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Othniel C. Marsh

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othniel marsh

Othniel C. Marsh

Name:

Othniel C. Marsh

Born/Died:

1831-1899

Nationality:

American

Dinosaurs Named:

Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops

About Othniel C. Marsh:

Othniel Charles Marsh has the distinction of having named more "popular" dinosaurs than anyone else in paleontological history: every schoolkid knows about Allosaurus, Stegosaurus and Triceratops, but not many are as familiar with the more obscure discoveries (Goyocephale, anyone?) of other, equally devoted fossil hunters. During his long career—much of it funded by his rich uncle, who bankrolled the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University--Marsh discovered dozens of dinosaur genera, as well as hundreds of prehistoric mammals and birds (in fact, he was the first expert to propose that birds descended from dinosaurs).

Besides his legacy of named dinosaurs, Marsh is best known for his role in the Bone Wars--his vicious rivalry with the paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, which started when Marsh (a bit too bluntly) informed Cope that he had placed the head of an Elasmosaurus skeleton on its tail, rather than its neck. Over the next two decades, the two wealthy scientists embarked on numerous digs, trying to one-up each other, and enriching our knowledge of prehistoric life in the process. (Like Cope, Marsh eventually had a dinosaur named after him, the somewhat puny plant-eater Othnielia.)

It may seem surprising, considering his outsized impact at the time, that Marsh is today dismissed by many professional fossil hunters as an "armchair paleontologist." He certainly didn't get his hands dirty out in the field, preferring to leave the grunt work to his hundreds of (often poorly treated) employees, and he analyzed so many fossils, so quickly, that mistakes inevitably crept into his work. Add in his feud with Cope, and the fact that he was born into comfortable wealth, and you can see why so many contemporary paleontologists take a dim view of Marsh!

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