The Little Paleontologist
Written by: Collette Cottingham; Consciously Woman
In 1810, a 10 year old girl clung to a cliff side in southwestern England. She scanned the cliff face for any odd shapes and rubbed her hands over the coarse, sandy surface, hoping her hands would find what her eyes might miss.
This girl was Mary Anning and she was a fossil hunter. In 1807 at the age of eight, she had begun her fossil adventures. Fossil hunting in Mary’s time was a very dangerous and difficult task. Mary had to be careful, because there were frequent sand slides along the cliffs. The best time to spy a fossil was first thing in the morning or after a fierce storm. Cliff-spying became an almost daily routine for Mary.
She grew up in the resort town of Lyme Regis, England. There her father, a cabinetmaker, looked for fossils for extra money. Mary’s father taught her how to find the fossilized remains or traces of prehistoric plants and animals. These fossils were buried and preserved in the sand and rock cliffs that surrounded her hometown. After her father’s death, 12 year old Mary took on the role of finding fossils, to help support the family. Mary discovered smaller fossils, like shells, fish, bones, and plants. She sold these smaller fossils to tourists for a tiny amount of money.
In 1811 on the frosted, sand beaches of Lyme Regis, England, the poor daughter of a cabinetmaker, along with her little brother uncovered the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur. Mary had to wade under the unstable cliffs with her pick and shovel poking at the sand and rock to break the fossil free. Mary risked being crushed by the half-suspended fragments as they slid from the cliff.
Her ichthyosaur discovery brought a small monthly income for her family and a fame girls did not receive in 1811, especially poor girls. The discovery of Mary’s ichthyosaur reached the local papers making her a hometown celebrity at the age of 12.
Fossil collecting was popular in the 1800’s, because people did not know that dinosaurs existed. Scientists of the time did not know what to make of these very large beasts or how to put them together. Soon stories of giants and dragons began to surface. Everyone in the country wanted a piece of this fascinating mystery and, the rich especially, were willing to pay any price. Mary’s ichthyosaur find was important, because scientist finally knew how to put it together.
Mary’s second discovery was one of her greatest. In 1823, Mary found the first ever plesiosaur, a whole new type of reptile for scientists.
In 1828, another discovery for Mary was the pterosaur, another new reptile to the scientific community. This dinosaur was different then her other finds, because the pterosaur had wings.
Today, Mary’s finds are displayed around the world, but few museums mention her. Mary’s dinosaurs or parts of her dinosaurs can be found in museums and in private collections.
All of the reptiles Mary discovered lived during Mesozoic era. The fossils Mary found gave scientists their first understanding of prehistoric life. If times had been different, Mary may have been a paleontologist. Mary lived the rest of her life finding fossils and is considered the best fossil hunter of her time. Throughout her life, Mary received many awards and brought money and tourism to her small ocean community. Royalty and high-ranking government officials visited her. All of this occurred because of the accomplishments of one little girl who used her exploration skills, imagination, and surroundings to make her dreams come true.