Mary Anning, the first female paleontologist

Mary Anning was an impoverished, self-taught fossil hunter whose remarkable discoveries paved the way for modern paleontology. Through her carefully documented finds, she expanded human knowledge of ancient life, although until recently her work was overlooked or dismissed due to her gender and social status. 

Early years

Mary Anning was born in 1799 in the seaside resort town of Lyme Regis, England. The town, which billed itself as a budget alternative to resorts such as Bath, had one other feature going for it: its coastline.

Around 200 million years ago, during the Jurassic period, that coastline was covered in a warm sea teeming with prehistoric life, Hakai magazine reports. That sea eventually receded, but the soft sedimentary rocks that formed the seabed remained, and the remains of animals that had been buried in the seabed slowly became stone themselves. Part of the seabed eroded away, forming cliffs; every wave or ferocious storm eroded those cliffs, exposing a cornucopia of fossils.

Eroding cliffs like this one near Lyme Regis, Anning’s home, reveal layers of sedimentary rock laid down hundreds of millions of years ago.  (Image credit: Arterra/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

It’s unlikely Anning’s parents, Richard and Molly Anning, knew any of this when they moved to Lyme Regis. According to Mary Anning biographer Shelley Emling, Richard, a cabinetmaker, chose Lyme Regis for its potential to attract wealthy tourists wanting to take in the sea air. But he quickly became a beachcomber, selling small fossils to those tourists who wanted a souvenir of their vacations. By the time Anning was 6, she was a regular presence by her father’s side, helping him find, excavate and clean fossils.


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