The Woman Who Discovered the Jurassic Coast - Mary Anning

Meet the woman who inspired the tongue-twister, "She sells seashells on the seashore," and who rewrote the geological history of England.
Marcia Wendorf

On November 13, 2020 a new film will be released entitled, Ammonite. It stars Kate Winslet as Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison, but who were these women?

An electric beginning

Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK in 1799 to a cabinetmaker father who had a strong interest in fossils. You almost couldn't help but be interested in fossils if you lived in Lyme Regis, because it is located atop the shale and limestone cliffs that comprise the southern coast of England. 

The area around Lyme Regis is often referred to as the "Jurassic Coast", and author John Fowles set his acclaimed 1969 novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and its fossil hunting protagonist Charles Smithson, in Lyme Regis.

Lyme Regis, UK
Lyme Regis, UK Source: Gaius Cornelius/Wikimedia Commons

One of ten children, only Mary and her brother Joseph survived into adulthood. When Anning was 15 months old, she was being held by a neighbor who was standing under an elm tree along with two other women. Suddenly, lightning struck the tree, killing all three women. Mary was revived, and local lore says that from then on, she displayed an unusual intelligence and curiosity.

Lyme Regis coast
Lyme Regis coast Source: Kevin Walsh/Wikimedia Commons

By 1800, Lyme Regis was a popular destination for English gentry who were keen on fossil collecting, and was a popular spot for collecting ammonites and belemnites.

The Blue Lias

The coastal cliffs surrounding Lyme Regis are part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. It is comprised of alternating layers of limestone and shale that were once the sediment of a shallow sea that covered the area during the Jurassic Period, about 210 to 195 million years ago.


The best time to find fossils embedded within the Blue Lias was during the winter, when the rain and crashing waves caused landslides on the cliffs. Anning's father died in 1810, due to tuberculosis and injuries suffered in a fall off a cliff, but Anning, her mother, and brother continued to search for fossils.

 Ichthyosaurus skull
 Ichthyosaurus skull Source: Everard Home/Wikimedia Commons

In 1811, when Mary Anning was 12, her brother Joseph dug up a remarkable 4-foot-long (1.2 m) skull, the likes of which no one had ever seen before. Young Mary set out to find the rest of the skeleton, and when she did, it was a staggering 17 feet long (5.2 m).

Ichthyosaurus skeleton
Ichthyosaurus skeleton Source: Gary Todd/Wikimedia Commons

With the creature's head and body reunited, the fossil was sold to a well-known fossil collector in London where it generated quite a stir. This was because at that time, most people in England believed in the Biblical account of creation, and that taught that Earth was just a few thousand years old. If that was the case, then where did the odd creature fit in?

The fossil generated no less than six papers for the Royal Society, with the creature being described as a kind of fish, a crocodile, a duck-billed platypus, and a cross between a salamander and a lizard. Eventually, the fossil made its way to the British Museum where it was named ichthyosaurus, which is Greek for "fish lizard". Today, the skull is at the Natural History Museum in London, while the rest of the skeleton has been lost.

An unknown woman in Dorset

Between 1815 and 1819, Mary Anning found several almost complete skeletons of ichthyosaurs, and in 1821, two members of the Geological Society of London, Henry De la Beche and William Conybeare, wrote a paper based on Anning's finds that concluded that ichthyosaurs were a previously unknown type of marine reptile. In 1821, Anning found a 20-feet-long (6.1 m) skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus platydon, which is today known as Temnodontosaurus platyodon.

Plesiosaurus fossil found by Mary Anning
Plesiosaurus fossil found by Mary Anning Source: FunkMonk/Wikimedia Commons

 In 1824, De la Beche and Conybeare presented to the Geological Society an entirely new marine reptile that they called plesiosaurus, which is Greek for "near lizard". The presentation was based on an 1823 find by Anning of an almost complete plesiosaur skeleton, and the presentation included Anning's drawing of the fossil. Mary Anning would go on to discover another nearly complete plesiosaur skeleton in 1830.

Anning drawing of a plesiosaur
Anning drawing of a plesiosaur Source: Mary Anning/Wikimedia Commons

In 1826, Anning discovered an ink chamber within a belemnite fossil, and this led to the conclusion that Jurassic belemnites had used ink for defense, just like modern squid and octopus do.

In December 1828, Anning discovered the partial skeleton of a pterosaur, which was the first pterosaur skeleton found outside of Germany. The pterosaur is the flying reptile shown in the Jurassic Park films.

