Mary Anning and the Jurassic Dragons

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Ray Goodwin (UK)

It was a hot and sultry summer afternoon in August 1800. A happy crowd was gathered in the small town of Lyme to watch an exhibition of horse jumping in the nearby Rack Field. No one could have guessed that, before the day was out, tragedy would strike from the skies and three women would lie dead beneath a clump of elm trees. With a little 15-month-old baby in her arms, Elizabeth Haskings and two young friends hurried for shelter as, late in the afternoon, the sky darkened and torrential rain began to pour down from the heavens. Minutes later, a brilliant flash of lightning hit the trees and a terrible thunderclap reverberated around the nearby cliffs.

As the rain stopped, a horrified crowd walked towards the trees and, amid the charred remains, they saw the outlines of three huddled bodies lying on the ground. The three women were terribly burnt and had been killed instantly. Sheltered by the body of Elizabeth, the baby lay unconscious but, after bathing in water, soon recovered consciousness. Legend has it that she was transformed from being a quiet, ordinary baby into a child of exceptional liveliness and intelligence. Whether this was strictly true or not, we may never know.  However, it is a fact that the child, whose name was Mary Anning, was destined to become one of the greatest palaeontologists of the early nineteenth century.

Mary Anning was born on 21 May 1799 in the small Dorset town of Lyme. Her father, Richard, was a carpenter by trade but supplemented his meagre income by selling fossils from a stall in front of his shop near the centre of the town. As a young girl, Mary happily joined her father and her brother, Joseph, as they scrambled among the rocks and cliffs of the Dorset coast hunting for fossils. She soon became familiar with the spiral shapes of the ammonites and with the bones of ancient fishes and marine reptiles, which lay embedded in the strata and showed an almost uncanny ability to recognise them.

When Mary was only ten years old, her father died of consumption at the early age of 44. Shortly after his death, a lady gave her half-a- crown for an ammonite that she had dug up by the coast. This marked the beginning of her own successful career as a dealer in fossils and, although she was so young, she began to carry on her father’s fossil business.

Fig. 1. The only known picture of Mary Anning. (Image courtesy NHM Image Resources.)

Her first really big break came the year following her father’s death. She and Joseph found the almost complete, fossilised skeleton of a large marine reptile in a remarkable state of preservation. She sold it for £23 to Mr Henley, who was the local Lord of the Manor. People referred to it as a fish lizard and, at first, many of them thought that it was some kind of crocodile. Examination of the large skeleton, however, together with later finds made by Mary and other palaeontologists, allowed naturalists to build up a clearer picture of the animal. The name suggested by a well-known scientist of the day, Sir Evered Home, was Proteo-saurus. However, another geologist named Koener suggested the more appropriate name Ichthyosaurus, which means ‘fish-like lizard’, and this is the name that was finally adopted.

By her discoveries, Mary had lifted the first of many veils on a world more ancient than she could have imagined in her wildest dreams – a world where the land on which she stood was only a few degrees from the tropics and where strange, long dead animals swam in the warm muddy waters of a vast shallow inland sea. Mary continued to work hard at the business.

However, life was a struggle for the family who were so poor at times that they were in danger of having to sell their furniture. In 1819, a local fossil enthusiast, Colonel Thomas Birch, arranged a sale of his own collection of fossils for the benefit of the Anning family. In fact, Mary had collected many of his fossils. It was a great success and attracted many buyers including collectors from over the Channel, among them the French naturalist George Cuvier. The whole sale raised £400 and the star item was an Ichthyosaurus that fetched £100.

In 1824, Mary made her second great discovery. She found the fossil of another type of marine reptile that was quite different in shape to an ichthyosaur. It was, in fact, the first Plesiosaurus ever found. Its discovery created enormous interest and excitement in the scientific community. The Duke of Buckingham purchased it directly from Mary and presented it to a meeting of the Geological Society in 1825.

