Thursday, November 29, 2012

Conservation, Alaska, and John Muir

"I am hopelessly and forever a mountaineer...I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness." - John Muir

He has been praised as "saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism." Remembered as the Father of the National Parks, he was instrumental in establishing the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. He founded the Sierra Club, one of the largest and most influential conservation organizations in the United States. Though born in Scotland, he is acclaimed as "one of the patron saints of twentieth-century American environmental activity." His travel notes, amassed within the publication Travels in Alaska, represent an extremely heartfelt account of the Alaskan frontier. He is none other than John Muir, one of the most important nature advocates America has ever known.

A Personal Journey Towards American Preservation

John Muir
Born in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland, in 1838, Muir moved to Wisconsin with his family in 1849. Just before his 29th birthday, following an accident in a sawmill that nearly cost him his sight, Muir embraced his true calling in life - the study and conservation of nature. That same year, Muir embarked on his first wild adventure - a 1,000 mile walk from Indiana to Florida, documented in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. However, it was his subsequent trip to California that sparked the true passion of Muir's career - the untamed beauty of the American mountain wilderness.

In March, 1868, Muir had his first encounter with Yosemite, an experience that shaped the rest of his life. On seeing the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Muir exclaimed, "No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite...The grandest of all special temples of nature." Muir spent the rest of his years in the shadows of mountainous peaks, devoting his life to studying nature and raising awareness about the implications of human activities. He formed relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Roosevelt and Louis Agassiz. He worked diligently to limit grazing activities in Yosemite, which eventually led to the introduction of a bill that established Yosemite as a national park. His assertion, backed by Louis Agassiz, that the valley in Yosemite was the result of glacial activity, not, as was formerly purported, an earthquake, helped establish his name in the scientific community.

Preservation, not Conservation

Though known for his conservation work, Muir identified himself as a preservationist, rather than a conservationist. The distinction resulted from a fall-out with his former friend, Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot, a renowned conservationist, focused on managing natural resources for sustainable commercial use. Muir ardently opposed this view, believing that nature should be preserved in-tact, not managed for human consumption. To Muir, nature was a spiritual experience, not one to be exploited.

Celebrating American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month with Muir

Muir visited Alaska for the first time in 1879. He returned to "nature's last frontier" repeatedly over the next 30+ years of his life, amassing a mountain of notes on his travels. His study of Alaskan glaciers was instrumental in the development of theories on landscape formation via glacial activity. Muir viewed the native people of Alaska and their reverential relationship with the Earth as an inspirational example of co-dependency with nature. He spent the last months of his life aggregating his notes into his book Travels in Alaska, which was completed posthumously by Marion Randall Parsons. In celebration of National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, we highlight this tender account of one man's journeys through the Alaskan wilderness.

"To the lover of pure wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world."

The Glaciers that Move Mountains

Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay
Glacier Bay covers 1,375 square miles, and the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve represents the largest UNESCO protected biosphere in the world. Muir first encountered Glacier Bay during his first trip to Alaska. Long-interested in the impact of glacial activity on landmasses, Muir was eager to validate Agassiz's earlier theory that much of the earth had once been covered by glaciers, and that their movement and retreat was responsible for many of the land features we see today. On a brisk Sunday morning, venturing out from his camp alone and burdened by damp clothes and tired limbs, Muir climbed 1,500 feet to catch his first glimpse of Glacier Bay:

This was my first general view of Glacier Bay, a solitude of ice and snow and newborn rocks, dim, dreary, mysterious. I held the ground I had so dearly won for an hour or two, sheltering myself from the blast as best I could, while with benumbed fingers I sketched what I could see of the landscape, and wrote a few lines in my notebook. Then, breasting the snow again, crossing the shifting avalanche slopes and torrents, I reached camp about dark, wet and weary and glad.

At the time of his first visit, the Bay was 44 miles from the sea. Muir returned to the Bay in 1899 with the Harriman Alaskan Expedition. This trip was instrumental in documenting the extreme retreat of the Bay, which now stands at 65 miles from the sea. This represents the fastest documented glacial retreat in history.

