It is said that Mary Anning was the inspiration for the tongue twister, “She sells sea shells by the seashore,” but in truth she didn’t just sell sea shells, she sold Jurassic era fossils.
Born into a poor family living in Lyme Regis, in Dorset England in 1799, Anning learned to hunt for sea shells and fossils from her father. A carpenter by trade, he was an amateur fossil collector selling the curious objects to visitors in the seaside town. The cliffs around Lyme Regis are rich in fossilized creatures from the seas that had been deposited during the Jurassic period and the best time to find these remains was right after a landslide had exposed more of the cliffs.
This was also the least safe time to be on the cliffs and when Anning was eleven her father fell from a cliff and was killed. Mary and her brother Joseph took up the family’s business and while hunting the next year he saw a skull sticking out of the rock and Mary carefully chipped away from the rock to eventually uncover the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton fossil.
Another major discovery from Anning was on the nature of what at the time was called bezoar stones that where found inside animal fossils. By examining their location, shape, and after careful dissection she was able to conclude that these were actually fossilized feces now called coprolites. But even with all these discoveries some consider her most important find, from a scientific viewpoint, to be the first plesiosaur, for it was with this find that she became a legitimate and respected fossilist in the eyes of the scientific community.
Anning was very skilled at removing the surrounding rocks from a specimen and her samples were eagerly sought by museums, scientists, and European nobles wanting to add to their own private collections. Although she received little credit for her discoveries during her lifetime, Mary Anning is now considered one of the world’s foremost paleontologists and was responsible for broadening our understanding of ancient life on Earth.
Written by Angela Goad