May 21 – Happy Birthday, Mary Anning

Posted May 21, 2015

Mary Anning has been described as “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew.”

And yet I've never heard of her! And maybe the same could be said for you?

The reason for this odd circumstance, of course, is that Mary Anning was a woman, and in the early 1800s, women's contributions were often ignored or anonymous or otherwise dismissed.

Anning was born on this date in 1799 in Great Britain. She was lucky enough to live in a place with cliffs that had many fossils from the seas during the Jurassic period. Her father was a cabinetmaker, but he liked to collect fossils as well. When Anning was just 11 years old, her dad died, leaving the family in debt.

Anning's mom continued to lead her children to collect fossils, for later resale, to try to eke out a living; eventually, Mary Anning took over the fossil collecting part while her mother kept to the business end.

Mary Anning helped to discover one of the first ichthyosaur fossils when she was still a pre-teen. She discovered the first plesiosaur, a find that helped to make the Anning family respected in the eyes of the scientific community. Soon the fossils they discovered and prepared were sought after by museums, scientists, and nobles who kept “cabinets of curiosities.”

Anning also found the first pterosaur skeleton outside of Germany and many, many other fossils.

Unfortunately, some people were skeptical about how an “uneducated” and “deprived” woman could make important discoveries and prepare fossils so well. Also, many museums and collectors neglected to give Anning the proper credit on their exhibits, and she and her family ended up being forgotten by most.

Of course, I would argue that she wasn't uneducated, just relatively unschooled. All the fossil hunting and collecting and preparation had taught her a ton about her field!

They aren't dinosaurs!

I'm sure you know that the reptiles of the sea – like the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs that Anning discovered – and of the air – like the pterosaurs she helped discover – were not dinosaurs, although they lived at the same time as many of the dinosaurs.

Ichthyosaur, above
Plesiosaur, below

There were many sorts of pterosaurs.

Dinosaur doesn't mean anything ancient and reptilian, but instead is a term for a specific group of animals that had shared characteristics. Here is an article about 10 dinosaur myths. 

Also on this date:

Strawberries and Cream Day

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