As it's Women's History Month, and every month is a good month for dinosaurs, I thought I'd dedicate this fine Tuesday to the landslide-dodging academic! The exhumer of ichthyosaurs! The discoverer of everyone's favorite swan-necked sauropterygian (that's the
Loch Ness Monster plesiosaur, folks): Mary Anning!
Mary Anning would probably have been my childhood hero if I'd known of her. The landslide-dodging is not an exaggeration–the cliffs of Lyme Regis, England, where Mary made her historic fossil discoveries, have a habit of shedding bits of themselves unexpectedly and at speed. She had some very near misses with falling cliff debris, but escaped time and again with both her life and the bones of twelve-foot-long seafaring lizard ancestors (a.k.a. ichthyosaurs).
She supported herself by selling fossils, at first to the curious tourists who flocked to her seaside town on holiday, and then to to the scientific community, which at that time consisted largely of wealthy gentlemen. The latter had an unfortunate habit of writing up her discoveries in scientific journals without crediting her in any fashion, though any taxonomic insights such papers contained often belonged to Mary as much as the physical unearthing of the fossil in question. Persons of authority, uncomfortable with the notion that a woman (especially one without significant financial means) could be a paleontological superhero, tended to write of her somewhat condescendingly when they did so at all. She found this irksome, to say the least, but went on making landmark discoveries.
One of her most important breakthroughs should appeal to the ten-year-old in all of us. Check out the illustration to the right. It's now called a coprolite. When Mary Anning began her work, paleontologists were finding plenty of those, but no one could fathom what they were. Mary Anning correctly deduced that they're…(drumroll) dinosaur poop!
No, no, don't look at me like that. Ask anyone who studies animals–you can learn an astounding amount about how they live from the little presents they leave behind. For starters, dino coprolites can be used to determine whether a dinosaur was carnivorous or herbivorous. In some recent cases, scientists have even been able to figure out specifically what the dinosaur that extruded the coprolite ate!
We also owe most people's mental picture of Nessie (a.k.a the Loch Ness Monster) to Mary Anning. The dinosaur to the left, perhaps popularly thought of as Nessie, is a plesiosaur, and Mary Anning found the first (and second) fossilized plesiosaur remains known to science. (They didn't live in Loch Ness, in case anyone was holding out hope. In fact, not much of anything lives in Loch Ness. I know. I'm as disappointed as you.) After study, she concluded that it was a wholly new species of dinosaur.
It's nothing less than a tragedy that brilliant and intrepid Mary Anning didn't receive proper recognition for her work in her lifetime. I'm glad for the chance to talk about her now, though, in no small part because acknowledging women's contributions in the past helps to prepare the way for today's and tomorrow's innovating women. And it affirms for young girls that their ideas matter, and their knowledge, work, and bravery deserve respect.
On that note, this post is dedicated to every (other) little girl or former little girl who stared up at a rearing brachiosaurus skeleton and thought, "WHOA, COOL!"
Profuse thanks to Missed in History's podcast on Mary Anning, available in the iTunes store, through which I first learned of her; and to those who collaboratively penned the excellent and thorough Wikipedia article on Ms. Anning (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Anning).
Plesiosaur skeleton: Shutterstock.com/Lefteris Papaulakis
Plesiosaur rendering: Shutterstock.com/Bob Orsillo
If you (or a dino-thusiastic kid you know) are interested in fun dinosaur crafts and entertaining little dinosaur fact-snippets penned by yours truly, check out PPP's Ready, Set, Draw…Dinosaurs!
Or if you're up for something in three dimensions, check out illustrator and paper artist Mary Beth Cryan's book of Paper Craft Dinosaurs!