Over the years, the fame of Mary Anning grew and she was widely acclaimed by many eminent people who themselves rose to high academic positions. Mary must have indeed been an exceptional person. She was born into a poor family and her formal education was small. Yet in a few short years, she was running a successful business and was accepted into the scientific community of the day, which included many rich and titled people. Among them was William Buckland who, as a young man, was often seen with Mary Anning hunting for fossils in the cliffs around Lyme and Charmouth.

Together, they would return home with a rich collection of ammonites, belemnites, terebratula (brachiopods) and fish and reptile bones. He went to study at Oxford, became a fellow of Corpus Christi College in 1809 and was chosen to be the first Professor of Geology at Oxford in 1819. He stayed in that post until 1845 when he became the Dean of Westminster.

Fig. 2. An ichthyosaur, from Lyme Regis.

Mary’s name soon came to the attention of many great scientists of the day, such as Sir Humphrey Davy and Sir Evered Home. That she was held in very high regard by the establishment is illustrated by the remarks written by Lady Silvester, who visited her in the same year that she discovered the plesiosaur:

It is certainly a wonderful instance of divine favour – that this poor, ignorant girl should be so blessed, for by reading and application she has arrived at that degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in the kingdom”.

In December 1828, Mary made her third great discovery, which was described by her friend, William Buckland, the following year in the transactions of the Geological Society. Although a fine specimen of a flying reptile or Pterosaur had been found in Germany, Mary discovered the first specimen ever found in England. According to Buckland, it was about the size of a raven with wings that would, if extended, have measured about four feet from wing tip to wing tip. It was later classified as belonging to the species Dimorphodon macronyx. Soon after her discovery of the pterodactyl, Mary found another plesiosaur, which she described as being the most beautiful fossil she had ever seen. It belonged to a new species called Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.

Mary not only became known for her spectacular discoveries of large reptiles but also for her skill and knowledge of other fossils such as Ammonites, Terebratula, Belemnites and Crinoids. She possessed an exceptional skill in being able to recognise even minor difference between the fossils. Her skill at being able to classify the bones of ancient fish did not go unnoticed by experts such as Sir Philip Egerton and Lord Enniskillen.

Louis Agassiz, who compiled a famous book on fossil fishes (which was to become the standard work of the day), freely acknowledged the great help he received from Mary and those other well known fossil collectors in the area, her friends the Philpot sisters. In 1844, the King of Saxony, accompanied by his physician Dr Carus, visited her shop. Dr Carus described the visit in glowing terms. He wrote that on their visit to Lyme:

We found a little shop where the head of an Ichthyosaurus and beautiful ammonites, etc., were exhibited in the window. We entered the shop and found an adjoining chamber completely full of fossil productions from the coast. I found a large slab of blackish clay in which a perfect Ichthyosaurus of at least six feet was embedded. This specimen would have been a great acquisition for many of the cabinets of natural history on the Continent and I consider the price demanded – £15 sterling – as very moderate. I was anxious to write down the address of the woman who had kept the shop, for it was a woman who had devoted herself to this scientific pursuit. With a firm hand she wrote her name ‘Mary Anning’ in my pocket book, and added as she returned the book into my hands, ‘I am well known throughout the whole of Europe’.”

Fig. 3. Ichthyosaur head.

The area in which Mary lived was an ideal place for her to practice her chosen profession. The local coastal region is one of the best hunting grounds in the country for fossils. Not only are the rocks in the cliffs and along the coast highly fossiliferous, but also frequent landslides constantly expose new strata. As a result of the steep hills, the London to Exeter stagecoach did not come into Lyme itself but stopped at nearby Charmouth. However, the town was a fashionable holiday resort whose popularity was recognised by royalty when it was given the title Lyme Regis. Thus, Mary had many opportunities to sell her fossils to visitors as well as to local people, particularly during the summer months.

