Seashells on the Sea Shore: The Geological Contributions of Mary Anning

Imagine for a moment, it is the year 1844 and you’re walking down Broad Street in the small coastal town of Lyme Regis on the southern shore of England. Your eyes are drawn to a window of a cottage. Treasures lay on the other side of the glass: coiled ammonite shells long since turned to stone, sea shells carefully arranged in a pattern, and in the center sits the petrified skull of a long-snouted sea reptile with pointed teeth and huge eyes. A sign above the door reads Anning’s Fossil Depot.

This small shop of curiosities was owned by a remarkable woman of her time, Mary Anning. She spent her life collecting the Jurassic-era fossils displayed throughout the small shop, simultaneously providing for her family and unlocking the secrets of Lyme Regis’s ancient past. Today, her shop is a museum.

image of Mary Anning's Plesiosaurus fossil discovery

Born into poverty in a society famed for its class consciousness, the savvy businesswoman defied the odds to become one of the world’s most important scientific figures.

Paleontologist Mary Anning was an impressive fossil hunter who discovered the first articulated plesiosaur and was among the first to identify fossilized poop or coprolite. However, like many females scientists, her male contemporaries had a frustrating way of swiping credit from her.

Short Biography of Mary Anning

Born on the 21st of May 1799, Mary Anning was an English fossil collector and paleontologist. She became known around the world for important finds she made in the fossil beds along the seaside cliffs of the English Channel at Lyme Regis in Southwest England. Her findings contributed to important changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth.

By the late 18th century, Lyme Regis had become a popular seaside resort and many locals supplemented their income by selling what were called “curios” to visitors. These were fossils with colorful local names such as “snake-stones” (ammonites), “devil’s fingers” (belemnites), and “verteberries” (vertebrae). Fossil collecting was a hobby shared by many and it gradually transformed into a science as the importance of fossils to geology and biology was understood.

Mary Anning painting

Painting credited to ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Her father was a cabinetmaker who supplemented his income by mining the coastal cliff-side fossil beds near the town, and selling his finds to tourists. He married Mary “Molly” Moore in 1793 and together had ten children, though only Mary and one brother, Joseph, survived to adulthood. Their father, Richard, often took Mary and Joseph on fossil-hunting expeditions. Mary continued to support herself through fossil hunting as she grew older. 

While scouring the beach in early December 1823, she came upon a fossilized skull that was like nothing she’d seen before. The majority of the skulls she had previously found belonged to Icthyosaurs; they were long and narrow, a bit like the heads of dolphins or crocodiles.

This skull, on the other hand, was small, beady-eyed, and had a mouthful of strange, needle-shaped teeth. Calling upon nearby villagers for assistance, Anning carefully unearthed the rest of the mystery creature’s body. Attached to a stout torso and broad pelvis were four flippers and a diminutive tail. The long neck was the most peculiar feature, however, accounting for nearly half of the 9-foot creature’s length.

She wrote to a colleague describing her discovery (see a page from her letter below) and her place in the scientific community was sealed, though many of her peers were initially skeptical. In fact, at a Geological Society of London meeting the following year, Reverend William Conybeare (a fellow paleontologist) stole the show with a well-received presentation on the nearly complete Plesiosaurus from Lyme Regis. He also published a paper featuring detailed original illustrations of the specimen. However, neither his presentation nor his paper mentioned Anning and he initially stole credit for the discovery.

Over time, Anning’s discoveries became key pieces of evidence for extinction. Her work also became well known in literary circles as well; Charles Dickens wrote of his admiration of her 18 years after her passing. Legend has it the children’s rhyme, “She Sells Seashells”, is also a tribute to her work:

She sells seashells on the sea shore.
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure.
And if she sells seashells on the sea shore,
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

Anning died from breast cancer at the age of 47 on the 9th of March 1847. Admirably, when the Geologic Society learned of her diagnosis, its members began raising money to cover her medical expenses. Later, her funeral was paid for by the society which also financed a stained-glass window dedicated to her memory that now sits at St. Michael’s Parish Church in Lyme Regis.

Bring it Home – Lessons from Mary Anning

Nature journals are as valuable a learning tool today as they were in earlier centuries. The image below comes from a letter written in 1823 by Mary Anning describing her discovery of what would be identified as a Plesiosaurus. Mary Anning Plesiosaurus

Visit a local natural history museum and create a nature journal entry on one of the specimens on display. Inquire with the staff about the process and care involved in curating skeletal specimens.

Participate in a fossil walk.

Begin your own collection of fossils.

If possible, visit the Natural History Museum in London or the museum in Lyme Regis.  We recently had this opportunity when we traveled to England in 2017. Here you can learn more about the pioneering work of Mary Anning and see some of the most complete fossils of prehistoric sea animals, including ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Plus, look out for the skeleton cast of the giant ground sloth, a land mammal often mistaken for a dinosaur.

