In Mary Anning’s Footsteps

It’s been quite awhile since my last blog, in part because I was away for a couple weeks traveling through the UK. While my family and I visited a variety of sites, by far my favorite pilgrimage was to Lyme Regis, the home and haunt of one of the world’s most prolific paleontologists, Mary Anning (1799-1847). Aside from being a gorgeous little English coastal village, Lyme Regis is chocked full of science history and a good portion of the tourism is focused around exactly that.

Right: St. Michael’s Church in Lyme Regis where Mary Anning is burried. Left: The Anning grave, containing Mary, her brother, Joseph, and three of their siblings who died in infancy. Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47.

I’ve briefly written about Mary Anning, whose first major find on that Dorset coastline, a tremendously well-preserved ichthyosaur, is now in the Natural History Museum of London, along with many other of her major discoveries. A picture of that very ichthyosaur, which I took while visiting the museum several years ago, is also Science Over a Cuppa’s characteristic header.

Our trip was perfectly timed with the weather, which was in the 70s– higher than average for that time of year. We stayed at a B&B situated over a pub called The Cobb Arms, which was right on the beach front. The beach itself is a popular locale for British day trippers wanting to soak up the sun. The week we visited was particularly popular as children were off school for Easter vacation. The sea gulls were also in prime form, stealing many an unwary patron’s leftover chips (aka french fries)!

To the east of the main beach lies the Black Ven, the best place to collect fossils in the area. Peak fossil collecting season lies between October-March, and the more autumn/winter storms that year the better as they increase the rate of erosion, revealing greater numbers of fossils. Ammonites are the main fare for the amateur fossil hunter and are the easiest to find and identify. The marine reptiles, ichthyosaurs and especially plesiosaurs, are much more rare, although during peak fossil season one may be able to find the occasional vertebra, rib, or paddle bone. These of course are much more difficult to identify compared to the characteristic spirals of the ammonites as the former can easily be mistaken for rocks.

IMG_2420.jpg

Below is the Black Ven itself. It’s generally advised to stay away from the cliff face as avalanches have been known to occur. Instead, people walk the coastline and search for ammonite-laden geodes amongst the fallen crags. It’s estimated that approximately 1 in 7 geodes will contain an ammonite– although a chisel and hammer are usually necessary to find out! And don’t worry: fossil hunting on the public portions of the beach are encouraged because these fossils would otherwise be lost to the sea over time.

IMG_2423

Despite having just barely missed prime fossil season, I did manage to find some ammonites for my hobby collection. In particular, I was very proud of my work chiseling open a limestone geode to find a lovely 2″ ammonite that had partly turned to calcite (see below). I also found a portion of Jurassic coral lying on the beach.

Left: Ammonite-containing geode that I found at the Black Ven and cracked open. Upper right: Imprint of two ammonites I found lying on the beach. Lower right: Portion of a Jurassic flint sponge, circa 125 million years old.

I’m no expert fossil hunter, and so in fine tradition I also sought out fossils from local shops where the true Mary Annings of our day still ply their trade. (The fossils are extremely well-priced compared to eBay.) In particular, I patroned a little shop called, Jurassic Gems, and purchased some of the harder-to-find fossils (see images below). The shop owner was also nice enough to help me identify some of my own meager discoveries that I had questions about. (Many of the shop owners also give fossil tours and can teach you how to identify and collect fossils.)

Left: A distal head from the humerus of an ichthyosaur (left) and an ichthyosaur paddle bone (right). Right: A portion of a Hybodus shark fin spine.

The following day I went to Monmouth beach, which lies west of the village. While Monmouth is fairly sparse in terms of collectible fossils, it has an incredible collection of GIANT ammonites embedded in the vast slabs of bedrock that have slid down onto the beach (locally it’s called, “Ammonite Pavement”). Here I’m standing on one of those huge slabs, with hundreds of giant ammonites, some up to two feet wide, laying embedded at my feet. So while you’ll probably want a chisel and hammer for the Black Ven, you’ll want to bring your camera for Monmouth. (I also highly recommend wearing a good stiff-soled set of hiking boots with ankle support, as you’ll need to hop from boulder to boulder in order to reach the Ammonite Pavement. Sadly, I brought the wrong shoes and my feet were very sore by the end of the day!)

IMG_2484

Aside from the Ammonite Pavement, there were also huge ammonites embedded in some of the individual boulders. These were some of the more beautiful ones I saw along the way. The one in the third panel seems to have to turned, I think, to calcite, giving it that gorgeous crystalline appearance.

If you’re interested in fossiling around Lyme Regis, before you start I highly recommend a quick stop-in at the local Tourist Information Centre located on Church Street. There you can pick up various booklets with helpful information, such as the tide times (don’t go fossil hunting without knowing when high tide comes in or you may get stuck!) and some basics on the fossils and rocks of the area. They also have plenty of other materials, including books on the life of Mary Anning.

IMG_3452.jpg

After our trip to Lyme Regis, we also traveled up to Cambridge. I made a point of visiting the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences located on Downing Street. The Sedgwick museum is the oldest of Cambridge’s museums, begun in 1728. Unbeknownst to me prior to my visit there, it also has a good Mary Anning collection. Dr. Adam Sedgwick, for whom the museum is named, was one of Anning’s earliest customers.

Left: A picture of Mary Anning at the Sedgwick Museum. Middle: The entrance to the museum. Right: Me waiting patiently in front for the museum to open.

Here, for instance, is an ichthyosaur believed to have been found by Anning in Lyme Regis and bought by Sedgwick for £4,00.

IMG_2673

Top left: A large ichthyosaur skull from the Dorset coast. Middle left: An ichthyosaur skeleton also from the Dorset coast. Bottom left: A plesiosaur skull. Right: A plesiosaur in full spread.

Below, right are examples of the paddles (flippers) from an ichthyosaur (top) and a plesiosaur (bottom), with their respective illustrations to the left. Ichthyosaurs are far more common along the Jurassic coast, while plesiosaurs are comparatively rare.

ich-ples.jpg

Left: The main hall of the museum. Right: An iguanodon, just because iguanodons are cool!

It was a fantastic trip and I’m already planning a return visit to Lyme Regis for next year to try my hand again at collecting (and buying!) more fossils. –And of course soaking up the ambiance of that beautiful Dorset coastline. Ahhhh…

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s