Episode 80 – Mary Anning

Listen to Episode 80 on PodBean, Spotify, YouTube, or that other podcast place you like!

Happy Darwin Day! In keeping with tradition, we’re joined by special guest Brittney Stoneburg this episode to discuss one of the most influential figures of early paleontology, a person who helped set the stage for the ways we uncover and understand ancient life today, and who was famously not famous in her own time. This episode, we’re discussing Mary Anning.

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Mary Anning

Mary Anning grew up in the earliest 1800s, in a society that had only recently accepted the concept of extinction, and still decades before Darwin published his famous theory of natural selection. In her time, the field of paleontology was so young that the word “dinosaur” wasn’t even coined until shortly before her death.

Portrait of Mary Anning and her fossil-hunting companion, Tray (right).

Mary’s family was not wealthy, and as a child Mary joined the family practice of collecting fossils to sell to the sorts of people who collected them as “curiosities.” It was fortunate for them that they lived in Lyme Regis, England, along a stretch of exposed Mesozoic rocks called the Jurassic Coast, famous for its extraordinary fossils.

Mary was a skilled fossil hunter, and from a young age she was discovering fossils that changed how people viewed the past. Her discoveries (some made with the help of her family) included the first identified plesiosaur, Plesiosaurus macrocephalus; the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus; and the first identified British pterosaur, Pterodactylus.

Lithograph of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus skeleton found by Mary Anning in 1823, published in 1824 transactions of the Geological Society of London

Mary certainly wasn’t unnoticed in her time. Her skills were sought after by many of the other big names in early paleontology, such as William Buckland, Richard Owen, and Louis Agassiz, to name a few. Many praised her work during her life, and Charles Dickens famously wrote of her after her death, “The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

But as respected as she was by some, Mary never earned the same level of respect and honor as those famous “men of science” of her time. She was a woman and of low class, so she was largely excluded from scientific society, wasn’t able to publish her own work, and for a long time was left out of discussions of the history of paleontology as a science.

Duria Antiquior, famous watercolor by the geologist Henry de la Beche depicting life in ancient Dorset based on fossils found by Mary Anning. One of the first widely circulated examples of paleoart!

Learn more about Mary Anning:
Mary Anning: the unsung hero of fossil discovery at NHM London.
Mary Anning at UCMP Berkeley
Fossil Hunter, a book by Shelley Emling.
If you like podcasts (duh), listen to Episode 5 of Femmes of Stem with our friend Michelle (adult language)
Michelle also discussed Mary and other women of science with us in Episode 19.

And the awesome crew at Mary Anning’s Revenge recommend these two books: Remarkable Creatures: A Novel by Tracy ChevalierPatricia Pierce.

Our special guest, Brittney
You can follow Brittney on Twitter and Instagram @brittandbone
She’s also one of the founders of Cosplay for Science
And check out the Western Science Center because it’s an awesome place!

If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:

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