Saturday, January 21, 2012

Amphicoelias fragilis

We all know that the Blue Whale is the longest (and largest) living vertebrate. But is it the longest one to have ever lived? What about Dinosaurs? And what are "The Bone Wars?" Time for a story!

The year is 1877, the place- Colorado. Two paleontologists, Othniel C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, had been embroiled in a paleontological battle of one-up-manship for nearly a decade. These "Bone Wars" stem back to 1868 when Marsh publicly humiliated Cope for reconstructing an Elasmosaurus incorrectly. The battle then intensified when Marsh tossed scientific decorum to the wind and bribed excavators to exclusively send him fossils from a site in New Jersey.

These underhanded actions went on well into the 1890s, as both men resorted to theft, bribery, and destruction of property in attempts to come out on top. They also strove to ruin the other's credibility and get their funding cut off. In the end, both men were ruined financially, and gave American Paleontology some pretty bad PR in the eyes of their European counterparts.

Cope's A. fragilis vertebrae drawing
However, the competition was pretty good for discovery, as they did end up identifying almost 140 new species of Dinosaur in the process. (If you  had to pick a winner, it would probably be Marsh. In the end he simply had more money and was able to hire larger crews, thus enabling him to discover 80 new species, compared to Cope's 56) These two rivals were responsible for the discovery of some of the most famous Dinosaur types. Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Diplodocus were all finds that can be attributed to the Bone Wars.

But.... they were also responsible for some pretty big screw ups. The whole Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus confusion? Marsh. And what about today's animal? Amphicoelias fragilis? That one is all Cope.

You see, back in 1877 there were some huge digs going on in the American west. Rich fossil sites with dozens of undiscovered species were being fought over by the two men. During this time an absolutely massive vertebrae was uncovered, measuring 5 feet by 9 feet. A creature would have had to measure nearly 200ft long in order to have a bone that size! That would make this Sauropod the longest vertebrate to have ever lived!

...But Cope screwed up somewhere. Because the bone was lost not long after it's uncovering. The only evidence we have are notes and drawings made by Cope. Did he exaggerate? Was there a clerical error? No one really knows, and so Amphicoelias fragilis remains an asterisk on the "Longest-Creatures" list, pending additional fossil evidence.

Status : Extinct
Location : United States
Size : Length up to 200ft? (61m)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Reptilia -- Order : Saurischia
Superfamily : †Diplodocoidea -- Genus : †Amphicoelias -- Species : A fragilis

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