Mary Anning was one of the most important paleontologists in history. (Image: Public Domain)
Most of the “founding fathers” of paleontology owe their success to the back-breaking labor of Mary Anning. Anning’s fossil finds were used to formulate ideas about extinction and evolution, and she directly inspired Charles Darwin among other great 19th Century scientists.
Anning and her life are fascinating. She astonishingly persevered in the face of the immense challenges she faced as a poor woman and Dissenter (protestant not of the Anglican Church). Anning’s ability to overcome these challenges is inspirational.
There have been many biographies about Anning, but my series is primarily based on the book “The Fossil Hunter” by Shelley Emling. If you want to read more on Mary, check out her writeup on the Trowlblazers blog, or another post with great illustrations on the Sci-Illustrate blog. There is also a campaign to raise funds to build a statue of Anning in Lyme Regis (Mary Anning Rocks)!
This is Part 1, where I will first discuss why I think Anning deserves honor as a member of my Founding 5.
Reptiles of the Sea
Mary had a knack for finding fossils. She lived in Lyme Regis, a small coastal town in southwest England where the black and grey outcrops of Jurassic-aged Blue Lias stand tall against the relentless punishment of the sea.
Anning grew up hunting for fossils along these cliffs with her father, and even at an early age had success. She sold her first ammonite at age 11.1,2
Mary would forever change history when at the age of 12 she and her brother stumbled across an odd shape in the cliff wall. Anning commandeered the town to help her unearth what ended up as a nearly complete ichthyosaur skeleton (Temnodontosaurus platyodon)1.
She sold the fossil for £23, but it was later resold for twice as much.1
Despite her amazing find, Mary did not receive credit for the discovery. Instead, Sir Everard Home described and published the fossil.1,3 Nowhere in his original writings does he mention Mary. Home instead credited the museum owner who purchased the fossil both for the discovery and for Anning’s meticulous prep work1.
Anning’s next find forever changed our thinking of life in the past. In 1823 she unearthed a complete plesiosaur skeleton (Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus). While plesiosaurs were known to science, nobody had yet found such a complete skeleton.
Mary’s produced an amazingly detailed sketch of the fossil, which proved the past existence of an animal unlike any living species. It fueled debate about extinction and was later used as evidence for evolution1.
Anning faced backlash from the paleontological community largely due to her class and gender. Georges Cuvier, who some consider the “founding father of paleontology,” claimed Mary made up the discovery. However, Cuvier was a man, and as such his claims were taken with more weight than those of a young woman. He asserted he did not need evidence to back up his claim. Mary was not allowed to defend herself.1,4
William Conybeare, a friend of Anning, presented her drawings to the Geological Society of London. Conybeare did not give her credit, and only referred to Mary as the “proprietor” who sought money for the find.
Newspapers of the day gave Conybeare credit without any mention of Anning.5 The male-dominated science community had effectively banished her from her rightful place.
Odd Finds and the Mystery of “Bezoar Stones”
Despite the lack of official credit, Mary quickly became famous for her amazing finds. She discovered and described a pterosaur (Dimorphodon), but once again was not allowed to publish. Instead William Buckland, Oxford’s first geology professor, presented the fossil and was officially given credit for it.1
Anning also discovered an odd ray-like fish, Squaloraja. Again she produced a professional-quality sketch of the fossil, but her work still did not make her a part of the academic paleontological community. Many paleontologists argued at length about the odd fossil, but none of them included Anning or gave her credit for the discovery1.
One of the oddest groups of fossils on the beaches of Lyme Regis were what locals called “bezoar stones”. These lumpy cone-shaped rocks were often found washed up on the beach and were clearly not related to the more common limestone pebbles.
Anning cracked these stones open with her hammer and found they were full of fish bones. She also noticed they tended to congregate in the midsections of ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons.
Anning contacted William Buckland and suggested the bezoar stones were in fact fossilized feces. Buckland later termed these odd stones “coprolites.”1 Anning had inadvertently started the study of coprolites, still an important part of paleontology.
Despite her role in their discovery, Buckland receives more credit for establishing the study of coprolites. Anning was once again erased from paleontological history due to the “bias of the fossil record.”
Why Mary Anning was a Foundational Paleontologist
Through her discoveries of exotic past lifeforms, Anning proved extinction was a natural part of Earth history. Her finds also showed that life gradually changed over vast geologic times.
Our usual “founding fathers” of paleontology owe their greatness to Anning’s tireless work on the slippery shores of Lyme Regis. Her finds transformed fossils from simple curiosities to evidence of a past world rich with strange life forms.
Mary’s success made her famous, but her status as a poor woman was a constant hurdle. Her notoriety declined after her death, as the contributions of white men, many of whom used her work without credit, were instead lauded.
Maybe by highlighting her incredible accomplishments, we soon will begin our lists of top paleontologists with “Anning.”
Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to leave me a comment or get in contact. I’ll have another Micro Musing up next week and the next part of the Mary Anning story in about 2 weeks where I will discuss some of Anning’s key partnerships and friendships that shaped her into the scientist she was.
- Emling, S. (2009). The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Roberts, History of Lyme Regis & Charmouth, p. 288
- Home, E. (1814). Some Account of the Fossil Remains of an Animal More Nearly Allied to Fishes Than Any of the Other Classes of Animals, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 104: 571–577.
- Pierce, P. (2006). Jurassic Mary: Mary Anning and the Primeval Monsters. United States: History Press.
- Goodhue, Curious Bones, p. 40
Part of my “Founding Five” diverse paleontologists