When it comes to paleontology, Mary Anning’s findings provide a bedrock. The British fossil collector and dealer, born in 1799, is said to have helped spark fundamental shifts in scientific thinking when it comes to prehistoric life. And today, Google is honoring her with a Doodle on their homepage.
Today is the 215th anniversary of Anning’s birth in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England.
Lyme Regis is where Anning would make most of her important findings, in the area’s Jurassic marine fossil beds. Her fossil searching usually occurred during winter in the Blue Lias cliffs, as that was the time that landslides would give way to new fossils.
Anning is credited with discovering the first correctly-identified ichthyosaur skeleton–which she found when she was only 12 years old. She also found the first two known plesiosaur skeletons, as well as the very frist pterosaur skeleton outside of Germany.
The Lyme Regis Museum (who holds a Mary Anning celebration every Fall), sums up her contribution to science:
Mary Anning’s discoveries were some of the most significant geological finds of all time. They provided evidence that was central to the development of new ideas about the history of the Earth. Her opinions were sought and she was acknowledged as an expert in many areas, including the rather unglamorous coprolites (fossil faeces). She played a key role in informing the work of her learned, male contemporaries, notably William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare. By the time of her death, geology was firmly established as its own scientific discipline.
Mary’s contribution had a major impact at a time when there was little to challenge the biblical interpretation of the story of creation and of the flood. The spectacular marine reptiles that Mary unearthed shook the scientific community into looking at different explanations for changes in the natural world.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy for Anning to get the recognition she deserved. It was still a man’s world at the time, and Anning was definitely an outsider in her scientific community.
Below are the Blue Lias cliffs where Anning made her discoveries.
In 1847, Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47. Nearly 20 years later, Charles Darwin wrote about her in his literary magazine, calling her “Mary Anning: The Fossil Finder.”