Fossils by the Sea

Article excerpt

Lyme Regis, which sits above a wide, shallow bay on the English Channel coast, is a town popular today for its history and dramatic scenery. A long, curved sea wall, known as the Cobb, surrounds the harbor, which was a major port in the Middle Ages. Lyme became a fashionable holiday resort beginning in the late eighteenth century, and its steep, narrow streets are lined with Regency and Victorian houses. The town and its environs have been featured in literature from Jane Austen's Persuasion to John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (both Fowles's novel and the film are set in Lyme).

But the allure of Lyme Regis also lies much farther back in history. Some 200 million years ago, what is now southern Britain was near the equator, largely submerged under a subtropical sea. Animals that died in the warm waters or on the sea floor were often entombed and preserved in the gray, oozy mud of the bottom. Decades before the dinosaurs were recognized as a distinct group of animals, the finely preserved fossil marine reptiles of Lyme Regis and a few other areas in southwest England stimulated some of the earliest fossil vertebrate research in British science. The foremost collector of these Lyme fossils was a local Dorset woman, Mary Anning.

The geology of the region accounts for Lyme's abundance of fossils. The town is confined to a narrow patch of relatively stable ground bordered by cliffs. Rainwater percolates through the cliffs' clay and limestone--known as Lias rock, from an old quarrymen's term for layers--causing rocks to fall and mud to flow onto the beach. Expanses of naked Lias rock containing fossils are constantly being eroded to reveal the record of ancient marine life. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the influx of upper- and middle-class vacationers indulging in the new craze for sea bathing also provided a market for curios, and the townspeople of Lyme began to collect and sell the plentiful fossils.

One such collector was Richard Anning, a cabinetmaker of Lyme Regis. After his death in 1810, his wife, Molly, and children, Joseph and Mary, the latter born in 1799, carried on the family's fossil business. In 1811, Joseph found the head of a large "crocodile" on the shore in Lyme, and Mary found the rest of the skeleton a year later. This creature proved to be an ichthyosaur, a dolphinlike marine reptile. Although not the first ichthyosaur to be discovered, it became the type specimen of Ichthyosaurus--the scientifically described specimen for which the genus was officially named. This skeleton was no simple curio, and the Annings sold it to Henry Hoste Henley, the chief property owner in the area, for twenty-three pounds, the equivalent of several thousand pounds today. The head now rests in the Natural History Museum in London.

At times, the Annings were impoverished; at other times, going far beyond collecting to provide souvenirs for visitors, they made substantial sales to private collectors and museums, such as the Bristol Institution. Mary seems to have hunted for fossils almost daily, taking advantage of the tides and seasons in scouring the shoreline. Many of her best finds were made in winter, when erosion is most rapid. One of her letters ends with "the tide warns me I must leave off scribilling [sic]." Then, as today, high tide reached the foot of the cliffs, occasionally cutting off careless fossil seekers.

By 1824, Mary Anning was helping Professor William Buckland of Oxford to study coprolites--fossil droppings--by finding such fossils in association with well-preserved skeletons. The record of ancient marine life uncovered by Anning runs from coprolites and invertebrates, such as ammonites, to fishes and prize fossil reptiles, including several superb ichthyosaurs. In 1823, she discovered the first complete plesiosaur (a large, long-necked marine carnivore); in 1828, the first British pterosaur (a flying reptile later named Dimorphodon); and in 1829 and 1830, two more complete plesiosaurs. …