Monday, 22 May 2017

Mary Anning's Fossils and the Cliffs at Lyme Regis

Mary Anning was a nineteenth century fossil collector and paleontologist who made important contributions to science. The fossils came from the Jurassic period and were obtained from the cliffs and beaches of Lyme Regis in England. The cliffs were once part of the seabed. Even today they contain a rich source of fossils.

Mary developed an impressive knowledge of local life in the Jurassic. Though she eventually became respected by geologists, she didn't receive as much attention as she deserved. She lived at a time when science was predominantly the domain of males. She also came from a poor family and had little social standing, which further hindered the attention that she received from the scientific community.

Mary Anning
 Unknown artist (created before 1842)
Public domain license

Mary Anning's Life

Mary was born in 1799. Her father died when she was only eleven, leaving his family in debt. Fortunately, he was a keen fossil hunter and had passed on his skills to his family. The family was short of money but were able to survive by collecting and selling fossils. The fossils became more than just a means of survival for Mary. She studied, analyzed, and documented her discoveries, moving out of the realm of being only a collector and into the realm of paleontology.

Mary's fossils were sent to scientists, museums, and private collections, but often the fact that she had discovered a particular fossil was omitted or forgotten. In addition, scientists sometimes presented her discoveries to an audience without acknowledging that Mary had found and prepared the fossil.

Life was often financially difficult for Mary, but there were times when she was better off than others. In 1817 a wealthy fossil collector became a supporter of the Anning family. He sold his own fossil collection and gave the proceeds to the family. He was also careful to attribute their discoveries to them. This helped to publicize the family's activities as well as to aid them financially, at least for a while. As her life progressed, Mary's fortunes rose when a commercially desirable fossil had recently been found and fell when there was a prolonged gap between significant discoveries.

An ichthyosaur skeleton
Photo by Adam Dingley
CC BY-SA 3.0 License

Later Life

Mary eventually become recognized as a dedicated and careful fossil collector by scientists. In 1838 she received an annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In addition, she received a stipend from the Geological Society of London. These regular sums of money were probably very helpful for her. Unfortunately, Mary died from breast cancer in 1847 while she was still relatively young. The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society published her obituary. The society didn't admit women until 1904.

Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis is a town on the southern coast of England. Its coastline forms part of a World Heritage Site. The cliffs and the beach beside them are a rich source of fossils. Even 170 years after Mary's death, people successfully hunt for fossils in the area. The cliffs are eroding rapidly, a process that continually adds new fossils to the beach. It also means that visitors need to be careful that they don't get hit by falling pieces of rock.

There are two versions of the painting of Mary Anning shown above. The one that I've included is reportedly the earlier one. The second version is similar but not identical and is said to be a copy of the first one. It's important to note that using a pick to hammer the unstable cliffs as Mary apparently did at Lyme Regis is dangerous. She nearly died in a landslide that killed her dog, though I don't know the immediate cause of this event.

A cast of a plesiosaur
Photo by Adrian Pingstone
Public domain license

Mary's Discoveries

The Jurassic period lasted from approximately 199.6 million years ago (mya) to 145.6 mya. Mary found many fossils from this time period. The first major discovery happened when she was only a child. When she was twelve, her brother Joseph found the skull of an ichthyosaur. A few months later Mary found the rest of the animal. This was the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton to be discovered. Ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles that had a fish-shaped body.

Mary was also the first person to discover a complete (or almost complete) plesiosaur skeleton. Plesiosaurs were marine reptiles with a long neck, a small head, and flippers. Another important discovery was a skeleton of Pterodactylus macronyx, which is now known as Dimorphodon. The animal was a type of pterosaur. Pterosaurs were flying reptiles with wings. Mary also found other interesting and often significant items, including fossilized ink sacs that resembled those of today's octopuses and squid.

The discovery of coprolites demonstrates how Mary's work helped scientists. She noticed that coprolites—or bezoar stones as they were known then—were often found in the abdominal region of ichthyosaur specimens. She also noticed that the stones contained fossilized bones of fish and other creatures. Based on these facts, a geologist named William Buckland proposed (correctly) that the stones were fossilized feces.

The interest in Mary Anning's work has been revived in recent times, and rightly so, I think. Her discoveries were important in their own right and also enabled scientists to discover more about life in the Jurassic period.


Mary Anning biography from the San Diego Supercomputer Center website (which includes biographies of female scientists)

The Three Mary Annings from the University of Waterloo

Information from UCMP (University of California Museum of Paleontology)

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