Monday, March 27, 2023

Mary Anning, and why paleontology has a woman’s name

He sells bullets on the beach
The shells he sells are bullets, I’m sure
So if he sells shells on the seashore
Then I’m sure he sells sea shells.

This poetry Charles Dickens can speak outside the Spanish world. From his first stanza, however, one of Shakespeare’s most disgusting tongue twisters was born: “He sells shells on the seashore,” which in his Spanish translation comes to something like: “He sells shells on the shore.” .

Even more unknown, perhaps, is the figure who inspired Dickens to report such gibberish: none other than Mary Anning, the first of some of the most relevant paleontological discoveries of the 19th century.

Maria Anning was born in 1799 in the English town of Lyme Regis, in the county of Dorset, England, the area where the famous Jurassic Coast sits, on the coast of about 153 kilometers where she discovered the remains of the event. 180 million years.

Anning came from a very poor family and, because of his Protestant position, was also very isolated in England at the time. Of his 10 siblings, only Mary herself and one of them, Joseph, reached adulthood, and her father tried to support his job as a cabinet maker, which he supplied by selling fossils that he found in the famous local tourist rocks.

From him, whom she accompanies her brother in collecting, Anna inherited her love of fossils. The domestic business, however, became a necessity to take care of when he died in 1810, when the paleontologist was barely 10 years old, and his mother encouraged him to sell those fossil treasures in order to contribute financially to the family.

Mary Anning’s discoveries of paleontology swirled

At the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, fossils had increased: that hobby would soon become the knowledge that Mary and her brother had decided to use. Fortune would knock on the door a year after his father’s death, when in 1811 Joseph found a 1.20-meter-long skull in the rocks of Dorset, whose body Anning insisted on finding.

The bones of the monster belonged to a cross between a fish and a crocodile, which some scientists only speculated about: an ichthyosaurus. Anning was not the only finder, and so he continued to make finds in the following years until the year 1818, piqued by the curiosity of a famous collector to whom he had sold the first large fragment, an ichthyosaur belonging to someone else, who allowed him to use one. economic unemployment. .

Despite this, perhaps because of her status as a woman, perhaps because of her Protestantism or perhaps from both, in the following years scientific articles about what is perhaps one of the most important modern paleontological discoveries came across the figure. of Anning.

Everard Home

Nevertheless, this would not be a discouraging reason for the young paleontologists, who only 5 years later, in 1823, would find another of the most representative creatures of the Jurassic, the plesiosaur, which would attract the attention of one of them for a short time. the most important scientists, respected of the time, the zoologist Georges Cuvier. The fossil is said to be so rare and so quickly spread that some, including Cuvier himself, doubted its authenticity. And Anning’s discovery excited a special meeting of the same London Geological Society, to which the palaeontologist was not invited, but in which many learned men, after a fierce debate, contradicted Anning.

After only three years, after saving enough money, Anning opened his own fossil business, which he called “Anning Fossil Store”. The years of his arrival are marked by the discovery of new species of extinct snakes, among which perhaps the most outstanding was that of pterosaurs dating to 251 million years ago.

And the discoveries, many of which were used momentarily by scientists, and whose scientific publications they used to make, not to mention Anning’s role in his work, which could be presumed to have some knowledge. the boundaries of fossils deeper than any paleontologist at the time.

Ancient Duria – Ancient Dorset is an 1830 watercolor by geologist Henry De la Beche painted on fossils found by Mary Anning, and was the first representation based on fossils.

Henry de Labeche

Despite this, there were few who recognized Anning’s talent and good work. Among them are the names of the anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen, who in 1942 coined the term “terrible lizard” for the first time; William Buckland, also a geologist and paleontologist, who gave the first full description of dinosaurs, or Anning, a geologist and childhood friend, Henry De la Beche, who was inspired by the discoveries of paleontologists to paint a picture called “Duria Antiquior. – A More Ancient Dorset”, the first representation of prehistoric life It is based on fossil evidence, the seeds of what we now know as paleoart.

Through the successions of time and because of his merits, Anning at least had the support of a close circle of paleontologists and scientists, with whom he sometimes corresponded by e-mail. Perhaps, over the years, he would have managed to make a place for himself in the place, if not for the fact that in 1847 cancer ended his life. On the occasion of the death of de la Beche, his friend and then president of the Geological Society of London, wrote an obituary, which was published in the Society’s Proceedings, as were most of the public recognitions, and honors reserved only for men. In 2010, Mary Anning was recognized by the Royal Society as one of the ten most influential British scientists of all time.

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