Novelist Tracy Chevalier (author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring) has made a career of bringing history to life. Chevalier’s newest novel is called Remarkable Creatures centers around the life of Mary Anning. The novel introduces readers to Mary’s unlikely champion, Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class woman who shares her passion for scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy, but ultimately turns out to be their greatest asset. Based on real characters, I found the story interesting. I was moved to realize just how difficult it must have been to persevere with the social obstacles she encountered in her time.

Visit my Science Milestones page to learn more about scientists whose discoveries and advancements have made a significant difference in our lives or who have advanced our understanding of the world around us.

Science Milestones: The Heroine of Lyme Regis, Mary Anning

In my Facebook newsfeed recently, a memory popped up highlighting a field trip we took part in years ago when we first began our homeschool journey. Our visit to Paleo Lands Institute in Eastern Oregon is one of our fondest homeschool experiences. When we visit the Field Museum in Chicago last week, we reflected on this trip as we marveled at the many specimens they had on display – the most impressive, of course, was SUE (pictured below).

The unveiling of her 67-million-year-old skeleton at The Field Museum made global headlines in May of 2000. As the largest, best-preserved, and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found, she is considered to be the most famous fossil ever found. She measures 40.5 feet long from snout to tail and 13 feet tall at the hip.

Interesting fact: While SUE is frequently referred to as a “she,” scientists don’t actually know her sex.

Virtually all parts of SUE’s skeleton are preserved in great detail—even the surface of her bones. Scientists can actually see where muscles, tendons, and ligaments once attached. Not only are most of the bones undistorted from fossilization, but cross-sections of the bones show that even the cellular structure inside remains intact.

w/ Sue at the Field Museum, Chicago

If SUE is the most famous fossil, who then is regarded as the most renowned fossilist the world ever knew?  The answer is Mary Anning.

Despite the fact that Mary Anning’s life has been made the subject of several books and articles, comparatively little is known about her life, and many people were unaware of her contributions to paleontology in its early days as a scientific discipline. How can this be, you ask?

Biography

Mary Anning by B. J. DonneMary Anning was born on the 21st of May 1799 to Richard and Mary Anning in Lyme Regis, Southwest England. Mary grew up in a prime location to lead a life of fossil collecting. The marine fossil beds in the cliffs in this area remain today a huge source of fossils from the Jurassic period.

Her findings contributed to important changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth. At the age of 12, Mary Anning was to become one of the most famous popular palaeontologists, with her discovery of a complete Icthyosaur.

Interesting fact: Though she is now credited with the discovery, her brother had first found the specimen. Mary did find the majority of the remains and contribute significantly to the excavation work. Mary went on to find two more species of Ichtyosaur in her life.

In early 1821, Anning made her next big discovery with the finding of the first Plesiosaurus. She sent a drawing she made to the renowned George Curvier, who at first snubbed it as a fake. Upon further examination, he eventually reversed this statement finally giving Anning the respect she had deserved from the scientific community. This discovery is perhaps her most important find, from a scientific point of view.
Autograph letter concerning the discovery Wellcome L0022370
The majority of Mary’s finds ended up in museums and personal collections without credit being given to her as the discoverer of the fossils. There are many factors contributing to this error: the lack of appropriate documentation of her special skills, her social status, and more importantly, her gender. Many scientists of the day could not believe that a young woman from such a deprived background could posses the knowledge and skills that she seemed to display.

For example, in 1824, Lady Harriet Sivester, the widow of the former Recorder of the City of London, wrote in her diary after visiting Mary Anning:

“. . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. She fixes the bones on a frame with cement and then makes drawings and has them engraved. . . It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived to that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”

After her death on the 9th of March 1847, her unusual life story attracted the attention of scholars around the world. Her story was the inspiration for the 1908 tongue-twister “She sells seashells on the seashore” by Terry Sullivan and in 2010, one hundred and sixty-three years after her death, the Royal Society included Anning in a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science.

Bring it Home

➤ For younger students, explore the fun games and activities at BBC’s Primary History Famous People: Mary Anning.

➤ Read the article, “Mary Anning: The Fossilist as Exegete” by Thomas W. Goodhue in Endeavour Magazine, March 2005 issue

➤ Build upon your child’s interest in fossils and geology in an in-depth Earth sciences curriculum study.

Geology Rocks➤ Visit a local geology club in your area and inquire about getting started in collecting.

➤ Discover Ice Age Fossils at La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles

 

Science MilestonesVisit my Science Milestones page to learn more about scientists whose discoveries and advancements have made a significant difference in our lives or who have advanced our understanding of the world around us.

Interested in learning about others who were born in the month of January? Hop over to Birthday Lessons in March to read posts by other iHomeschool Network bloggers.