Pterosaur Source: Kenn Chaplin/Wikimedia Commons

An 1823 article in The Bristol Mirror newspaper described Anning: "This persevering female has for years gone daily in search of fossil remains of importance at every tide, for many miles under the hanging cliffs at Lyme, whose fallen masses are her immediate object, as they alone contain these valuable relics of a former world, which must be snatched at the moment of their fall, at the continual risk of being crushed by the half suspended fragments they leave behind, or be left to be destroyed by the returning tide: — to her exertions we owe nearly all the fine specimens of Ichthyosauri of the great collections ..."

The danger was borne out when, in October 1833, Anning was almost killed by a landslide that did kill her beloved dog Tray, who is shown in the painting of Anning at the top of this article. To boost her knowledge, Anning devoured whatever scientific papers she could get her hands on, and she began dissecting both fish and cuttlefish in order to better understand the anatomy of the fossils she was finding.

When Lady Harriet Silvester visited Lyme in 1824, she wrote of Anning, "The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. ... 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 to 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 this kingdom."

Cracks in the glass ceiling

By 1826, Anning opened a fossil shop which attracted collectors from both Europe and America. Some of Anning's fossils even ended up in the New York Lyceum of Natural History. At that time in Britain, women were not allowed to vote, to hold public office, or attend university, and membership in the Geological Society of London was closed to them. That meant that when geological breakthroughs were published, they were invariably written by men.

When leading British geologist Roderick Murchison visited Lyme, he was accompanied by his wife Charlotte, who created numerous geological sketches and who had assembled a significant fossil collection of her own. When Roderick departed Lyme, Charlotte convinced him to leave her behind so that she could work alongside Anning. Their relationship serves as the basis for the upcoming film.

Duria Antiquior
Duria Antiquior by Henry De la Beche Source: National Museum Cardiff/Wikimedia Commons

The geologists Henry De la Beche and William Buckland became friends with Anning, and based on her finds, De la Beche created the watercolor painting Duria Antiquior, which showed what life in prehistoric Dorset might have been like.

It was to Buckland that Anning wrote a letter in which she conjectured that the strange conical-shaped objects often found within fossilized creatures' stomachs, which were then called bezoar stones, were actually fossilized feces. Realizing that Anning was correct, Buckland renamed the objects coprolites and credited Anning in his presentation to the Geological Society.

In 1830, when Anning fell into financial difficulties, De la Beche commissioned prints of Duria Antiquior to be made, and they sold briskly. The proceeds were turned over to Anning. Five years later, Buckland got the British government to award Anning a £25 annual pension.

Mary Anning's legacy

Mary Anning died of breast cancer in 1847 at the age of just 47. After being buried at St Michael's church, members of the Geological Society had a stained-glass window made in her honor. The inscription reads: "This window is sacred to the memory of Mary Anning of this parish, who died 9 March AD 1847 and is erected by the vicar and some 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 February 1865, Charles Dickens wrote about Anning in his literary magazine All the Year Round. He ended the article with: "The carpenter's daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it."

During her lifetime, only the Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz named a species after Mary Anning, two fossil fish — Acrodus anningiae, and Belenostomus anningiae. Following her death, the ostracod Cytherelloidea anningi, the therapsid reptile genus Anningia, and the bivalve mollusk genus Anningella were also named after Anning. In 2012, the plesiosaur genus Anningasaura was named after her, and in 2015, the species Ichthyosaurus anningae was also named after Anning.

It is thought that the 1908 tongue-twister, "She sells seashells on the seashore", written by Terry Sullivan, referred to Anning.

In 2009, author Tracy Chevalier wrote the historical novel Remarkable Creatures, in which Mary Anning and her friend Elizabeth Philpot were the main characters. In March 2010, Joan Thomas published another historical novel about Anning entitled, Curiosity. In 2016, Anning is the fossil-hunting protagonist in Sarah Perry's novel, The Essex Serpent.

In 2010, a panel of experts was assembled by the Royal Society to create a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. That list included Mary Anning.

In August 2020, a crowdfunding campaign by the Jurassic Coast Trust (JCT) and the Lyme Regis Museum raised £18,532 to bid at auction on the 1829 handwritten letter that Anning had sent to William Buckland in which she identified coprolites and identified a new plesiosaur. Unfortunately, that letter was sold at Sotheby's to an anonymous private collector for £100,800.

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