Mary Anning


Mary Anning : biography

21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847

Anning found several other ichthyosaur fossils between 1815 and 1819, including almost complete skeletons of varying sizes. In 1821 William Conybeare and Henry De la Beche, both members of the Geological Society of London, collaborated on a paper that analysed in detail the specimens found by Anning and others. They concluded that ichthyosaurs were a previously unknown type of marine reptile, and based on differences in tooth structure, they concluded that there had been at least three species. Also in 1821, Anning found the 20 ft (6 m) skeleton from which the species Ichthyosaurus platydon (now Temnodontosaurus platyodon) would be named. In the 1980s it was determined that the first ichthyosaur specimen found by Joseph and Mary Anning was also a member of Temnodontosaurus platyodon.


Her next major discovery was a partial skeleton of a new type of marine reptile in the winter of 1820–1821, the first of its kind to be found. William Conybeare named it Plesiosaurus (near lizard) because he thought it more like modern reptiles than the ichthyosaur had been, and he described it in the same 1821 paper he co-authored with Henry De la Beche on ichthyosaur anatomy. The paper thanked the man who bought the skeleton from Anning for giving Conybeare access to it, but does not mention the woman who discovered and prepared it. The fossil was subsequently described as Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus and is the type specimen (holotype) of the species, which itself is the type species of the genus.

In 1823 she discovered a second even more complete plesiosaur skeleton (the first one had been missing the skull). When Conybeare presented his analysis of plesiosaur anatomy to a meeting of the Geological Society in 1824, he again failed to mention Anning by name, even though she had collected both skeletons and she had made the sketch of the second skeleton he used in his presentation. Conybeare’s presentation was made at the same meeting at which William Buckland described the dinosaur Megalosaurus and the combination created a sensation in scientific circles.

Conybeare’s presentation followed the resolution of a controversy over the legitimacy of one of the fossils. The fact that the plesiosaur’s long neck had an unprecedented 35 vertebrae raised the suspicions of the eminent French anatomist Georges Cuvier when he reviewed Anning’s drawings of the second skeleton, and he wrote to Conybeare suggesting the possibility that the find was a fake produced by combining fossil bones from different kinds of animals. Fraud was far from unknown among early 19th century fossil collectors, and if the controversy had not been resolved promptly, the accusation could have seriously damaged Anning’s ability to sell fossils to other geologists. Cuvier’s accusation had resulted in a special meeting of the Geological Society earlier in 1824, which, after some debate, had concluded the skeleton was legitimate. Cuvier later admitted he had acted in haste and was mistaken.

Anning discovered yet another important and nearly complete plesiosaur skeleton in 1830. It was named Plesiosaurus macrocephalus by William Buckland and was described in an 1840 paper by Richard Owen. Once again Owen mentioned the wealthy gentleman who had purchased the fossil and made it available for examination, but not the woman who had discovered and prepared it.

Fossil fish and pterosaur

Anning found what a contemporary newspaper article called an "unrivalled specimen" of Dapedium politum. This was a ray-finned fish, which would be described in 1828. In December of that same year she made an important find consisting of the partial skeleton of a pterosaur. In 1829 William Buckland described it as Pterodactylus macronyx (later renamed Dimorphodon macronyx by Richard Owen), and unlike many other such occasions, Buckland credited Anning with the discovery in his paper.

It was the first pterosaur skeleton found outside Germany, and it created a public sensation when displayed at the British Museum. In December 1829 she found a fossil fish, Squaloraja, which attracted attention because it had characteristics intermediate between sharks and rays.