Alaska Through Native Eyes

Totem Pole at Stickeen Village
During his voyages through Alaska, Muir encountered many of the indigenous people of the land - namely, the Thlinkit (Tlingit) tribes. The Tlingit people have occupied the Alaskan territory for approximately 10,000 years. Muir wrote that the Tlingit people were compassionate and honorable, validating this assertion with a recount of the valor of one of their chiefs. 20-30 years before Muir's arrival, a war ensued between a Tlingit tribe and the Sitka tribe. The fighting lasted through the summer months, preventing any tribal members from gathering food supplies for the winter. As the cold months approached, it became apparent that the tribes would starve if the fighting did not cease.

At this crisis one of the Stickeen chiefs came out of his block-house fort into an open space midway between their fortified camps, and shouted that he wished to speak to the leader of the Sitkas.

When the Sitka chief appeared he said: "My people are hungry. They dare not go to the salmon-streams or berry-fields for winter supplies, and if this war goes on much longer most of my people will die of hunger. We have fought long enough; let us make peace. You brave Sitka warriors go home, and we will go home, and we will all set out to dry salmon and berries before it is too late."

The Sitka chief replied: "You may well say let us stop fighting, when you have had the best of it. You have killed ten more of my tribe than we have killed of yours. Give us ten Stickeen men to balance our blood-account; then, and not till then, we will make peace and go home."

"Very well," replied the Stickeen chief, "You know my rank. You know that I am worth ten common men and more. Take me and make peace."

This noble offer was promptly accepted; the Stickeen chief stepped forward and was shot down in sight of the fighting bands. Peace was thus established, and all made haste to their homes and ordinary work. That chief literally gave himself a sacrifice for his people. He died that they might live."
Native Alaskans in Canoes near Wrangell Island

Over the course of his visits to Alaska, Muir established a friendship with a member of the Stickeen tribe named Toyatte. Killed trying to bring peace in a feud between his and a neighboring tribe, Muir wrote at his death, "Thus died for his people the noblest old Roman of them all." Of Toyatte, Muir revealed,

He often deplored the fact that he had no son to take his name at his death, and expressed himself very grateful when I told him that his name would not be forgotten, - that I had named one of the Stickeen glaciers for him.

A Legacy Not Forgotten


John Muir died of pneumonia at age 76. His legacy, however, remains in the parks he tirelessly worked to preserve, in the 12 books and over 300 articles he penned, in his captivating accounts of the Alaskan wilderness, and through the Sierra Club, which to this day works to continue the cause Muir dedicated his life to achieving - the humble appreciation and passionate enjoyment of nature. And today, as such a man would have desired, Muir slumbers "among trees planted by his own hand."

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

- Grace Costantino, Program Manager, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Spreading the Word: BHL at the Smithsonian Autumn Conservation Festival

Kristen Bullard at SI Autumn Conservation Festival
Our BHL member institutions are extremely invested in the Biodiversity Heritage Library project. As the largest collaborative digital library in the biodiversity sciences, BHL is a unique and exceptional opportunity to work with like-minded institutions to repatriate the knowledge in our collections to the world. For many partners, BHL represents the single largest digital initiative at their institutions. As such, our partners take every opportunity to promote the project. Case in point: The Smithsonian Libraries' Autumn Conservation Festival!
On Saturday, October 6, and Sunday, October 7, Smithsonian Libraries (SIL) had a table at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's (SCBI) Autumn Conservation Festival in Front Royal, VA.  Smithsonian Librarians Kristen Bullard, Sue Zwicker, and Polly Lasker introduced hundreds of guests to Smithsonian Libraries' activities, including the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Despite a light sporadic drizzle on Sunday, many people stopped by the SIL table.
As they did at the recent SERC event, visitors learned about SI Libraries, the Gallery of Images and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Our younger visitors were able to color BHL coloring pages, and earned call number stickers by answering a question about how to find a particular book (Giant Pandas) at a library.  SIL staff member Anne Graham helped make this educational activity a success by creating the very popular stickers.

