The Bone Wars

(Frank) And we’re back again. Yes, we’ve straightened up now. (Deb) See if we can maintain it. We’re such a poor example to young people all over the place, you know it. All the teachers around the place telling the kids to behave. Act like Deb and Frank, that’s what they’re saying everywhere. School kids are being told, act like Deb and Frank and we’ve got a lot to live up to Frank. (Frank) Yes, yes, yes. (Deb) I’m doing the best I can. (Frank) Uh huh. So, you’ve been spending a lot of time way out west in Kansas. (Deb) I love it. I love the High Plains. I just can’t, I don’t know what it is but from the first time I saw the High Plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado I fell in love with it, like 20 years ago. (Frank) A lot of it I think is, because there are people that, especially from the east that have grown up in a city and they come to some place like Kansas, but then they get out west where there is wide open. Wide open and you can…if you’re up you can see for a very long way and the sky is spectacular. (Deb) The sky is spectacular and the night sky is absolutely incredible. I walked outside just a few nights ago and it was one of those nights where every single star…and you can’t believe how many more million stars there on the High Plains than there are say in Topeka, because of the light obviously, and because of the altitude and the wide open space and honestly it was overwhelming. It was just like…I’m not sure I had experienced anything like it since I was a kid. So, I absolutely love the High Plains. I love the altitude. I love the wind. I love it. I love the history. Of course, Fort Wallace, I fell in love with Fort Wallace first time I was there years ago and I had been blessed to be back many times. Fort Wallace has a fantastic expansion going on. I was out over Spring Break and they had volunteers coming in and doing some painting. They are actually creating facades inside their addition of the town of Wallace, the old Ruby Doe Hotel, the shops that were there. The next stage is creating the facades of Fort Wallace itself. But in the midst of this is the casting of a 42 foot Plesiosauria that was dug up out there by the Post Surgeon in 1867. That’s already hanging. Even though the expansion is underway, that casting is already up and that’s what I want to talk about in this segment today. It’s spectacular. (Frank) Great. (Deb) It’s awesome. (Frank) Let’s take a look. (Deb) In the second half of the nineteenth century, important finds were made in the sediments of the American Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway, the Niobrara Chalk. One fossil in particular marked the start of the Bone Wars between the rival paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Cope’s Elasmosaurus with its head on the tail and lacking hind limbs In 1867, physician Theophilus Turner near Fort Wallace in Kansas uncovered a plesiosaur skeleton, which he donated to Cope. Cope attempted to reconstruct the animal on the assumption that the longer extremity of the vertebral column was the tail, the shorter one the neck. He soon noticed that the skeleton taking shape under his hands had some very special qualities: the neck vertebrae had chevrons and with the tail vertebrae the joint surfaces were orientated back to front. Excited, Cope concluded to have discovered an entirely new group of reptiles, which would be distinguished by reversed vertebrae and a lack of hind limbs, the tail providing the main propulsion. After having published a description of this animal, followed by an illustration in a text book about reptiles and amphibians, Cope invited Marsh and Joseph Leidy to admire his new Elasmosaurus platyurus. Having listened to Cope’s interpretation for a while, Marsh suggested that a simpler explanation of the strange build would be that Cope had reversed the vertebral column relative to the body as a whole, in other words, Cope had gotten it backwards; the head was on the wrong end. When Cope reacted indignantly to this suggestion, Leidy silently took the skull and placed it against the presumed last tail vertebra to which it fitted perfectly: it was in fact the first neck vertebra, with still a piece of the rear skull attached to it. Mortified, Cope tried to destroy the entire edition of the textbook and, when this failed, immediately published an improved edition with a correct illustration but an identical date of publication. He excused his mistake by claiming that he had been misled by Leidy himself, who, describing another specimen, had also reversed the vertebral column. Marsh later claimed that the affair was the cause of his rivalry with Cope: “he has since been my bitter enemy”. Both Cope and Marsh in their rivalry named many plesiosaur genera and species, most of which are today considered invalid. Today, the fossilized remains of this beast are in the holdings of Drexel’s Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia where a casting is suspended over the visitor’s desk. A casting also is suspended from the ceiling of the Fort Wallace Museum.

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