"D'ya hear about the moon-bison?"

How Twain and other writers pulled off elegant pranks against 19th century life science

Lynda Walsh
Mar 1, 2007
It was September 1880, and the famous American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope was in Arizona, furiously digging for fossils in a race to be the first to prove Darwinian evolution. So when someone showed Cope an old copy of the Territorial Enterprise from Virginia City, Nevada, reporting the amazing discovery of a "highland alligator," he immediately took up pen and paper. If reports were true, Cope urgently wrote to the Enterprise, would it be too much to ask to have the skull, skin, and feet, "even if dirty and broken," sent to him post-haste?
Reading this letter several weeks later in the offices of the Territorial Enterprise, Dan De Quille (né William Wright), the author of the alligator report, likely chuckled to himself -- the entire story was a fabrication. Quille annotated the envelope "A Professor who was sold on the 'Highland Alligator'" before filing it, unanswered, alongside the...