How does a child envision an octopus? These coloring pages from BHL, provided to younger visitors at the Autumn Festival, are quite revealing, particularly when compared with the original image!

And what about a pear? Compare a child's imaginative rendition of one to the original, from BHL.

Call Number Stickers at the SI Conservation Festival
In addition to learning about SI Libraries, visitors to the SCBI Fall Festival had direct opportunities to learn about conservation issues, exotic animal care, and the exciting and often ground breaking research being conducted by our Zoo researchers. 

Kristen Bullard interacting with visitors at the SI Conservation Festival
We hope many of our SIL colleagues will join us next year for this fun and educational event! Such venues serve as an excellent opportunity to spread the word about powerful initiatives like the Biodiversity Heritage Library. 

- Kristen Bullard, Librarian, Smithsonian Libraries

Thursday, November 22, 2012

How to Grow a Turkey and Other Fun Facts

Happy Thanksgiving From Your Friends at the BHL!

Gobble Gobble Gobble
The days before Thanksgiving are often spent by moms frantically shopping around for a prize turkey at their local supermarkets which, are hopefully already de-feathered, shrink-wrapped and packaged for our convenience. However, did you know that many folks still procure their turkey Thanksgiving meal the good old-fashioned way by “growing them?” If you are scratching your head wondering how exactly one “grows” a turkey, then this week’s Book of the Week is for you. Author Herbert Myrick tells us all about Turkeys and How to Grow Them (1905).  His book is a "Treatise on the natural history and origin of the name of turkeys; the various breeds, and best methods to insure success in the business of turkey growing In the book we learn about the different breeds of turkey from the taxonomic genus Meleagris, the awe-inspiring and downright immodest mating tactics of male turkeys and yes how to “grow” a turkey just in time for Thanksgiving. Today for fun's sake, we will be highlighting the antics of male turkey mating behaviors. Did you know that a male turkey can be called a "Tom", a "Gobbler", a "Cock" or a "Stag"? For your enjoyment this Thanksgiving holiday, we have compiled some entertaining quotes from the book about Stag mating behavior. Subsequently, these very quotes will be visualized for you with a short Youtube video that documents the mating dance of one very special Gobbler, Marco the Turkey. Quite the show, indeed. Not to be missed.

Moreover, we will provide you with three gifts this Thanksgiving and it's not even Christmas yet:
 1) Stellar images of turkeys from our Flickr account including a rare Audubon print of the wild Turkey from his famed work, The Birds of America.

2) Turkey day cover art is now available for you to freely use with any of your social media accounts; created expressly for you by BHL's Flickr Guru Gilbert Borrego. Thanks Gilbert!

3) A fun fact to share at the Thanksgiving table about tryptophan and how it ISN'T linked to the post-meal sleepiness that we are all too familiar with.

Surely all things to be thankful about! Enjoy!

Turkey Mating Habits
To begin our discussion of male turkey mating behaviors we would like to preface a forthcoming video of a particularly amorous Gobbler’s mating dance with a quote from the book, Turkeys and How to Grow Them:

“The males may then be heard calling to the females from every direction, until the woods ring with their loud and liquid cries, which are commenced long ere the sun appears above the horizon, and continue for hours with steadiest persistency.”

"…If the female answering the call is on the ground, the males fly to her and parade before her with all the pompous strutting that characterizes the family.”

Ready to see this in action? It seems that in the turkey world, the males are the showier sex: strutting about, dancing, crying delirious mating calls, and putting on dazzling outfits to impress their female counterparts. And what do the females do? They casually ignore the male’s pleas for the most part. Occasionally, they have been known to entertain a mating dance which you absolutely must witness for yourself:

Marco’s Mating Display

(You may need to use Explorer or Safari to view the video. Firefox's recent Flash update has technical issues.)

