The nineteen century was the “golden age” of Geology. The Industrial Revolution ushered a period of canal digging and major quarrying operations for building stone. These activities exposed sedimentary strata and fossils. So, the concept of an ancient Earth became part of the public understanding and Literature influenced the pervasiveness of geological thinking. The most popular aspect of geology was the collecting of fossils and minerals and the nineteenth-century geology, often perceived as the sport of gentlemen, was in fact, “reliant on all classes” (Buckland, 2013). Women were free to take part in collecting fossils and mineral specimens, and they were allowed to attend lectures but they were barred from membership in scientific societies.
By 1828, Mary Anning (21 May 1799–9 March 1847) had been collecting fossils from Lyme Regis for at least 17 years. Her father was a carpenter and an amateur fossil collector who died when Mary was eleven. He trained Mary and her brother Joseph in how to look and clean fossils. After the death of her father, Mary and Joseph used those skills to search fossils on the local cliffs, that sold as “curiosities”. The source of the fossils was the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis, one of the richest fossil locations in England and part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias.
On December of 1828, Mary found the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany. The first pterosaur described by Collini in 1784, was named Pterodactylus antiquus. The second holotype was discovered in 1812 and was named Ornithocephalus brevirostris. William Buckland made the announcement of Mary’s discovery in the Geological Society of London and named Pterodactylus macronyx in allusion to its large claws. The animal had a wingspan of around 1.4 m with an elongate tail. The specimen was twice the size of Pterodactylus antiquus.
The skull of Anning’s specimen had not been discovered, but Buckland thought that the fragment of jaw in the collection of the Philpot sisters of Lyme belonged to a pterosaur. In the 1850s, another specimen was found, this time with a skull at Lyme and another skull was found later. The skulls of the Lyme Regis pterosaurs bore no resemblance to those of the Solnhofen Limestone in Germany, so Richard Owen erected the new generic name Dimorphodon (Martill, 2013).
In 1829 the Reverend George Howman painted the earliest restoration of a pterosaur. The watercolour also incorporates a ruined castle and a ship, but amazingly predicts aspects of the anatomy of pterosaurs not brought to light by fossils discovered until a few decades later. For instance, the first pterosaur with a preserved head crest was not described until 1876. The animal painted by Howman had an elongate head with small, widely spaced teeth in a long rostrum – exactly like those of the Pterodactylus antiquus described by Collini. However, Howman’s depiction of the wings is seriously flawed except for the presence of a membranous flight surface.
There’s little doubt that the watercolour by Howman was intended to represent the Pterodactylus discovered by Mary Anning. A label on the back of the work reads: ‘By the Revd G. Howman from Dr [Burckhardt’s] account of a flying dragon found at Lyme Regis supposed to be noctivagous’ .
In her later years, Mary Anning suffered some serious financial problems. Henry De la Beche helped her during those hard times. Also William Buckland persuaded the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the British government to award her an annuity of £25, in return for her many contributions to the science of geology.
Hugh Torrens, Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; ‘The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew’, The British Journal for the History of Science Vol. 28, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 257-284. Published by: Cambridge University Press.
Davis, Larry E. (2012) “Mary Anning: Princess of Palaeontology and Geological Lioness,”The Compass: Earth Science Journal of Sigma Gamma Epsilon: Vol. 84: Iss. 1, Article 8.
Martill, D.M., Dimorphodon and the Reverend George Howman’s noctivagous flying dragon: the earliest restoration of a pterosaur in its natural habitat. Proc. Geol. Assoc. (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pgeola.2013.03.003
Martill, D.M., 2010. The early history of pterosaur discovery in Great Britain. In: Moody, R.T.J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D., Martill, D.M. (Eds.), Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 343, 287–311.