Monday, April 30, 2012

Mary Anning

Portrait of Mary Anning, c. 1842
So far all of our Naturalists have dealt with the living animals that they saw during their studies and travels. Today we'll mix that up a bit and learn all about a woman who made some pretty awesome contributions to Paleontology... some of which she did when she was only twelve years old!

Mary Anning was born in Dorset, England in 1799. Her parents had ten children, but only Mary and her brother Joseph lived to adulthood (Mary herself was actually named after an older sister of hers that died before she was born). From a young age Mary's father would take her and Joseph on fossil hunting trips to the nearby cliffs. They had the great luck to live near the Blue Lias, a geological formation in the cliffs that dated back to the Jurassic Period.

Anning's father died in 1810, leaving his family with next to nothing. Mary and Joseph continued to hunt for fossils, so that they could sell them for profit and support their family. Fossil hunting on these cliffs was dangerous work! Landslides were common during the winter, but that was the best season to search as those landslides exposed new fossils, so the risk had to be taken. That risk paid off for the first time in 1811, when Mary was only twelve. Her and Joseph discovered a 4ft long Ichthyosaur skull, which was the very first of it's kind to be uncovered! (Mary would later go back for the rest of the skeleton, which would be one of several complete skeletons she would find in her lifetime.)

Mary, Joseph, and their mother all contributed to the Fossil collecting business that brought income to their family, but Mary was the driving force, especially once Joseph entered into an apprenticeship that took up most of his time.

She continued to hunt for fossils over the next 30 odd years, making several significant finds, including the worlds very first Plesiosaur, the first Pterosaur outside of Germany, several fish, and numerous invertebrates.  She was even one of the first people to consider that Coprolites might be fossilized dung! Anning's finds helped to bolster support for the idea of extinction, was we a relatively new idea of the time, and several of her finds are now displayed in prominent museums
Illustration of the first found Ichthyosaur skull

Unfortunately, despite her fossil-finding skills and all the contributions that she made, Mary Anning and her family were often given very little credit. She had made many friends within the scientific community, and had collaborated with anatomists and biologists, but at the end of the day she was often not given any recognition for her finds, and there were those who thought she was a fraud, as they did not belive a woman could do such work.

That is not to say that she wasn't respected, however. She had those aforementioned collaborations, was given an annuity from the Geological Society of London, and was named the first Honorary Member of the Dorset County Museum. After her death from breast cancer in 1847, she received an obituary from the Geological Society, which is notable as they didn't not even admit women members until 1904.

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