Let’s thank user Sallyatthederby on YouTube for uploading this amazing display of male prowess by Marco the Turkey. He is clearly trying to attract the female in the background while simultaneously showing off for the camera. It’s funny to watch the female turkey as she looks downright confused by Marco’s behavior and disinterestedly pecks at the fence. Poor lady seems to be searching for an escape hatch. We can’t blame Marco for trying. He knows he is a lovely site! We are sure he will find love eventually.

Gift Time!

1) Stellar Turkey Images:
Source: Ornithologie (1773-1792)
Source: Nouveau recueil de planches coloriées d'oiseaux, v. 5 (1838)

Source: Birds of America, v.5 (1840-1844)

2) Social Media Cover Art: use it for your Facebook or Twitter Accounts

Full-sized download available on our Pinterest Account.

3) The Trytophan Equates Sleepiness Myth Has Been Debunked
Every year at Thanksgiving, Americans gather around and eat to their heart's content. Post-dinner they do one of three things: 1) argue with their relatives 2) hide from the crazy people 3) a good majority of us fall asleep. Turkey, the meal's main course is popularly thought to make its imbiber quite sleepy. However, this Thanksgiving you can proclaim to all of your family members that there is conclusive evidence that is absolutely positively NOT TRUE. According to the popular show Myth Busters, Tory Belleci, Kari Byron, and Grant Imahara investigated this claim that consuming turkey/tryptophan causes drowsiness. The Myth Busters Team put together three holiday meals in which to test this theory. The variables being tested were 1) portion size and 2) the presence vs. absence of turkey in the meal. After testing each meal, and timing the resultant effects of drowsiness, they found that the amount of food eaten had a much larger effect on whether or not one felt sleepy. This flies in the face of the turkey/tryptophan explanation for post-thanksgiving meal drowsiness. The conclusion of the episode was: The Tryptophan Sleepiness Myth was "Busted." Meal size and subsequent effects of insulin NOT turkey derived trytophan is responsible for your extreme sleepiness. So to be clear it's the Turkey + mulled cider + all those other side dishes that just keep coming and coming = extreme sleepiness aka food coma.

Please enjoy eating, sleeping and being merry this Thanksgiving from your friends at the BHL!

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

-Jacqueline Ford, Biodiversity Heritage Librarian

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bird Watching & Conservation with Michael Mills

Michael Mills
For many of us, leading bird watching expeditions throughout Africa would be a dream job. For Michael Mills, Angola Country Program Manager for the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, The A. P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute, and BirdLife South Africa, it's all part of the job. It probably comes as no surprise, then, that BHL is an extremely useful resource for Michael, providing him with primary source material about and fantastic illustrations of the birds he works to conserve and share with bird watching participants. 

Michael has studied African birds for ten years, focusing on their natural history, identification and conservation, with particular interest in Angolan birds. He discovered BHL about four years ago, via the
Internet Archive, our digitization partner, website. Since then, Michael says that BHL "has been a great help with accessing some of the older and more obscure literature, which is often important in the work I do." Accessing BHL 3-4 times a month on average, Michael most often downloads PDFs of the content he seeks, building a personal, digital library of the often rare books that formerly had limited distribution outside of the physical library space, not to mention outside of the countries in which the material is housed. When asked what his favorite feature on BHL was, he simply replied, "Being able to access old literature." 

His number one priority for the BHL project? "Make more texts available online." We're sure many of you can also second this request.

BHL has been making significant advances towards building a program node on the African continent beyond our current partners in
Egypt at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Our colleagues in Africa have been hard at work establishing the initiative following our organizational meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, in June, 2012. We hope to officially announce the project in the coming year, which will significantly increase our reach throughout this magnificent continent and enhance our corpus with the invaluable literature held in our African partners' collections. We have no doubt that such endeavors will help us fulfill Michael's and others' desire to see more digitized literature online, particularly in the realm of African Ornithology. 

Many of you are also familiar with our
Flickr project, which is bringing unprecedented access to the thousands of incredible scientific illustrations held in the BHL collection. Now constituting over 50,000 images, freely available for browsing, download, and reuse, the BHL Flickr contains a treasure trove of illustrations of African birds. We've selected a few of our favorites from v. 2 of The Birds of Africa to present below.

