She sold sea shells down at the sea shore

10 07 2007

The Wellcome Image Bank is now online under a Creative Commons License, and various science bloggers are picking out their favorites from the collection of old and obscure images. Mine is an 1823 letter from Mary Anning concerning the discovery of a plesiosaur;

Plesiosaur
[From the Wellcome Collection]

Such an image might not seem especially evocative, most of us are familiar with what a plesiosaur looked like, but during this time it was an amazing discovery. Mary Anning is the unsung heroine of paleontology, contributing as much (if not more) to our understanding of extinct Mesozoic life than many of her contemporaries like William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, and Gideon Mantell. Indeed, while Anning was the one to many of the first ictyhosaurs and plesiosaurs ever recovered from the blue lias of Lyme Regis, she never got credit for her discoveries when the famed scientists spoke about them in public. Indeed, it’s fitting that I happened across this image as I just finished Christopher McGowan’s excellent book The Dragon Seekers about Anning, as well as other scientists who “paved the way” for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Prior to Anning’s discoveries, extinct marine reptiles were largely unknown (or at least never identified for what they were), but her discoveries helped to establish that life in the seas was once very different than today, supporting Cuvier’s assertion that species can become extinct. The discovery of the celebrated dinosauria would come soon after Anning’s finds, but the discovery of the large seagoing “reptiles” helped to establish the fact that such creatures once did exist, and if they had not been found perhaps the first dinosaur remains would have wallowed in obscurity or been misidentified for a long time.

I do my best not to forget Mary Anning, however; on my back wall rests a facsimile of the first articulated plesiosaur discovered (bits of jaw were found before, but no one was sure what they belonged to until an articulated skeleton was found).

And, while you’re at it, check out the picks of Larry Moran, Carl Zimmer, and Skepchick.

[Note: My choice for this image was a close call, however; the current relevance to what I was reading pushed it over the top despite my preference for this distinctive image]


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4 responses

10 07 2007
Zach Miller

It can be argued that dear Mary Anning was the first paleontologist, and she no doubt popularized the “natural history.” By virtue of where she lived, marine reptiles quickly became her area of expertise. I believe she also discovered a great many ichthyosaurs and ammonites.

10 07 2007
laelaps

Zach; if I remember correctly, the first major fossil discovery she made was an icthyosaur, and there’s no doubt that she uncovered ammonites as well (although she probably wasn’t as celebrated for this). If you have some spare time McGowan’s book is certainly worth the read; he doesn’t go into as much detail as I would like involving the impact of paleontology on Darwin, but he gives plenty of attention to Anning, Hawkins, Buckland, Lyell, Mantell, and Owen; I was able to finish it in a few hours over the course of two evenings.

10 07 2007
Diatomic « microecos

[…] Laelaps has the vert paleo angle covered, with a Mary Anning sketch no […]

24 09 2010
download

thank you share…very nicee

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