The fossil is an Ichthyosaur, a form of marine reptile that lived 250 to 90 million years ago. But this fossil is special in particular. This is the first ichthyosaur that was ever found, and it was found by a woman, Mary Anning. Mary was of low birth, born in southern England. Her family moved to the coastal town, Lyme Regis, and she began to help her father earn extra income by seeking out fossils from the ever-eroding shore and selling them to tourists and other fossil seekers.
Although Mary’s brother was the one to have spotted the head of this remarkable creature that you see in the picture, it was Mary who spent ages searching for and digging up the remainder of the gigantic skeleton. Though she was a common woman, low-born, unschooled, and female, she is one of the most prolific paleontologists in history and has only more recently been recognized for her contributions to science.
You can see Mary Anning’s ichthyosaur, alongside many other ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs that she found in her lifetime, at the London Natural History Museum. I took this image on a trip several years ago. It’s an excellent museum and well worth a visit if you’re in town. The museum itself played an important role in the history of science, especially in the 19th century.