Thanks to Michael for his dedication to the field of bird conservation and for helping others enjoy these marvelous creatures. Want to read a report of one of his bird watching expeditions? Well,
you're in luck.  We send our best wishes to Michael, and hope we can continue to build our collections to provide free, open access to the material he and other researchers need to protect our planet's biodiversity into the future. 

Created with flickr slideshow.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Global BHL at TDWG 2012

A great participation in Beijing, China.

Nǐ hǎo! Last month, I attended the Annual Meeting of the Biodiversity Informatics Standards Organization (, one of my favorite meetings of the year because it provides a thorough view of the current advances in the field of Biodiversity Informatics.  TDWG 2012 was hosted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China, on Oct. 22-27.

This meeting was particularly relevant for the Biodiversity Heritage Library because of its role: "Toward an International Infrastructure for Biodiversity Information". Personally, this was my first time involved as Technical Director of BHL and therefore, I wanted to get as much as possible from the opportunity, sharing the technical work that all my BHL colleagues around the world have done this year and conveying the message of the new challenges that BHL will follow.

I arrived on Saturday and attended the TDWG Executive Committee Meeting all Sunday.  On Monday, Oct. 22nd, after the formal opening and introductions and a warm welcome by the hosts and TDWG officials, the Plenary speaker, Dr. Robert Robbins, presented on “How Diverse is the Biosphere? New Tools, Recent Discoveries, Huge Implications," followed up by several paper presentations that addressed different topics on biodiversity information standards, organization of genomic data, aggregation efforts, regional initiatives and developing technologies.  I presented on the work done by our colleague Trish Rose-Sandler to define the functional requirements for a repository of citations as improvements to our existing infrastructure in The BHL and  bibliographic citations and commented on our plans in BHL towards new services in support of a Global Names Architecture.

Tom Garnett
Former BHL Director
On Tuesday morning, at the “Biodiversity database and journal interface in e-publication era” Symposium, we enjoyed a talk titled “From Taxonomic Literature to Cybertaxonomic Content” based on a paper that our former BHL Program Director, Tom Garnett and our former BHL Technical Director, Chris Freeland, co-authored in BMC Proceedings with several other colleagues from different institutions, including Dr. Cynthia Parr from Encyclopedia of Life (EOL).

Closing Tuesday morning, the JRS Biodiversity Foundation and the Belgian Cooperation for Development sponsored the African Biodiversity Information Symposium.  It was great to see there, among other presenters, two of our colleagues who participated last year in the JRS Africa Digitization Workshop in Chicago (previous to the Life and Literature Conference): Dr. Alex Asase, from the Department of Botany, University of Ghana was presenting on “Developing biodiversity informatics infrastructure to support conservation of plant diversity in Ghana” and Lucy W. Wauringi, from Africa Conservation Center in Kenya, presented on “Building Biodiversity Information Networks for the compilation of Kenya’s Natural Capital”.  Dr. Asase was also present at the BHL Africa Meeting earlier in June of this year at SANBI.

Dr. Hong Cui presenting at the Institute of Botany, CAS
Tuesday afternoon, I was invited to present at the Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) on the latest Global BHL developments and learned about this year’s activities and future plans for the next two years with BHL-China and the National Specimen Information Infrastructure.  Dr. Hong Cui, Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona, was also invited to present on Semantic Annotation, Ontology Building, and Interactive Key Generation from Morphological Descriptions and she was also extremely kind to help out with the language barrier throughout all the meeting.

