19 Feb 2019

She Sells Seashells by the Seashore

This tongue-twisting line of verse is something most people will remember from their childhood. Most people will remember it for being infuriatingly difficult to say, especially fast, but the verse itself has been claimed to be about palaeontologist, Mary Anning, who amongst other things discovered the Ichthyosaur. 

Mary Anning, along with her brother, collected and sold fossils (or, as the verse refers to them ‘seashells’), hence the verse. She made many important discoveries during the first half of the nineteenth century, despite her exclusion from many scientific circles due to her sex. Discoveries like hers were what helped begin the Victorian fascination, which is no less rife today, with the prehistoric.

Anning was born in 1799 and lived in Dorset in the seaside town of Lyme Regis. Her poor background afforded her little opportunity at education and she spent her time searching the seashore for what she termed ‘curiosities’ and later knew as fossils. 

In 1811, when she was just twelve Mary and her brother discovered the ichthyosaur, the name of which means ‘fish lizard’, and at first thought it might be a crocodile. We now know the ichthyosaur to be a large marine reptile, most closely resembling dolphins. 

The ichthyosaur was of the Mesozoic era, which is a time from about 252 to 66 million years ago, sometimes known as the age of reptiles. The word Mesozoic means ‘middle life’ and is divided into three major periods: Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Dinosaurs, birds and small mammals appeared during these periods and the earth was thought to be a lot hotter than it is now. 

The ichthyosaur itself lived in the oceans and had a long pointed head and a streamlined shape as well as four flippers and a vertical tail. Their streamlined shape meant they could swim at 40 miles per hour and so the ichthyosaurs were good at catching their prey, which included fish, shellfish and squid. 

Despite being her most famous discovery, Mary also discovered a plesiosaur (another marine reptile) and a flying reptile called a Dimorphodon. If you want to find out more come and visit our ichthyosaur in the Marine Worlds Gallery at Thinktank!