It is touching to know that, in her later years, Mary’s talents were recognised and that her friends in the scientific community looked after her. In 1835, the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Dublin raised a sum of £200 for her by private subscription. In 1838, William Buckland persuaded the Prime minister of the day, Lord Melbourne, to arrange to give a grant of £300 to Mary. This, together with the £200, yielded her an annuity of £25 a year. In 1845, she was made a member of the Geological Society and, a year later, the members of the society arranged another private subscription.

Sadly, Mary was not to enjoy her fame for long. She died on 9 March 1847 from breast cancer. Her brother Joseph died two years later and they share a tombstone in the churchyard overlooking the sea. Three years after her death, a stained-glass window was installed and dedicated to her memory in the North Isle of the Parish Church near to the northwest door. It bears the following inscription:

This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning, of this parish, who died March 9th 1847, and is erected by the Vicar of Lyme and some of the members of the Geological Society of London, in commemoration of her usefulness in furthering the science of geology, as also of her benevolence of heart and integrity of life.”

In 1848, a year after her death, Henry De La Beche, himself an old resident of Lyme and the first Director of the Geological Survey, paid Mary Anning an unprecedented tribute in his Presidential Address to the Geological Society.

It was not until 1913 that Mary Anning’s old fossil shop was finally demolished and, as late as 1908, she was celebrated in the tongue twister song by Terry Sullivan:

She sells seashells on the sea-shore, The shells she sells are sea shells, I’m sure, For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore, Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells.”

Due to a number of landslides, the old coast road between Lyme and Charmouth no longer exists. A stout sea wall now hides the area where Mary first discovered her plesiosaur and ichthyosaur skeletons and is therefore no longer available for study.

Fig. 4.A plesiosaur fossil body.

Mary and her fellow geologists had chosen as their profession one which was highly controversial. In her days, people had no conception of the stupendous scale of geological time. Mary had been born into an age when many people believed the writings of Archbishop Ussher who had taught that God created the Earth in the year 4004 BC. As naturalists began to discover the remains of ‘pre-historic’ animals, a popular explanation, which was often put forward, was that they belonged to separate creations before the great biblical flood. The word ‘antediluvian’, meaning ‘before the flood’, was often used to describe the world inhabited by these strange beasts.

Since the days that Mary made her discoveries, detailed work has been carried out on the strata and this has led to a greater knowledge of the geography and ecology of the area in those far off days. The rocks investigated by Mary were laid down in what we now call the early Jurassic period. The environment was very different to our present one and even the shapes of the continents would be unrecognisable. In those days too, the constellations of stars in the night sky were totally different and even the moon was very slightly nearer to the Earth. Our planet was rotating just a little faster so that the length of the day was slightly shorter.

In the period preceding the Jurassic, all the continents were concentrated into one enormous landmass known to geologists as Pangea. In the earlier part of the Jurassic period, the tectonic plates were just beginning to drift apart, but most of the landmasses were still joined together. In general, the whole world was warmer than it is today and there were no appreciable polar ice caps. Because of the slow movement of the tectonic plates, the area around Lyme Regis, which now lies at latitude 50° 44’ was considerably closer to the equator.

Over the few million years represented by the Liassic limestones and mudstones of the Dorset Coast, the area was located around 30° N. This is about the same latitude as that now occupied by Cairo. During most of the period, a shallow semi-landlocked sea like the Mediterranean or the Black Sea occupied the area. For much of the time, the sea level was alternately rising and falling.

When it was shallow, the water was clearer, life thrived and large quantities of limestone were deposited. When the sea deepened, the bottom became stagnant. Anaerobic conditions, accompanied by the production of sulphur compounds, provided a hostile environment for higher forms of life. During these periods, bituminous shales were deposited. Such seas are referred to as “anoxic basins” and classic examples in today’s world occur in parts of the Black Sea. Thus, shales alternate with limestones giving the strata a layered appearance. In their broad west-country dialect, the quarrymen described the rocks as being arranged in ‘lyers’. This may account for the name “Liassic” being given to this lower part of the Jurassic.