Art of Life at TDWG 2012 poster session
Wednesday morning started with personal recollections from the organizers and participants in honor of the late Dr. Frank Bisby.  Following the remembrance, the Plenary Speaker, Dr. Li-Qiang Ji from the Institute of Zoology, CAS, presented the Bisby Core - a Taxonomic Data Transfer Standard for the Multiple Taxonomy Environment.  The last hour and a half of Wednesday morning was dedicated to the poster session where I had the opportunity to represent my colleagues’ work on the Art of Life project.  Funded by NEH, this multi-institutional project involves participation from the Missouri Botanical Garden, the University of Colorado Boulder, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and other BHL partner institutions.  I was glad to see such great interest in improving access to millions of digital images demonstrated by several of the participants who approached the poster session.

Dr. Fenghong Liu at the Institute of Botany, CAS
On Wednesday afternoon, Jiří Frank, from the National Museum Prague, a member of BHL-Europe, lead the Workshop “Global dissemination of natural history content via Biodiversity Library Exhibition (BLE)” where I contributed with a small introduction to Global BHL and Dr. Fenghong Liu from the Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, presented BHL China's Latest Progress. Jiří gave an interesting Introduction to the BLE platform from the user perspective.

Dr. Xu Zheping attending TDWG 2012
Thursday morning, Dr. Zheping Xu introduced an interesting paper on the “Biodiversity Information Service in China: The Architecture and Techniques” and Cynthia Parr presented case studies from her experiences at EOL, with Katja Schulz and Jennifer Hammock, on "leveraging an international infrastructure".  Later in the afternoon, I was invited to present at the Biodiversity for Cooperation and Development Interest Group session on BHL Africa, as a way to evaluate how to work together for a coordinated project on biodiversity literature digitization towards development of digital libraries.

Finally, during the Lighting Talks on Friday, Janna Hoffman, from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, a BHL-Europe member, presented on Open Up! paleontological multimedia data for the public.  I also took the opportunity to give a short talk reminding all attendees interested in contributing to the Art of Life Schema to please send us their feedback.

As the meeting came to an end, with a feeling of having attended a very fruitful and busy event, where Global BHL staff was definitely present and very active, we all said goodbye, hoping to meet again next year during TDWG 2013 in Florence, Italy.  By the way, next year's Chair of the Program Committee will be our colleague of BHL-Europe, Heimo Rainer, from the Natural History Museum of Vienna!

And for those of you interested in reading more in depth about any of these topics, I invite you to look at the TDWG 2012 program in more detail and browse through the presentations linked here:

Until the next one, Xièxiè! Ciao!

- William Ulate R., Global BHL Coordinator & BHL Technical Director

The Great Wall of China

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bone Wars: Book of the Week

Building on the previous BHL Blog post by Clare Flemming, on the controversial and vitriol-laced “Bone Wars” between well respected paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, the Book of the Week this week actually focuses on two items. To be more exact, two versions of the same item. 

Synopsis of the Extinct Batrachia, Reptilia and Aves of North America by Edward Cope, published in Volume 14 of the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, is arguably the most famous item either paleontologist published, not due to its academic qualities but because it exemplifies and magnifies how the competition between the two men and the rush to publish led to major errors by both. Here is how Plate II from the Synopsis of the Extinct Batrachia… was first printed:

This is how it was re-printed after an error was discovered:

Do you see the difference?

How about now? 

That’s right, Cope’s reconstruction of the plesiosaur Elasmosaurus has the head on the wrong end of the dinosaur! Marsh pointed out the error soon after Cope had (too quickly) published his results. Cope and Marsh, in order to settle their argument asked, Joseph Leidy, the Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology himself, to examine the fossils and he declared that Marsh was most likely correct that Elasmosaurus has a long neck and a short tail, not the other way around as Cope had proposed. Cope was so utterly humiliated that he attempted to purchase every copy of the journal he could hunt down with the incorrect illustration and to release an updated version with the correct head placement. However, he couldn’t get his hands on all of the original erred copies (Marsh, of course, had his own copy) and the error was publicized, surely to the great satisfaction of Marsh. 

Thus, the Bone Wars had begun as the rivalry between the two men continued to intensify and only ended after the death of Cope in 1897.

