Mary Anning was born in the town of Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast of England in 1799. She was introduced to fossil collecting by her father, Richard, who was a cabinet maker who supplemented his income by mining the coastal cliff-side fossil beds near Lyme Regis, and selling his finds to tourists. When he died of tuberculosis at the age of 44, the Anning family was left without a bread winner and Mary and her brother Joseph began to search out fossils full-time to earn an income.
Fossil collecting was very popular in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, and as the years passed the hobby evolved from collecting for collecting’s sake into a more rigorous science, particularly in view of the increased biological and geological knowledge that was coming to the fore. Anning supplied fossils to the scientific community and over time she established lasting relationships with some of the movers and shakers in the field.
At the tender age of twelve she made her first major discovery, namely the complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur. Her brother had discovered its skull the year before, but had mistaken it for a crocodile skull. The main part of the skeleton was nowhere to be found, but the following year it was washed out of the cliffs by a winter storm. This find was important enough to be described in the Transactions of the Royal Society and she went on to find two other distinct species of ichthyosaur.
The family’s luck turned when Thomas Birch, a wealthy fossil collector, gave the family £400 which gave them a certain amount of security although money was still a bit tight. Mary could now continue with her fossil hunting and she discovered another plesiosaur in 1821 which was described by William Conybeare as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus and is the type specimen (holotype) of the species, which itself is the type species of the genus.
She found a perfect specimen of Dapedium politum, a ray-finned fish, in 1828, following which she then made an important discovery of a pterosaur, a Pterodactylus macronyx (later renamed by Richard Owen Dimorphodon macronyx). These were the three finds that made her name, but she continued to collect until the end of her days, making numerous contributions to the science of palaeontology. The British Association for the Advancement of Science granted her an annuity, which is a bit like a pension, which again helped her out financially. She was made an honorary member of the Geological Society of London despite, as a woman, being ineligible for regular membership. This was just a few months before she tragically died, at the age of 47, of breast cancer.
All in all, her work provided valuable insights into ideas about extinction, at a time when it was believed that animals did not go extinct. The discoveries set the state for real understanding of the geological history and the conditions which prevailed in times past.
She sells sea shells on the sea shore.
And if you know the old tongue twister, “she sells sea shells on the sea shore” it was Mary Anning who can be credited for its source. And finally, writer John Fowles in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” notes: “One of the meanest disgraces of British palaeontology is that though many scientists of the day gratefully used her finds to establish their own reputation, not one native type bears the name anningii“.
The coastline from from Orcombe Point near Exmouth in East Devon to Old Harry Rocks near Swanage in East Dorset – a distance of 155 kilometres (96 miles) – has been designated a World Heritage Site and is known as the Jurassic Coast. It includes the town of Lyme Regis. For more information click here.