During Liassic times, land was probably never far away from the area around Lyme Regis, a fact that would account for the presence of Pterosaurs and insects in some of the strata. There is evidence that there were many islands in the sea such as a group to the north sometimes referred to by geologists as the Somerset and Gloucester archipelago. The waters were warm and, during the fertile periods, teemed with a rich selection of living organisms. None of the animals or plants that inhabited this ancient world is with us today – we live on a planet inhabited by their very, very distant descendants. The cyclical changes that occurred in the Liassic sea meant that the variety of animals and sea plants that lived in the waters underwent distinctive evolutionary modifications over the period.

The aquatic reptiles, first discovered by Mary Anning, belonged to two completely different zoological orders and had quite different appearances as shown in the illustrations.

Ichthyosaurs were streamlined animals and are believed to have been superficially very similar to the whales and dolphins of today and quite incapable of any form of locomotion on land. The Natural History Museum, in South Kensington, has an excellent display of Ichthyosaurs mostly from Lyme Regis, Street in Somerset and from Baden Würtemberg. The bulk of the specimens found by Mary Anning were from the Blue Lias and date from the period 203 to 194Ma. Among the Museum exhibits, there is an excellent example, which was found in rocks discovered in Switzerland, of a very early specimen dating from about 230Ma in the Triassic period.

A study of this very early creature suggests that the ichthyosaurs evolved from a land animal, which also gave rise to the lizards and the snakes. Like the whales and dolphins, the ichthyosaurs ‘went back to the sea’. In addition, like the later mammals, the reptilian ichthyosaurs were viviparous – that is, they gave live birth to their young. A number of specimens discovered in both English and German strata show pregnant females.

Plesiosaurs were long necked carnivorous reptiles with broad, flattened bodies. They propelled themselves through the water by means of four large paddles. Like turtles, they probably crawled onto the shore to lay their eggs. Another whole section of the reptile gallery of the Natural History Museum is devoted to these animals, whose strange shape earned them the names ‘Sea Dragons’ or ‘Sea Serpents’. Besides the more spectacular creatures, which lived in those ancient seas, various species of cephalopods were common.

The name cephalopod means ‘head-foot’ and these creatures are characterised by the possession of eight or ten tentacles that are connected to the animal’s head. During Jurassic times, the predominating animals belonging to this group were belemnites and ammonites. Unlike their modern relatives, the squids and the octopuses, these creatures had shells. The spiral shells of the ammonites are particularly beautiful and are the most characteristic fossils of the Lyme Bay area. The young animal started life in a small shell and, as it grew in size, it grew another chamber. It continued the process until the adult animal lived in the last and largest chamber. Thus, the final appearance of the shell was of a concentric spiral as pictured in the illustration.

Sadly, Mary did not live to see the day when, in 1859, Charles Darwin published his ‘Origin of Species’. It is interesting to speculate on what she would have thought. Although her interest was largely a practical one, there is some evidence from her correspondence that, although she did not have the words to explain it, she had already grasped some of the ideas of evolution. She was certainly a woman before her time. It is therefore right and fitting that her fame is kept alive today both in the Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis and in the British Museum of Natural History in South Kensington.

She is well commemorated at the Natural History Museum where some of her original finds are displayed in one of the galleries. From time to time, an actress dressed in similar clothes to those Mary would have worn in the early years of the nineteenth century walks round the museum to tell the children of a very great woman and a very great scientist.

The well-known diplomat, Sir Crispin Tickell, has spoken on the radio and written a small Shire book on the history of his ancestor, Mary Anning, of whom he is very proud.

Reference and further reading

‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ by Chrispin Tickell (1996, Lyme Regis Philpot Museum).

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution and the Woman whose discoveries changed the World‘, by Shelley Emling, Palgrave MacMillan, New York (2009), 225 pages (softback), ISBN: 978-02-30611-56-6

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