careful thought,
Be reassembled from your fragments,
To tell to others yet to come
From the sculpting of your teeth
How you lived and disappeared,
Name you he will, and what he found.”