Three times fast: “She sells seashells on the seashore.”
Perhaps not many know that the “she” of the tongue twister was in fact a real woman, and that she changed the world. Her name was Mary Anning, and at age 12 she discovered the world’s first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton, then went on discover two plesiosaur skeletons (the first ever), an immensely important pterosaur skeleton, and many new species of prehistoric fish, along with a lot else. (Including being instrumental in identifying coprolites, then known as ‘benzoar stones,’ thought to be a magical, mystical antidote to any poison, as being fossilized feces.)
Mary Anning was an unlikely paleontologist, indeed an unlikely survivor. Her family history is so Dickensian that even Dickens wouldn’t have believed it, and would have blushed at its improbability had he written it. One of only two surviving children (of ten born), Mary was the second Mary of the family, the first having burned to death at age four when her clothes caught fire. Then, at 15 months of age, Mary was being held by a neighbor, who, in the company of two other women, was watching a traveling equestrian show when the elm tree they were standing below was struck by lightning. Only Mary survived.
No, there’s more. Mary’s father died when she was eleven, leaving an already poor family in even more desperate financial circumstances. Fortunately for science, her father had supplemented his meager income by collecting and selling fossils from the cliffs near their home in Lyme Regis, England, and often brought Mary and her brother Joseph along. It was dangerous work, as the best collecting was during or immediately following winter storms, when portions of the cliff faces would fall, exposing new fossils. On one occasion, Mary narrowly missed being crushed by a landslide that instantly turned her beloved dog Tray into a potential future fossil.
In 19th century England educating women was largely considered a waste of time (Mary was taught how to read and write, but little beyond that), and although Mary became quite an authority on Jurassic marine life, she was never allowed to join the burgeoning scientific societies or even attend lectures as a guest. She knew a great deal more than most of the people to whom she sold her finds, yet they were the ones who published scientific papers about them, often taking credit for the discovery. Mary Anning’s only published work was a letter to the Magazine of Natural History, correcting a claim that had been made about a prehistoric shark.
We always had fossils around the house when I was growing up, although in New Hampshire, the “Granite State,” there was little chance of finding any myself. (Granite is an igneous rock, and fossils are found only in sedimentary formations, although more about that later.) In fact, the first fossil I ever found was in Hungary, where I stumbled (literally) upon a perfectly-preserved scallop shell in the middle of a hiking trail near the River Danube.
After that, I did a bit of research and discovered that there was an area within 30 minutes of Budapest that had limestone outcroppings dating from the Middle Miocene, about 11 to 15 million years ago. We went for a short hike there, and to my astonishment began to find fossil shells almost immediately.
Now we go there a few times a year, all tricked out with professional paleontological gear like plastic sandbox shovels and scoops. (If I’m feeling particularly ambitious I’ll bring along a small hammer and a couple of stiff paint brushes, but it’s usually just kids’ toys.) Every time we go we make amazing finds. No, we’re not talking T-rex skeletons (remember, we are talking the Miocene in what is now Hungary, about 55 million years too late and 3000 miles off-base for that), but we do unearth – with remarkable ease – an impressive variety of marine invertebrates.
The thing is, so can you. I’d be willing to bet my favorite trilobite that there are fossil-finding possibilities within an hour’s drive of where you live. For the US and Canada, an excellent resource is FossilSites.com – not a flashy site by any means and occasionally rather vague in describing specific locations, but click on ‘Alabama,’ for example, and you’ll find a few hundred places listed where you’re likely to find fossils. Worldwide listings can be found on the interestingly-spelled fossiel.net site, which has surprisingly detailed information on spots around the globe (you’ll need to register to get full info, but it’s fast, easy and free). If you live in the UK, try UK Fossils, an outstanding site which has, currently, 349 sites listed and loads of great photos to boot.
A fantastic general-purpose fossil site is the hyper-hyphenated fossils-facts-and-finds.com, with great resources for both adults and kids.
A lot has changed since Mary Anning first started poking around the Blue Lias formations of Lyme Regis, but some things have not. In the 19th century, scientific investigation was challenging some of the most basic tenets of Christian theology, and proving Georges Cuvier’s claim that there had once been an “Age of Reptiles,” but that these animals were now extinct – a serious challenge to the idea that a perfect and immutable world had been created by an omniscient God several thousand years ago. Creationism was dealt a near-mortal blow in the UK, where only about 17% of the populace now claims adherence to it. In the US, on the other hand, it’s a different story. Nearly half of Americans identify themselves as Creationists, a number that seems to be growing and which prompted Bill Nye (the Science Guy) to put out a fairly poorly-argued video decrying this state of affairs, setting off a storm of fire and brimstone on YouTube and the blogosphere.
We won’t delve into that here, where, after all, we’re just talking about finding fossils and not the finer points of Christian doctrine. So here are some tips:
- Fossils are found in sedimentary rock, that which was created by deposition, and essentially nowhere else. Don’t bother searching for fossils in a granite quarry or on a volcanic slope – you won’t find any.
- Fine-grained rock like shale generally has the best-preserved fossils, so places with shale deposits are a good place to start.
- Search in places where sedimentary rock is being exposed, for example streambeds, eroding coastlines, mountain cliffs, road cuts, quarries, and mines.
- Be careful and use common sense. As Mary Anning knew well, cliff faces can fall, so don’t work below overhangs, and keep an eye on where the kids are digging.
- Find out if you’re allowed to collect fossils at any given site. Most national and state parks, for example, are off limits.
- Be patient, and don’t expect to unearth a complete triceratops. More likely you’ll find plant or small invertebrate remains. These are still incredibly cool, and a great way to get kids involved in the world of science.
Mary Anning lived most of her life poor and underappreciated, dying in 1847 at the age of forty-seven. In 2010, one hundred and sixty-three years after her death, England’s most prestigious scientific organization, the Royal Society of London, placed Anning on a list of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science. A well-deserved – albeit somewhat tardy – bit of recognition.
So tell your kids the story of Mary Anning, pack up a few simple tools, and get out there to find your own fossil wonders. You could even get them to say Terry Sullivan’s entire 1908 tongue twister:
She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.