Unearthing ancient monsters
Contributed by: Jesse Laursen, Trey Witcraft, Tor Hanson, Jonathan Hales, and Thomas Cuesta
Animals, Aquatic, Biome, Europe, Evolution, Field, Fossils, Fundamental research, Historical figure, Income, Marine, Natural history, Woman
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Slide 1: Researcher’s Background
Biography in brief
Mary Anning was born on May 21st 1799 and died March 9th 1847 living to be only 47 years old. She was born in a town called Lyme Regis in west Dorset, England. Her father was a cabinet maker and carpenter who supplemented his income by selling fossils. These fossils he found in the nearby cliffs, now called the Jurassic Cliffs, were revealed by the winter waves that softened up the side of the rock. As Mary was young she began to help her father in his hobby along the cliffs which generated her interest in what they were finding. Mary’s family was part of the Dissenter chapel as she grew up, and unlike the Church of England the Dissenters had strong beliefs in education for the poor. It was in Sunday school while Mary was growing up that she learned to read, write and got a taste for the sciences.
Mary’s father died in 1810 after suffering from tuberculosis and injuries previously sustained from a fall off the cliffs. After her father had died Mary and her brother Joseph, who was three years older than her, continued to discover and sell fossils supporting the family. The family’s first well known find came in 1811 when Joseph found a four foot ichthyosaur skull. It was just months later that Mary uncovered the rest of the skeleton. A local lord initially purchased it from them for about £23 but after changing hands a couple times it ended up in the British Museum. Despite the constant selling of fossils Mary’s family was still struggling in poverty. Family friend, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch who was a frequent buyer of the family’s fossils became disturbed with how far into poverty the family had fallen. In order to help the Annings Birch decided to auction off all the fossils he had purchased from them on their behalf. The auction was held at Bullocks in London on May 15th 1820 and raised approximately £400 which is £23,000 or $30,500 today. We have no way of knowing what percentage of that made it to the Annings but the auction helped to raise their financial status as well as social status in the geological community. Mary was able to buy her own shop in town in which she provided consultations and cleaned and sold fossils. Fossil collecting was a very dangerous activity and in one adventure Mary’s dog, Tray, was killed right in front of her under the cliffs. She lived on to find many other discoveries before she passed away of breast cancer in 1847.
Is (or was) their research under-valued because of their identity?
Are there other scientists/research examples that this example can replace or be added to?
Georges Cuvier, William Buckland
Slide 2: Research Overview
Take home message of study
Using her years of experience in the field, Mary Anning became one of the greatest fossil hunters of all time. Her discoveries advanced the world’s understanding of not just the individual creatures she unearthed, but also the very way that life changed and developed on Earth. In a time when natural theology was still widely accepted by most scientists, Anning provided undeniable evidence for the phenomenon of extinction, helping to prove that organisms were not placed upon Earth divinely and contributing solid evidence for the still-unconceived theory of evolution.
Plesiosaurus fossil discovered by Mary Anning. Appearing in the early Triassic period, Plesiosaurus was one of the top marine predators of its day, with razor sharp teeth and a powerful streamlined body that could grow up to 43 feet in length. It’s long neck, which took up almost half its total body length, was used to reach out and snap up fish and other prey. Despite sharing many similarities with fish, Plesiosaurus had no gills, and had to come up for air after prolonged periods underwater. It used all four of its flippers to propel itself through the ancient oceans.
Slide 3: Key Research Points
This is a sketch from Mary Anning’s own notebook depicting the plesiosaurus fossil that she discovered. It was the first full skeleton of the species ever discovered.
Mary Anning helped to highlight paleontology as a science and increase its relevance in evolutionary theory, becoming a minor celebrity in the process. She was even praised by Charles Dickens, a popular author at the time, who wrote a tribute called “Mary Anning, the fossil finder” after her death. Even though she often did not receive full credit for her contributions, she directly influenced the work of several famous biologists of the time. Anning’s research observations are what led William Buckland to publish his article correctly identifying coprolites as fossilized feces. Buckland also credited Anning in his writing with the discovery of a new species of pterodactyl, though his articles were published under his name. Anning also contributed to the work of Richard Owen, who is famous for coining the term dinosaur. Owen wrote extensively about the plesiosaur discovered by Anning, but he failed to mention her in his writings. It is often said that Anning laid the groundwork for the theory of evolution; she exchanged letters and sold fossils to Adam Sedgewick, a professor who taught Charles Darwin. Indeed, Darwin owes Anning a great debt, as the fossil record paints a story of life changing and adapting over time – one of the key tenets of evolution. Our very origins as humans lie in those bones, and with each new discovery we gain more knowledge about the way life on Earth has came to be. As old as fossils are, they are as relevant to science as any current living species – and Anning was perhaps the greatest fossil hunter of them all. Today, the Natural History Museum in London still displays several of Anning’s most famous finds with her name prominently featured alongside her work.