Who Discovered the Iguanodon?

If you remember our post last month about [Mary Anning], today’s post describes the discovery by a woman who lived at the same time and in the same country – Mary Ann Woodhouse.


A portrait of Mary Ann Mantell. From Wikipedia.

Mary Ann was born in 1799 in England. She married a doctor (Gideon Mantell) in her early 20s and took his last name, becoming Mary Ann Mantell. She would accompany him to visit patients. On one of these occasions, she was waiting outside and went to examine the gravel on a recently paved road. Among the gravel she found large teeth (but see note below)!


One of the teeth that Mary Ann found. Photo from the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand.

She showed them to Gideon, who was also an amateur paleontologist. Realizing that the teeth belonged to something new, he consulted well known paleontologists at the time to discover that these teeth belonged to a large, ancient herbivore. He named the dinosaur Iguanodon (for “Iguana tooth”) and went on to publish a book about this and other fossils of the area with the help of Mary Ann who illustrated all of the fossils.


Mary Ann’s illustration of the teeth. From Wikipedia.


Note: Even though Mary Ann did make the illustrations for the book, her discovery of the teeth is debated. Once I do more research, I’ll edit this post accordingly.

She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore

This week, I’m going to tell you about Mary Anning, the first well-known woman paleontologist, and the one whose story inspired “She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore”.

Mary was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, England, which is a coastal town. The coast by Lyme Regis has a cliff with rocks from the Jurassic Period (around 200 million years ago).


Map of Lyme Regis, England.

When Mary was 15-months old she was struck by lightning and survived, leading the townspeople to think of her as a miracle child. She learned to read and write at her local school, but beyond that her education was very limited.

She lived with her parents, Richard and Molly, and older brother, Joseph. Her father made furniture and supplemented their income by going to the coast to find fossils, which he would sell to tourists. He often brought Joseph and Mary with him to find fossils along the beach. When her father died in 1810, Mary continued to hunt for fossils to provide money for her family. Together with her brother, Mary found the skeleton of an ichthyosaur on the beach. They sold it and eventually it ended up in the British Museum.


The ichthyosaur that Joseph and Mary Anning discovered as children.

Mary would go down to the beach with her dog, Tray, and look for ammonites, belemnites, vertebrae and other fossils. She’d take them home and clean them up, and in the afternoons, she’d sell her finds by the town road.


A portrait of Mary with her dog, Tray.

Eventually she made enough to open her own shop. Her finds were so good that they attracted the attention of known scientists. She found the first British specimen of a pterosaur and the first complete plesiosaur. She dissected modern squids and fish in order to better understand the animals she was finding.


Mary’s illustration and notes on the plesiosaur she discovered.

Even though she was not allowed to join the new Geological Society of London (no women were allowed to join at that time), many of her finds and research was presented there through the men she’d sell her fossils to. Often, they would not credit her at all. As her reputation grew, her scientist friends started adopting her ideas more readily. However, times were often tough for Mary, as it was hard for her to earn money. Her geologist friends, Henry de la Beche and William Buckland helped her through these moments. William even convinced the British Association for the Advancement of Science to provide her with an annual pension for her impressive work.

Mary died of breast cancer at a young age in 1847, but had a tremendous impact on paleontology. Because of her, we know that the stones in the guts of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs are actually fossilized feces (called cololites).


Cololites are feces preserved in the body. Coprolites, depicted here by William Buckland (1835), are feces preserved outside the body.

Mary started with very little in life, and even though she had only a few years of formal education, she worked every day to learn something new, find more fossils, and share her work with others.

A New Series

This week, I am going to do something a little bit different. Instead of talking about the latest paleontology news, I want to take a minute to talk about a subject very important to me: creating a supportive environment for women and underrepresented groups in science.

Even though many young women are interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, the proportion of women in full-time professorships in these careers remains notably small (24.3%*). Minorities make up an even smaller fraction of the full-time professorships (6.2%*).

I am a Hispanic woman (thus both a woman and a minority), and one of my career goals is to improve these numbers. One of the ways I’ve decided to do this is by joining forces with a colleague (Abby West) and an amazing artist (Amy Gardiner) to create a children’s book about Women in Paleontology! When Abby and I were growing up, we didn’t have any role models in paleontology that were women because the information was not out there. We want young women of all backgrounds to have a resource that inspires them to learn more about paleontology.

Not many people outside of paleontology realize how many women are actually in the field. This book will feature bios of women currently active in our field, talk about how they got interested in science and paleontology, and what they are researching. We will intentionally span the whole spectrum of paleontology careers (artists, professors, curators, preparators, etc.). It will also feature a history section – accurately portraying the discoveries of the first women paleontologists, featuring women like Mary Anning, Lousie Kellog, Tilly Edinger and so many more.

The purpose of this book is to show the diversity of research projects, ethnicities, interests, and paths to paleontology in a colorful and fun way that will encourage children to follow their dreams. The book will be published in both English and Spanish so that more children can read it.

We will be launching a kickstarter to fund this project early in 2017. Until then, I will be blogging about one of our featured women in paleontology once a month on this blog. If you want to be kept updated about the project, please sign up for our newsletter [here].


Famous portrait of Mary Anning and her dog, Tray.

*Statistics from National Science Foundation 2013