The rivalry between the two men showed both sides of the academic coin in the field of paleontology at that time. While both men succeeded in advancing the field of paleontology, they also produced a negative reputation in the eye of the public that witnessed the ugly rivalry unfold in the pages of newspapers and scientific journals across the country.

Check out the images from the first copy of Synopsis of the Extinct Batrachia, Reptilia and Aves of North America at BHL Flickr. Also, take a look at all the items available at BHL authored or coauthored by Cope or Marsh in the BHL Bone Wars Collection and a select collection of books by Marsh and Cope at the new Bone Wars iTunes U Collection!

We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

-Gilbert Borrego, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fall 2012 BHL Newsletter

Want to keep up with all the latest BHL project updates? Then subscribe to our quarterly newsletter! It's full of great information about all the fun things BHL is doing. The Fall 2012 Newsletter (excerpt below) highlights the 2012 BHL Staff and Technical Meeting; our new Technical Director, William Ulate, and the formation of the Technical Advisory Group; BHL's Shark Week campaign; and BHL at ESA 2012 and ALA Midwinter 2013.

Click here to subscribe to the BHL Newsletter.

Newsletters will be archived on our public wiki.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

This Means War! A History of the Bone Wars

Edward Drinker Cope
Here at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, the story of the so-called Bone Wars is well known.

In short, the Academy's Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897), also affiliated with U. Penn, and Yale University's Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899), also affiliated with the United States Geological Survey, were both prolific, well respected paleontologists. Both unearthed, described, and published their finds of fossil fauna in the post-Civil War era when the discipline of vertebrate paleontology was quite young in the U.S.

Though the two initially enjoyed each others' company, a scientific rivalry kicked in whose results were protracted and nasty. Each scientist ridiculed the other's published works; each endeavored to damage the other's reputation; each supposedly sent thugs to the other's fossil-bone quarries to raid, if not destroy, what lay therein.

But why? Briefly, it was all about priority: who had the published privilege to name which species first. In the end, all this rushing and competitiveness resulted, according to Jaffe (2000: 100) in, for example, at least 16 taxonomic names for the same extinct mammal Uintathere. Quoting the current analysis of Walter Wheeler, Jaffes (ibid) reported, "Neither [Cope nor Marsh] paid any attention to the priority of the other's scientific names, and they both virtually ignored the priority of Leidy's. The result was nomenclatural chaos."
Othniel Charles Marsh

Fortunately much has been published about the intellectual combats between Cope and Marsh, yet the public never seems to tire of the Bone Wars. Science writer Mark Jaffe (2000) in his comprehensive The Gilded Dinosaur described Marsh and Cope as writing rebuttals to rebuttals within the pages of The American Naturalist. For several seasons the pages of that journal, whose gentle appellation is An Illustrated Magazine of Natural History, were replete with both paleontologists' accusations of blunders, errors, and recklessness. Buckets of ink were spilled on their defenses, disputes, rejections, ridicules, taunts, and vengeances.

Finally the editors of this had had enough (June 1873), informing subscribers:

WE regret that Professors Marsh and Cope have considered it necessary to carry their controversy to the extent that they have. Wishing to maintain the perfect independence of the NATURALIST in all matters involving scientific criticism, we have allowed both parties to have their full say, but feeling that now the controversy between the authors in question has come to be a personal one and that the NATURALIST is not called upon to devote further space to its consideration, the continuance of the subject will be allowed only in the form of an appendix at the expense of the author.

That expensive appendix followed (June 1873) as Marsh's Reply to Professor Cope's Explanation, whose opening lines indicate the flavor of his nine-page thesis:

THE May NATURALIST (p. 290) contains Professor Cope's long promised "explanation" of the many errors and false dates in his recent publications, and a most remarkable document this explanation is. As a sleight-of-hand performance with names and dates, it shows practice, and is amusing; but to those familiar with the subject, and to moralists, it suggests sad reflections. [et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...]

