In 1887, Florentino Ameghino, former Assistant Director of the Museo de la Plata, and Francisco P. Moreno, head of the museum, were in a middle of a bitter dispute. The discovery of the phorusrhacid birds played a big role in this story. The feud between Ameghino and Moreno is in many aspects similar to the well-known feud between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, which took place in the United States at roughly the same time.
Florentino Ameghino was born on September 19, 1853. He came from a family of Italian immigrants who settled in 1854 in the town of Lujan, where the extraction and exportation of fossils were a lucrative activity. Throughout his scientific career, he was seconded by his younger brother Carlos Ameghino (1865–1936). Carlos had been employed by Moreno at the same time as his brother, as “travelling naturalist” for the Museo de La Plata. During his trips, he gathered a remarkable collection of fossil mammals, later described by Florentino. In January 1888, Florentino Ameghino resigned from his position at the Museo de La Plata, and Moreno denied him access to the paleontological collection. From that moment, and until became head of the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales in Buenos Aires in 1902, the Ameghino brothers continued with their palaeontological exploration, without any permanent official support, but they managed to get the funds to run their paleontological investigations as a private enterprise. For instance, Karl von Zittel subsidized their explorations, receiving in exchange fossils for the collection of the Munich University. Meanwhile Moreno, in order to gain priority over his rivals, published a series of brief reports about the new palaeontological discoveries made by his field researchers.
In 1895, the critical financial situation forced Florentino Ameghino to sell his fossil bird collection, in order to support his further work in Patagonia. The collection was purchased by the London Museum by the sum of 350 £ in 1896. When Florentino became director of the Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires in 1902 the selling of fossils ceased, and he started making claims for the return of the museum’s collections. He also proposed that the most remarkable specimens of Patagonian and Pampean fossil faunas be cast and stored in Buenos Aires and La Plata museums to be used in Argentinean schools. The same casts were sent to Museums all over the world and in exchange, Ameghino received casts of the oldest fossil mammals from Africa and the Northern Hemisphere to compare with the Patagonian faunas (Podgorny, 2005). It was a smart way to prevent the sale of the original fossils.
Ameghino, F. 1895. Sobre las aves fosiles de Patagonia. Boletín del Instituto Geografico de Argentina 15:501–602.
Ameghino, F. 1891a. Mamíferos y aves fósiles Argentinos: espécies nuevas: adiciones y correciones. Revista Argentina Historia Natural, 1:240-259.
Eric Buffetaut (2013), Who discovered the Phorusrhacidae? An episode in the history of avian palaeontology, Proceedings of the 8th International Meeting of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution Paleornithological Research 2013.
Moreno, F.P. 1889. Breve reseña de los progresos del Museo La Plata, durante el segundo semestre de 1888. Boletin del Museo La Plata, 3:1-44.
Podgorny, I. 2005. Bones and devices in the constitution of paleontology in Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century. Science in Context 18(2): 249-283