Marsh Cope palaeontologists bone wars
Othniel Charles Marsh (L) and Edward Drinker Cope were rival palaeontologists whose bitter feud is the subject of a novel by Michael 'Jurassic Park' Crichton Wikimedia Commons

The widow of the author Michael Crichton has discovered a novel by her late husband detailing the intense rivalry between two 19th century palaeontologists resulting in fraud, bribery, rock fights, and the enduring popularity of dinosaur-related matters. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were initially friends, but became bitter enemies whose squabbles went beyond the grave.

Crichton, who died in 2008, wrote a number of best-selling novels including Jurassic Park, which spawned a highly lucrative film franchise. He corresponded with palaeontologist Edwin H Colbert, and it is thought this is what drew him to the so-called "Bone Wars" of the 19th century, during which rival palaeontologists resorted to desperate measures to get one over their rivals.

In the 1870s Marsh and Cope resorted to bribing workers on the Transcontinental Railroad. As the railroad was under construction incredible amounts of fossils were unearthed. Rival workmen played each scientist off against the other to get more money, and at Como Bluff in Wyoming – where fossils for diplodocus and stegosaurus were discovered – their men pelted each other with rocks.

Both men were quick to disparage the other and highlight their rival's mistakes in public, and when Cope was near death in 1897 he asked for his brain to be measured to see if it was larger than that of his rival. However, Marsh, who died two years later, declined to participate and so Cope's head remains in storage at the University of Pennsylvania.

Although their rivalry was an embarrassment to many within the field, it has also been credited with popularising the subject of palaeontology.

"When I came across the manuscript in Michael's files, I was immediately captivated," Crichton's widow Sherri told the Sunday Times. "It has his voice, his love of history, research and science all woven into an epic tale. It was obviously an important book for Michael."

Dragon Teeth is to be published by Harper Collins in May 2017.