📸 A plesiosaur found by Mary Anning, on display at Natural History Museum in London.
Decades before Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution, another equally controversial idea gripped the world’s scientific community: extinction. Church doctrine had it that all life was created in six days, but as more and more fossils were unearthed in the nineteenth century, Biblical chronology became increasingly tenuous. As more strange and alien specimens were found, a picture formed of otherworldly eras ruled by extinct predators. Few paleontologists contributed more to our understanding of the prehistoric eras than Mary Anning, but in her time she was denied the credit she so rightfully deserved.
📸 A portrait of Anning with her dog Tray and the Golden Cap. This painting was owned by Joseph Anning, though the original artist is unknown.
Anning was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, a village along England’s harsh Southern Coast. Her parents had made their way there a few years before, in part lured by tales of the mysterious “curiosities” found embedded in the Blue Lias limestone formation. Her father Richard hoped to make some money off selling some of these fossils and would spend his free time walking the beach on the prowl, accompanied by his young daughter. This was dangerous work: the very storms that would erode the earth to expose fossils flooded the Annings' home. It took its toll on Richard and after a bad fall from a cliff, he succumbed to tuberculosis and died, leaving his family in debt.
The Annings were in an impossible situation. Of Molly’s ten children, only two had lived past early childhood, Mary and her older brother Joseph. After Richard’s death, the three relied on a small welfare fund, but this was not nearly enough to live on. Anning soon took up fossil hunting again, hoping to bring in some money for the family, and surely as a reminder of her time with her father. It was in this desperate context that Anning first found success, selling ammonites and other small fossils to travelers and other passers-by, but her first major find was just around the corner.
📸 Temnodontosaurus (originally Ichthyosaurus) skull discovered by Joseph Anning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. v. 104. 1814.
In 1811, Joseph found a massive skull embedded in the Black Ven shale cliffs near Lyme Regis. He eagerly reported his find to Anning and had some local men unearth the skull. Anning spent nearly a year searching for the rest of the beast, finally finding some vertebrae that were discharged after a storm. After many more months of digging, the first nearly-complete Ichthyosaur skeleton was revealed.
Smaller bits and pieces of the animal's fossil had been found before, but the Anning discovery was unlike anything else. Combined with the skull her brother had uncovered, the piece eventually ended up in the London Museum of Natural History. These aquatic reptiles hunted for much of the Mesozoic Era’s 200 million years, looking like a cross between a dolphin and a crocodile. The Annings were paid only £23 (about £2,400 in modern times), and Mary received even less in scientific credit despite her diligence.
📸 Duria Antiquior, an early work of paleoart by Henry De la Beche, based on Anning's finds.
However, those in the know understood how incredible Ms. Anning's fossil hunting ability was. The Ichthyosaur find brought her some support from famous paleontologists like William Buckland, Henry De la Beche, and William Conybeare. Unfortunately, even among these friends she was rarely credited beyond being a simple excavator, despite her well known skill at identifying fossils. As a woman she was denied entry into the Geological Society of London, though in later life she was granted an honorary membership. Although her finds were breaking new ground in science, her gender, lower-class status, and distance from London kept her from the credit she deserved.
📸 A sketch of Anning's plesiosaur.
Although Anning had a number of benefactors and was paid for her finds, finances remained a constant concern. By 1823, Anning was in need of another big find and once again she would uncover something incredible. In the same cliffs that yielded her Ichthyosaur, Ms. Anning found the first complete Plesiosaurus. Its skull was tiny but attached to a long neck that gave way to fourteen ribs and four paddles for swimming. The Plesiosaur she found measured nine feet by six, the first near complete skeleton found.
Again, Anning went uncredited for this amazing find, with praise instead going to William Conybeare. Not only had she discovered the skeleton, but she prepared the fossils and even made the sketch that Conybeare used in his presentation to the Geological Society. No mention of Anning was made in his work.
Anning’s Plesiosaur find was a serious challenge to Creationism. To this point, religiously-minded scientists had suggested fossils were simply the remains of animal species still living that had not been discovered yet. Plesiosaur couldn’t be dismissed this way; it was so unlike any living animal it had to come from an extinct species, counter to the idea of all life being created at once. In fact, the specimen was so unlike other fossils that Georges Cuvier of the Muséum National D'histoire Naturelle initially charged that it was a fake. Anning herself was religious, attending a Protestant Dissenter church. Little is known of how she reconciled her findings with her faith, but all around her controversy swirled, anticipating the ideas that would lead to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
📸 MARY ANNING'S DRAWING AND LETTER ANNOUNCING THE DISCOVERY OF A FOSSIL WHICH WOULD BECOME KNOWN AS PLESIOSAURUS DOLICHODEIRUS, DECEMBER 26, 1823
During the rest of her career, Anning had many more exciting finds, including the first Pterosaur found outside Germany, and pioneering work studying fossilized feces to determine the diet of her extinct predators. True recognition, unfortunately, eluded her, and in her later life Anning operated a humble storefront with her mother selling ammonites and other fossils, having never married. This store was what supported the women through the rest of their lives — a humble existence for one of the greatest paleontologists of her time.
Despite her firsthand experience and deep knowledge of the realm of fossils, Mary Anning was unable to take part officially in the scientific societies of the day which were only open to men. Ms. Anning died in 1847 of breast cancer. It would take another 163 years for the Royal Society to recognize her monumental influence in the advancement of science.
📸 A statue of anning, unveiled in 2022. (Source: Love Lyme Regis)
Learn More about the Plesiosaur
Want to discover more about the prehistoric creatures Mary Anning studied? Check out our Plesiosaur collection to find real fossils from the animal that you can experience for yourself!
Our fossils are authentic, prehistoric items, just like the ones Ms. Anning would have found during her time as a paleontologist.
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Emling, Shelley. The Fossil Hunter : Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Rich AK. Mary Anning. Great Neck Publishing; 2006.