Monday, February 11, 2013

MARY ANNING's Amazing Fossils at the Natural History Museum, London

"Mary Anning" at the Museum of Natural History, London
In 1811, Mary Anning and her older brother Joseph discovered a strange-looking skull eroding out of the cliffs of Lyme Regis on England’s Dorset coast.  The fossil turned out to be the head of an ichthyosaur, a sea-going contemporary of the dinosaurs.  (At the time the word “dinosaur” had not yet been coined.)  This was the first of Mary Anning's many remarkable discoveries, now on display at the British Natural History Museum in London.
Meeting Mary Anning
On a recent trip to London, I visited the museum, and as I walked along the gallery where Mary Anning’s fossils are displayed, who should I see, but Mary Anning herself!  Of course, it was not the real Mary Anning, who lived from 1799 to 1847, but a character actor, who was delighted to interact with me and other visitors as if we were still in the early 19th century.  For me, this was a special treat, as I had researched Mary Anning’s life and written about her discoveries in two of my books, Giant Sea Reptiles of the Dinosaur Age and Pterosaurs: Rulers of the Skies in the Dinosaur Age.

Ichthyosaur fossil, 203 - 194 million years old. Like reptiles that live on land, ichthyosaurs needed to breathe air.  Their nostrils were located in front of their eyes.
Fossil hunting in Britain had its “golden age” in the first half of the nineteenth century.  People collected fossils for fun and profit as well as for academic study.  Mary Anning collected fossils from the rocks along the shore near Lyme Regis and sold them to support her family.  She had little formal education, but an uncanny ability to find fossils.  The ichthyosaur skeleton, and many of Mary’s other finds, were used by leading scientists of the time as a basis for their new theories about Earth’s history.
Ichthyosaur head. The large eye of an ichthyosaur was surrounded by a doughnut-shaped bone called the sclerotic ring.  Large eyes enabled ichthyosaurs to see well in dim ocean depths.
The cliffs at Lyme Regis, on England’s southern coast, are filled with the remains of marine animals that had lived 200 million years earlier, during Jurassic times, when this region was a shallow sea.  When Mary Anning’s brother Joseph first saw the ichthyosaur skull, he thought it was a crocodile.  Later, after a fierce storm washed away more of the cliff, Mary discovered the neck and shoulders of the animal’s skeleton. At the time, she was only thirteen years old.  She and her brother excavated the bones and sold them to a fossil collector from London, who thought they belonged to a giant fish.  At the time, little was known about prehistoric sea reptiles.  It was not until several years later, after similar fossils had been found, that the skeleton was correctly identified as that of an ichthyosaur.  Because these strange animals seemed to be part fish and part reptile, they were given a scientific name meaning “fish lizard.”
Plesiosaur skeleton, 203 - 194 million years old.  Collected by Mary Anning in 1824.
In addition to her discoveries of at least three ichthyosaur skeletons, Mary Anning found fossils of two plesiosaurs and a pterodactyl, as well as numerous fish, ammonites (spiral-shelled mollusks that are ancient relatives of the chambered nautilus), brittle stars, and other marine animals, including many belemnites.  Like squid, belemnites had ink sacs.  One of the belemnites she found was complete with its fossil ink!
Ammonites from Lyme Regis
Mary Anning collected fossils for many of the leading scientists of the day and her work helped develop new ideas about what the world was like in prehistoric times.  As a woman and without a formal education, she was not recognized in her time.  Today, she is given credit for some of the most amazing fossil discoveries ever made.

Recommended book:
I recently read about Mary Anning in the book, Remarkable Creatures: A Novel by Tracy Chevalier.  This fictionalized story of Mary Anning and her relationship with the Philpot sisters who helped promote her work, brings the town of Lyme Regis to life and makes you appreciate the difficulty of fossil collecting and the amazing contribution Mary Anning has made to our understanding of prehistoric life.  The book is also a window on the social and religious conventions of the time and how Mary Anning’s  fossils challenged many of those ideas.

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