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Learn about Mary Anning, one of England’s most important contributors to the field of paleontology.

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Mary Anning was born in 1799 to relatively poor parents on the southern coast of Britain. Their backyard ran into the cliffs at Lyme Regis, an area now renowned for its wealth of amazing Jurassic era fossils. 
Back then, fossil collecting was done by amateurs, sometimes as a hobby, other times for profit. But not, really, for science. It’s important to note that, when Anning began collecting fossils, the prevailing scientific theory was that they were just preserved remains of existing animals. The idea that an animal had ever gone extinct had been proposed, but wasn't widely accepted. 
Anning’s father, Richard, was a cabinet-maker, but he dabbled in fossil-collecting and passed that love on to his daughter. 
But when Mary was 11, her father died, so she and her mother and her brother began selling fossils to make ends meet. Now the best time to do collect fossils at Lyme Regis was right after a landslide when new fossils might have been exposed... but that was also, of course, the most dangerous time to be on the cliffs, though it wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she was caught in a landslide. She survived, but her dog Tray wasn’t so lucky. 
Over time, Mary taught herself the basics of anatomy -- using animals that no one had ever seen alive -- and this helped her become an expert in the science and the art of preparation, the technique of removing rock from around a fossil to expose the specimen inside it. This sounds maybe easier than it is... it’s actually more like separating rock from a very slightly different rock.
The fossils she and her family found and prepared were eagerly sought -- not only by museums and scientists, but by European nobles, many of whom had substantial private collections of fossils and other curiosities from the natural world.
And Anning made many significant discoveries at Lyme Regis. At the tender age of 10, Mary and her brother discovered the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus -- an aquatic, fish-like reptile -- ever recognized by the London scientific community.
Years later, she solved the mystery of what scientists at the time called “bezoar stones,” weird rocks that were found inside some fossil animals.
Anning had seen enough of these things to have noticed patterns, like that they were often spiral shaped, and were usually found in the lower abdomens of ichthyosaurs.
Having the presence of mind to dissect a few samples of these stones, Anning discovered bones inside of them -- the fossil remains of fish and their scales, and sometimes even smaller ichthyosaurs.
She realized that bezoar stones were actually fossilized feces, now known as coprolites, which became hugely important in understanding the structure of prehistoric ecosystems.
She also discovered the first pterosaur fossil ever found outside of Germany, along with various important fossil fish, including a perfectly-preserved cuttlefish with ink sacs intact!
But perhaps her most important find came in 1824, when she came across the nearly intact remains of a strange animal: 10 meters from head to tail, with an enormous neck. When a famous French paleontologist saw Anning’s sketches of the specimen, he dismissed it as a fake. 
But further study would prove that she had found the first plesiosaur -- an early, four-finned marine reptile that didn’t resemble any animal found before. 
This "grand fossil skeleton of Lyme-Regis" became an object of international fascination, and Anning’s work on it had her communicating regularly with the most prominent scientists in the field.
Unfortunately, the structure of society at the time made it impossible for Anning to publicly participate in science, and most of her discoveries ended up being published by men that she collaborated with. Indeed, the only thing that she wrote that was published in her lifetime was a letter to the editor of a magazine questioning one of their claims. 
By the time she died of breast cancer in her 40s, she was all but unknown, even to many other paleontologists.
Nonetheless, Anning’s discoveries, her skills, and her anatomical expertise helped usher in an entirely new understanding of the world, and the creation of a science, paleontology, that has allowed us to reconstruct a huge amount of the history of life on earth.
So the next time you go to a natural history museum, or just enjoy one of our episodes about ancient life here on SciShow, keep in mind that a lot of what we know, we know thanks to Mary Anning, possibly the greatest fossilist in the world.
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