How wonderful that a Google Doodle is celebrating the 215th birthday of Mary Anning, the self-trained, citizen-scientist fossil hunter who discovered the very first dinosaur skeleton.
I’ll be an iguanodon’s uncle. I have to admit, before today, I never knew much about the story and legacy of Mary Anning. I had heard her name before, but not much else. So I pulled out my rock hammer of curiosity dug a little deeper (pun most definitely intended).
Turns out Anning didn’t actually uncover the first dinosaur skeleton, as is stated in the reblog above. That honor most certainly goes to ancient cultures like the Greeks and Chinese, although they attributed the finds to mythology (thar be dragons!). Richard Brookes described the first dinosaur bone in 1763 (there’s a funny story behind that one, which I’ll tell another time), which was formally described as Megalosaurus in 1824.
But Mary did make some of the most important finds in the history of paleontology. In 1811, she was walking on the beach with her brother when they stumbled across the skull of an ichthyosaur. Luckily for them, British beaches are rocky, desolate places. Over the next few months, Mary dug up the complete skeleton. She was just 12 years old!
But ichthyosaurs aren’t dinosaurs! They are a separate group of prehistoric marine reptiles. So Mary discovered one of the first prehistoric reptile fossils, but not the first dinosaur.
Today’s Google’s doodle tells the story of another of Mary’s famous finds, her 1823 unearthing of the first plesiosaur (also not a dinosaur). She won the Triple Crown of science awesomeness in 1828 when she discovered the first pterosaur, which (you guessed it) is also not a dinosaur. Here’s her original letter (a rather beautiful one if I may say so) describing the 1823 plesiosaur find (via Wikipedia):
Despite these discoveries, Anning was excluded by her gender from scientific societies, and the gentleman-scholars who purchased her fossils often took credit for her work without so much as a mention of her name. She wasn’t completely ignored, as many scholars called upon her expertise to obtain and help classify fossils (including Charles Darwin’s geology teacher), but she suffered financial difficulties for most of her life, and cultural obscurity long after.
It would be hard to think of anyone who made a bigger impact than Mary Anning on the science of digging old bits of animals out of the ground. I’m glad Google is celebrating her today, so that perhaps she can be celebrated a bit more every day. According to Alexa, Google.com gets 720 million unique visitors every day. Imagine how many of them might be inspired, as I was, to learn a little more about the story behind the doodle.
What a win for science :)