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A Google Doodle For Mary Anning, British Fossil Hunter Extraordinaire

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On what would have been her 215th birthday, famed British fossil collector Mary Anning has been bestowed with that imprimatur of geeky glory: a Google Doodle, depicting her uncovering yet another ancient specimen.

Anning grew up in Lyme Regis, a town in southwestern England; millions of years ago, that same land once lay near the equator, covered by a tropical sea. It is a perfect breeding ground for fossils, formed after marine creatures large and small died and were buried in the mud on the seafloor. Her carpenter father, Richard Anning, was also a fossil collector and passed this skill onto his daughter. After Richard died in 1810, the Anning family was on the cusp of abject poverty until they got into the fossil-hunting business full-time.

Though Anning is sometimes credited as the discoverer of the first ichthyosaur fossil, this isn’t true. But the Ichthyosaurus she did discover around 1810 (when she was about 11 years old) was the first specimen to attract major attention in England; the ancient seagoing reptile’s remains were eventually bought by the British Museum. Anning also unearthed the first pterosaur found in England, the first nearly complete plesiosaur, and a host of other natural curiosities, including a fossil cuttlefish with its ink still preserved inside.

By uncovering a host of ancient creatures previously unknown to science, Anning made substantial contributions to paleontology. But as a 19th-century woman, Anning struggled for respect from the scientific community of that time. Her gender barred her from admission to the Geological Society of London, and her finds were often installed in museums without crediting her as the discoverer. At present, the only known writing of hers that appears in the scientific literature is an 1839 letter to the Magazine of Natural History, questioning an author’s claim about shark taxonomy.

After her death, Charles Dickens wrote an effusive article about her in his magazine All The Year Round, saying that geology “was not a science when she began to discover, and so [she] helped to make it one… the carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

We couldn’t agree more.


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