Doodling Mary Anning


Today Google has a doodle honouring Mary Anning, one of palaeontology’s pioneers. The reason Google chose Anning on this day?  It remembers her birthdate – she would have been 215 years old today. Alas, she didn’t reach 50. Here is her story, lifted from the book  The Mountain Mystery:

    “Anning was a child when she found her first extinct giant. Such fossils were not uncommon along the treacherous cliffs that dropped to the sea at the English coast where she lived. Landslides exposed fresh fossils each winter. (One slide almost killed her when it swept her dog down the scarp and into the ocean.) She collected fossils to help her family survive – her parents were dreadfully poor – she and her brother were the only two of ten children to survive their crowded, rough quarters where small pox, measles, and hunger took their toll. Mary Anning was sickly until she was fifteen months old.

    “But in her fifteenth month, lightning struck a tree near the spot where she was being carried by a neighbour. That family friend and two other women were killed. Instantly. Mary Anning was stunned, but was easily revived. It became part of local legend that her prodigious energy level, curiosity, and intelligence were due to that lightning bolt. However, her survival also made the village a bit suspicious of her.

    “Her father was an unsuccessful carpenter who couldn’t afford land for a house, so he built the family home on a wooden bridge in their coastal village. It occasionally flooded, covering the floor with all manner of filth. The family earned spare cash scavenging the nearby Dorset cliffs, recovering fossils otherwise destined for the sea below. Venturing onto the dangerous ledges to gather snake-stones and devil’s toes1 for curious seaside holidayers was always part of her chores. Anning was 12 when she unearthed her ichthyosaur. She also discovered the first two plesiosaurs ever found. These were big animals and they changed the way biologists viewed the creatures that preceded man. But Anning didn’t restrict her work to oversized skeletons. She identified the ink sacs of ancient fossilized octopus-like varmints and she realized stones called bezoars in her day are what we now called coprolites, or fossilized dinosaur dung. She dissected modern fish and compared them with the bones of earlier versions she uncovered on the cliffs. She was observant and knowledgeable, but grew bitter that her discoveries brought little recognition.

 “Her insights might have advanced palaeontology further than they did, but women could not be members of the Royal Society, nor the Geological Society – in fact, women were not even permitted to attend meetings as guests. In addition, members were preferably Anglican but her family belonged to a splinter group of dissenting Congregationalists, spiritually related to the earlier Puritans. Religious and gender prejudice kept Mary Anning from being published, but male colleagues discreetly sought her advice regarding fossils they couldn’t identify. And when she became gravely ill from cancer, those geologists created a fund to help with her expenses. She died at age 47. Members of the Geological Society erected a touching memorial in her honour. The inscription reads, in part, “in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.” Her work helped create an appreciation for the vast evolution of species and the extinctions that had occurred among the planet’s creatures.”  The Mountain Mystery.


(Above, an ichthyosaur, one of Mary Anning’s cash cows.)

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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