Micro Musings: The woman who discovered dinosaurs

She forever changed our thinking of these “terrible lizards”

(Cover image: Public Domain)

I’m taking a short break from my two-part series on Shen Kuo. I wanted to highlight a woman on Women’s History Month, and I need to make up for me (accidentally) posting about a man (Shen Kuo) on International Women’s Day.

This week, I wrote up a short post that builds off of my last Micro Musing that asked the question “Who invented paleontology?” by asking the question in a different way:

Who discovered the dinosaurs?

If you are an avid dinosaur fan you probably have three people in mind: William Buckland, who discovered the first dinosaur fossil (Megalosaurus), Gideon Mantell, who discovered Iguanodon, and Richard Owen, who coined the term “dinosaur.” 

This list has a significant error in it. 

The wrong Mantell is given credit for the discovery of Iguanodon


Mary Ann Martell (née Woodhouse) was an avid paleontologist in England in the 19th century, almost contemporary with Mary Anning. As you can probably guess, she discovered Iguanodon. Of course, her husband Gideon Mantell was given full credit. The reason for this is, as you already now know, “bias in the fossil record.”

Mary Ann Woodhouse married Gideon Mantell, then a doctor, in 1816. Gideon became interested in fossil collecting and took his wife with him on his journeys. Mary Ann quickly became an active, and enthusiastic, paleontologist1.

In 1822, as the story goes, she went out for a walk while her husband was visiting a patient. She stumbled upon some conglomerate, and she caught sight of an odd, ridged stone jutting out from amongst the other smoother pebbles. She had, in fact, discovered a tooth of the dinosaur Iguanodon1

This story may not actually be true, however. Mantell only told it after she and Gideon divorced, and more likely the pair bought the fossil from a local quarryman2. Interestingly this story may be a way Mantell tried to take some of the credit back for the discovery. She may have been actively fighting against the “bias of the fossil record.”

The two Mantells contacted others who helped them deduce that they had discovered the remains of a large extinct reptile. Gideon named the fossil after its similarity with an iguana (Iguanodon = “iguana-toothed”).

Mary Ann Mantell prepared an extensive description of the fossil find. She drew over 300 amazingly detailed lithographs of the Iguanodon fossils1. However, she was not given any credit as a co-author, and her husband was remembered as the sole “discoverer” of Iguanodon.

Lithograph sketch of an iguanodon tooth that is ridged and wider at the top than the bottom
One of Mary Ann Mantell’s lithographs, an Iguanodon tooth.
By Khezya (Wikimedia commons) – CC BY-SA 4.0

Mary Ann Mantell’s story is another example of a women who made significant paleontological discoveries but was subsequently erased from history. She is actually not the only wife of a famous geologist or paleontologist who made equal, if not more, important discoveries as their more well-known husbands. I’m sure I will spend more time on these amazing women in the future.

I wanted to briefly highlight Mary Ann Martell to emphasize that women have always made important contributions to paleontology, and to honor on Women’s History Month by picking a paleontologist I’m sure you are not aware of.

Mary Ann Mantell deserves credit for shedding light on these ancient “terrible lizards”.

References

  1. Turner, S., Burek, C. V., & Moody, R. T. (2010). Forgotten women in an extinct saurian (man’s) world. Geological Society, London, Special Publications343(1), 111-153.
  2. Naish, D. (2009). The great dinosaur discoveries. Berkeley, CA and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

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