I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Mary Anning was only twelve years old when, in 1811, she discovered the first dinosaur skeleton--of an ichthyosaur--while fossil hunting on the cliffs of Lyme Regis, England. Until Mary's incredible discovery, it was widely believed that animals did not become extinct. The child of a poor family, Mary became a fossil hunter, inspiring the tongue-twister, "She Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore." She attracted the attention of fossil collectors and eventually the scientific world. Once news of the fossils reached the halls of academia, it became impossible to ignore the truth. Mary's peculiar finds helped lay the groundwork for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, laid out in his On the Origin of Species. Darwin drew on Mary's fossilized creatures as irrefutable evidence that life in the past was nothing like life in the present.
Give this about a 3.5 star rating for my general reading experience. I knew the basic outlines of Mary Anning’s story—a woman with a talent for finding marine reptile fossils, held back by her social status, her lack of access to education, and her gender. In a world which favoured wealthy men with leisure time, she was at a tremendous disadvantage and achieved a great deal despite that.
This book filled in the gaps in my knowledge of the woman and made me admire her fortitude all the more. The author is a journalist, so it is written in a rather journalistic style—not surprising. There is some speculation, trying to guess what may have been going on in Ms. Anning’s mind, but nothing that is too unreasonable. Since the author seems to have done her research on the time period, she makes safe assumptions.
I found it interesting that on pages 209-210, more current research was referenced:
”And new species of plesiosaurs—a most diverse group of aquatic carnivores—are being discovered to this day. One of the oldest and most complete skeletons of a prehistoric aquatic reptile has been uncovered in North America, representing an entirely new group of plesiosaurs. This 8.5 foot specimen, known as Nichollsia borealis, is one of the most complete and best-preserved North American plesiosaurs from the Cretaceous Period.”
It is too bad that the author didn’t mention that this creature is named after Elizabeth (Betsy) Nicholls, who was a paleontologist specializing in Triassic marine reptiles at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. Betsy worked on a back-breaking dig in northern British, excavating Shonisaurus sikanniensis, a Triassic marine reptile and she probably would have identified with Mary Anning’s perilous labours. Nicholls at least got the recognition for her work, receiving awards and having marine reptiles named in her honour. Sadly, both Anning and Nicholls died young of breast cancer, another thing they have in common.
Nichollsaura borealis (source: Wikipedia)