Mary Anning painting

Portrait of Mary Anning, British Museum.

Mary Anning (May 21, 1799 – March 9, 1847) was an early British fossil collector and paleontologist.

Early LifeEdit

Fossil collecting was in vogue in the late 18th century and early 19th century, at first as a pastime akin to stamp collecting but gradually transforming into a science as the importance of fossils to geology and biology became understood. Anning catered to the commercial side of the field, selling her finds. She soon forged relationships within the scientific community, whose passion for fossils grew to be a major source of income for her.

The cause of this connection was one of Anning's first discoveries, the skeleton of an ichthyosaur, in 1811, a few months after her father's death. Her brother had discovered the skull of what appeared to be a large crocodile a year earlier. The rest of the skeleton was not to be found at first, but Mary located it after a storm scoured away a portion of the cliff containing it. This was the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur ever discovered, though not the first ichthyosaur fossil ever, as the genus had been described in 1699 from fragments discovered in Wales. Nevertheless, it was an important find, and was soon described in the Transactions of the Royal Society. Anning was 12 years old at the time of her discovery. She went on to find two other distinct species of Ichthyosaur.

As her reputation grew, Anning came to the attention of Thomas Birch, a wealthy fossil collector. Disturbed by the poverty of Mary and her family he arranged for the sale of his own fossil collection, the proceeds of which (some £400) were given to the Annings. Put on a sure (if somewhat austere) financial footing for the first time in a decade, Mary carried on with her fossil collecting even after her brother gained employment as an upholsterer.

Her next major discovery was a real first, the first-ever skeleton of a plesiosaur in 1821. The fossil she found was subsequently described, by William Conybeare as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus and is the type specimen (holotype) of the species, which itself is the type species of the genus. She found an 'unrivalled specimen' of Dapedium politum, a ray-finned fish, as described in 1828. She discovered an important fossil of a pterosaur, a Pterodactylus macronyx (later renamed by Richard Owen Dimorphodon macronyx), the first found outside Germany and thought to be the first complete skeleton.

Those were the three finds that made her mark on history, but she continued collecting for the remainder of her life, making numerous other contributions to early paleontology. In her late thirties she was granted an annuity by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in return for her efforts.

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