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The Missing Piece: A Tale of a Tail
Background Information for Teachers

Background Information on the Historical Context of the Dig for Elasmosaurus platyurus Cope

Manifest Destiny was the belief held by many in America during the 1800s. This belief included the idea that Americans had the God-given right to push westward to claim and settle the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. During the era of Westward Expansion our country not only claimed land, but also progressed politically, economically, socially, and technologically.

As more Americans began moving west, the need to send goods and information between the East and West increased. This need was met with the building of the transcontinental railroad. The railroad companies, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, were faced with many challenges such as mountains and snow drifts in the West and harsh weather and Indian attacks in the Great Plains.

To protect the railroad workers, settlers, and travelers moving west, military forts were often constructed. For example, the Kansas Pacific was a railroad in Kansas in the 1860s and 1870s. It was also known as the Union Pacific-Eastern Division. Fort Wallace was one of the last military outposts between Kansas and Denver. The soldiers at Fort Wallace not only provided protection, but also scientific and historical discoveries. Dr. Theophilus Turner was a doctor assigned to Fort Wallace. He spent a great deal of time hunting wildlife and exploring the area. During his exploration he found the "fossil bones of a very large animal", what we know now as Elasmosaurus platyurus Cope. About 35 feet of vertebrae, pieces of the skull and other fossil bones were passed on to Dr. LeConte, part of the surveying party for the railroad. He delivered the bones to paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, the "author" of our story, "The Missing Piece".

Biographical Information on Edward D. Cope, Joseph Leidy, and Othneil Marsh

Print Resources
Please refer to Student Handout 2-
marker Paleontologist Biographical Backgroundin the Teacher Resource section of this lesson.

Internet Resources
These articles provide background information on the paleontologists involved in the "Bone Wars". It provides information on their education, research, findings, and honors.

Further Reading

Anderson, Bridget. What Fossil Tell Us: the History of Life. New York. New York, NY: Bank Street College of Education in Association with the American Museum of Natural History for Lickle Publishing, 2003.

This book explains what fossils are and how they form. It also looks at what fossils reveal about life on Earth and how it has changed since prehistoric time.

Clinton, Susan. Reading Between the Bones: The Pioneers of Dinosaur Paleontology. New York, NY: Reed Business Information, Inc, 1997.

This book documents the discoveries of eight major dinosaur paleontologists. It also discusses how the scientist arrived at their conclusions, as well as the challenges faced by their study.

Cope, E.D. "On Elasmosaurus platyurus Cope.." American Journal of Science, Series 2, 50 (148), (1870): 140-141..

Edward Drinker Cope responds in this professional journal to Professor Leidy's observations of his construction and identification of the "Elasmosaurus platyurus Cope".

Everhart, Michael J. Oceans of Kansas: a Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2005.

The book provides a description of the prehistoric creatures that inhabited a water mass in the middle of North American continent in the final years of the Cretaceous period. These creatures included giant sharks, reptiles, and birds that were discovered in the 1860s.

Farlow, James Orville. Bringing Dinosaur Bones to Life: How Do We Know What Dinosaurs Were Like? . New York, NY: F. Watts, 2001.

This book provides information about the lives of dinosaurs, and tells how scientists have learned about these giant creatures. It shows how paleontologists study fossils to reconstruct the skeleton and make guesses as to the dinosaur's organs, skin, etc..

Garcia, Frank A. Discovering Fossils: How to Find and Identify Remains of the Prehistoric Past. . Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998.

This book is a guide to paleontology which teaches where to search for fossils, how to study the textures and shapes, what tools are needed, and much more. Illustrations for identifying and comparing fossils are provided.

Goodhue, Thomas W. Curious Bones: Mary Anning and the Birth of Paleontology. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing,, 2002.

This book looks at the life and work of a woman, Mary Anning, who collected fossils and made other discoveries when paleontology was first beginning.

Holmes, Thomas. Great Dinosaur Expeditions and Discoveries: Adventures with the Fossil Hunters. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishing, 2003.

This book follows paleontologist through places such as America, Africa, Canada, Patagonia, and elsewhere.

Jaffe, Mark. The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

This book brings to life the political and historical background of the story of Elasmosaurus platyurus Cope.

Ottaviani, Jim. Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: a Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh and the Gilded Age of Paleontology. Ann Arbor, MI: G.T. Labs, 2005.

This book contains a graphic novel that presents a fictionalized historical tale of two late-nineteenth century scientists, Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, who fight over the discovery of dinosaur bones.

Warren, Leonard. Joseph Leidy: the Last Man Who Knew Everything. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

This book contains biographical information on Joseph Leidy, an American scientist from the 1800s. It provides a detailed account of his life and accomplishments in areas such as paleontology and other scientific fields.

Web Sites

Academy of Natural Sciences, "Bone Wars: The Marsh-Cope Rivalry"

This article discusses the rivalry between two famous paleontologists, Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh. It gives an overview of their accomplishments, personalities, and professional relationship. The rivalry begins when Cope mistakenly puts the head on the wrong end of Elasmosaurus platyurus.

Lefalophodon, An Informal History of Evolutionary Biology, "Edward Drinker Cope,"

On this webpage John Alroy, a Center Associate at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, provides a quick synopsis of Cope's career, colleagues, and published works, as well as an image of Cope.

Lefalophodon, An Informal History of Evolutionary Biology, "Othniel Charles Marsh (1831-1899),"

This webpage offers a brief résumé of Marsh's career.

Oceans of Kansas Paleontology, Fossils from the Late Cretaceous Western Interior Sea, The tale of a tail: Or how easy it was to put the head on the wrong end of Elasmosaurus platyurus Cope 1868

This is a wonderful resource that illustrates and explains the discovery and story of the famous Elasmosaurus platyurus Cope of 1868. Cope put the head on the wrong end of Elasmosaurus platyurus Cope.

Prehistorics Illustrated, "The Elasmosaurus files: E. platyurus (Cope, 1868) type species,"

This website offers a chart of facts regarding the elasmosaurus and its identification. For images of a museum display of the dinosaur, click on "Illustrations" at the top right of the page. Images are from the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington.

The Geological Society of America, Education and Teacher Resources, "Intermediate Paleontology and Evolution,"

Contains additional teacher resources and website links on intermediate paleontology and evolution.

University of California Museum of Paleontology, Evolution Wing, "Othniel C. Marsh,"

This page not only recounts the career accomplishments of Marsh, but also the antagonistic relationship which was developed with his contemporary, Edward Drinker Cope.

University of California Museum of Paleontology, "Edward Drinker Cope,"

This web page from the University of California Museum of Palentology clearly explains Cope's evolutionary ideas and touches generally on his accomplishments as an herpetologist, mammalogist, and paleontologist.


Champion Entertainment. Paleontologist. Venice, CA: TMW Media Group, 2003. This 13-minute video provides information about careers in paleontology, featuring a visit with a professional dinosaur hunter, discussing the skills, training, and education needed to be a paleontologist. It also discusses why the work is important. (Grades 5-8) Cochran, Peter. Fossils: Windows into the Past. Raleigh, NC: Rainbow Educational Media, 1998. This 26-minute video presents an introduction to paleontology, the study of prehistoric life, explains how fossils are formed, and visits dinosaur digs to show how scientist learn about the past. Teacher's guides, a summary, questions, activities, glossary, bibliography, appendix of museums with fossil exhibits, and a script are also included. (Grades 5-8)

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