Mary Anning, Dorset’s semi-forgotten heroine of science

The view from Charmouth beach towards Golden Cap, actually away from Lyme. Photo by me.

I’ve got a piece in the science pages today, about the great amateurs of science. I wanted to talk a little more about one of them, the amazing Mary Anning.

The cliffs between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, in western Dorset, are made of an extraordinary limestone-and-shale substance, called “Blue Lias”. It was laid down 200 million or so years ago, at the end of the Triassic and beginning of the Jurassic periods, and at that time it wasn’t a lovely coastal holiday destination but a warm, shallow sea, teeming with life.

If you go down there, and walk the beach between Lyme and Charmouth – as I have done more times than I can count over the last 32 years, as my mum’s mum grew up in nearby Wootton Fitzpaine – you will almost literally trip over fossils. The rocks beneath the cliffs are filled with coiled seashells, known as ammonites, relatives of the modern nautilus, and smooth conical shells known as belemnites. There is something unsettling and wonderful, at least to me, about walking past a picnicking family or a child building a dam on the beach, and as you do so kicking the 185-million-year-old corpse of a Jurassic mollusc.

Ammonite fossils in a rock on the beach between Charmouth and Lyme. Photo by me.

But in 1811, Mary Anning, the daughter of a local carpenter, found something far more dramatic – the fossilised skeleton of what must have seemed, to people of the time, to be a dragon. It was her father Joseph who found the head, but Mary, at the tender age of 12, dug the rest of the skeleton out, over 10 years of painstaking work. It was the first example of what is now recognised as an “ichthyosaur” (meaning “fish-lizard”) – specifically Temnodontosaurus platyodon, a 17-foot-long marine reptile, a powerful predator. Later she would find the first plesiosaur skeleton – another marine reptile – and a pterodactyl, a flying reptile. (None of these are “dinosaurs”, for the record.)

Mary Anning's ichthyosaur, on display in the Natural History Museum. (Photo by me.)
Mary Anning’s ichthyosaur, on display in the Natural History Museum. Slightly crap photo by me.

Her discoveries threw a new and startling twist into the argument over the literal truth of the Bible. Suddenly it was clear that there had existed animals nothing like the ones that were on the earth today. Earlier fossils had been found – what is now recognised as a hadrosaur’s thighbone, as well as endless trilobites and ammonites and so on – but Anning’s discovery was one of the most dramatic early pieces of evidence that creatures existed that had since gone extinct. Georges Cuvier, a French zoologist, had argued, after discovering the bodies of mammoths and other creatures, that there had been several extinctions in the earth’s history, but that contradicted the biblical ideas that God’s creation was perfect; it was suggested, instead, that the mammoths and so on were still living in some unexplored region. The discovery of a six-yard-long apex predator in rural Dorset made that seem much less likely. These discoveries were part of the intellectual environment which led to Charles Darwin’s discovery: it was clear that life had changed over the aeons, Darwin just had to work out how and why.

You can go on fossil walks along the Charmouth-Lyme beach; you have to time it carefully, with the tides, and the regular landslides that keep churning out fresh fossils also mean you have to be a bit careful, but for a geeky child, enthralled with the idea of dinosaurs and the ancient world and struggling to get your head around what the words “a million years” really means, there’s something extraordinary about finding, for yourself, a piece of an animal that lived at the same time as the stegosaurus. I used to do it all the time, with my mum and dad and grandmother, and a few weeks ago I went down with my wife and in-laws and found some more. (I’ve also got the vertebra of an ichthyosaur, like the one Anning discovered, which if family lore is to be believed was found by an uncle of mine on that beach, though I suspect it was actually bought in Charmouth fossil shop.) I always think of Mary Anning, doing something similar 200 years ago, when I do.

Anning, though, never had the recognition in her lifetime that she deserved. As a woman, she was barred from joining the Royal Geological Society. None of the species she discovered were named after her (although, in her lifetime, a naturalist called Louis Agassiz named two fossil fish species after her, Acrodus anningiae and Belenostomus anningiae, and several ancient reptiles were named in her honour after she died). She died in poverty, aged just 47. She’s not exactly forgotten, but I thought she deserved to be a bit more remembered than she is.

Mary Anning on the beach at Charmouth, with Golden Cap in the background.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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