Cope chimed in again (July 1873) with On Professor Marsh's Criticisms:

THE recklessness of assertion, the erroneousness of statement, and the incapacity of comprehending our relative positions, on the part of Professor Marsh, render further discussion of the trivial matters -upon which we disagree unnecessary; and my time is too fully occupied on more important subjects to permit me to waste it upon personal affairs which are already sufficiently before the public. Professor M. has recorded his views "cgre perenne," and may continue to do so without personal notice by E. D. COPE.

Nearly 20 years after these words were published, the bitter battle for buried treasure between two 19th century vertebrate paleontologists continued to have all the intrigues of tabloid magazines today, only based on fossil finds and published claims instead of Hollywood machinations.

After all, when's the last time you read a newspaper article began with SCIENTISTS WAGE BITTER WARFARE followed by eight subtitles? That's what readers of the New York Herald encountered when they opened its pages on Sunday, January 21, 1890:

Page from New York Herald
Prof. Cope of the University of Pennsylvania, Brings Serious Charges
Against Director Powell and Prof. Marsh, of the Geological Survey.
Learned Men Come to the Pennsylvanian's Support with Allegations of Ignorance, Plagiarism and Incompetence Against the Accused Officials.
The National Academy of Sciences, of Which Professor Marsh is President, is Charged with being Packed in the Interests of the Survey.
Heavy Blows Dealt in Attack and Defence (sic) and Lots of Hard Nuts Provided for Scientific Digestion
Joseph Leidy
Things got so bad that the pre-eminent natural historian of the day, the Academy of Natural Sciences' Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), the Father of American Vertebrate Paleontology himself, decided to step out of the discipline he helped to found. This was saying a lot: among Leidy's famous firsts he described Deinondon horridus, the first dinosaur discovered in the new world -- a handful of teeth found by the Survey near the source of the Missouri River in 1856 -- and Hadrosaurus folkii, the first articulated dinosaur ever -- a nearly complete specimen unearthed in Haddonfield, NJ, in 1858. The remains of both of these animals are carefully curated under lock and key in the Academy's Vertebrate Paleontology Department to this day.

Despite the intervening 140 years since the Bone Wars raged, the topic has been the Number One subject of Academy Archives researchers in recent years. That research resulted recently in an engaging documentary film in the new series O'Hanlon's Heroes (see, just one example.

In 2012, the Bone Wars has been eclipsed only by Samuel G. Morton (1799-1851) as the most requested archival subject for researchers at the Academy Archives. Morton, certainly deserving of his own blog post, is renowned for having amassed the largest collection of human crania in the 19th century (see Morton, 1839). Like others in this story, Morton was a giant at the Academy of Natural Sciences, serving as its President from 1849 until his death. His skull collection now resides in good hands at the U. Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

1870s exterior of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia

1901 interior of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia
We here in the Academy Library & Archives are fortunate to be able to walk up to the stacks, survey entire runs of the American Naturalist, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences, where the Bone Wars played out in print, among 250,000 other titles on site.

Thanks to the efforts of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, you can access -- free -- any of 57,000+ titles from the comfort of your own space. See what discoveries you might ignite as you browse the virtual pages at

We hope you will enjoy the selection of BHL-digitized works presented in the Bone Wars Collection. You can also download select books by Marsh and Cope for free from within the iTunes environment through our new Bone Wars iTunes U collection!

Clare Flemming, M.S., C.A.
Director (Interim), Library & Archives and Brooke Dolan Archivist
Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

References and Further Reading

  • American Naturalist, An Illustrated Magazine of Natural History. 1873: Vol 7. Salem, MA: Peabody Academy of Sciences.
  • Cope, E. D., 1870. Synopsis of the Extinct Batrachia, Reptilia and Aves of North America. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 1-252+i-viii
  • Jaffe, M. 2000. The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E. D. Cope and O. C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science. New York: Crown Publishers, 424 pp.
  • Leidy, J., 1860. Extinct Vertebrate from the Judith River and Great Lignite Formations of Nebraska. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 11, pp. 139-154.
  • Morton, S. G., 1839. Crania Americana ; or, a comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America. J. Dobson, [and] Simpkin, Marshall & co: Philadelphia, London.