Happy Birthday, Mary Anning! “Princess of Paleontology”

by AMNH on

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Happy Birthday, Mary Anning! Born on May 21, 1799, in Lyme Regis, on the coast of Dorset, England, famed fossil-hunter Mary Anning grew up collecting specimens.

Mary Anning Painting
Mary Anning, who lived on the Dorset coast, in England, became a famed fossil collector in the 1800s. 
Via Wikimedia Commons

At age 13, she unearthed a skeleton of a giant marine reptile: one of the first ichthyosaurs. And in 1828, while in her late 20s, she discovered Dimorphodon, the first pterosaur discovered outside continental Europe, on the beach cliffs at Lyme Regis. At the time, headlines celebrated Mary and her “flying dragon.”

Animated image of a walking Dimorphodon.

Anning’s discovery proved that these flying reptiles were varied and had a wide range. Dimorphodon macronyxwhich lived about 200 million years ago, was more robust than its German cousins, with shorter wings, a larger head, and a longer tail.

To support her family, until her death in 1847 Anning sold a variety of fossils to tourists and museums: ammonites, squid-like belemnites, and ancient fishes left behind by the Jurassic sea. In addition to Dimorphodon, she made many striking discoveries, from large swimming reptiles like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs to tiny coprolites, which she correctly identified as fossil dung.

Scientists from all over England and also from Europe came to Anning’s shop and bought her fossils, and she read their works and shared her expertise with them. As a woman with little formal education, and very little means, she could never join their circle. Yet by collecting and studying fossils, she earned a reputation so widespread that a German naturalist called her the princess of paleontology.

Learn more sharp-eyed fossil hunter Mary Anning and about Dimorphodon in the exhibition Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs.