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6 Fossil Hunters Who Dug Up Clues From the Past

Their discoveries changed our perception of prehistory.

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  • Mary Anning and the specimen of Dimorphodon macronyx she found in 1828.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Modern paleontologists fulfill a vital role in explaining why species became extinct in the past. This information may help to preserve animals that are at risk today because of environmental and other factors. Yet the science of studying fossils to uncover the secrets of pre-history is relatively recent. 

Here are the fascinating stories of six pioneering fossil hunters, whose spectacular finds made a significant contribution to the study of paleontology.

Mary Anning

Charles Dickens wrote of Mary Anning after her death that “her history shows what humble people may do, if they have just purpose and courage enough, toward promoting the cause of science.” Despite this glowing recommendation from one of the Victorian era’s leading figures, Anning’s achievements went largely forgotten after her death and only in modern times has her work been properly acknowledged. 

Anning was born in 1799, in the seaside town of Lyme Regis. Because of its unique geology, this stretch of the English south coast has long been renowned as a fertile hunting ground for fossil collectors. In Anning’s day, locals would supplement their income by selling specimens to the wealthy tourists who came in droves to the fashionable seaside resort. Her father, Richard, was one such individual, but it proved a risky business. In 1810, he was seriously injured after losing his footing and falling off a cliff. He died of tuberculosis only a few months later. 

Through sheer financial necessity, it fell to his 11-year-old daughter, Mary, to continue the work. Fortunately for the family, she had a natural aptitude for fossil hunting. A year after their father’s death, her brother, Joseph, discovered the fossilized remains of a huge skull. It was Mary who continued the excavation and painstakingly uncovered the skeleton of an enormous sea creature, measuring some 17 feet in length.

The fossil was eventually sold by the family for the then princely sum of £23 and was sent to the Natural History Museum in London. Debate raged for years regarding the identity of the mysterious specimen, before it was eventually labelled as an Ichthyosaurus, or “sea lizard”. Modern scientists have now established that this marine reptile lived approximately 200 million years ago.

Anning went on to make many more significant discoveries, including a near-complete skeleton of a Plesiosaurus (the first to be discovered in Europe) and the first Pterodactyl skeleton to be found outside Germany. However, she received little recognition. In 1824, William Conybeare made a presentation to the Geological Society of London regarding the Plesiosaurus skeleton, but omitted the role Anning had played in the discovery. She was denied the opportunity to present her own findings, as the Society did not admit women until the early 20th century.

Only in later life did she come to be recognized as a respected authority on paleontology by the Geological Society. When she died of cancer in March 1847, members paid for her funeral.

The 2020 movie Ammonite is loosely based on the life of this extraordinary woman.

Gideon Mantell

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Gideon Mantell is today credited with making the breakthrough that led to the discovery of dinosaurs. Yet, like his contemporary, Mary Anning, his achievements were for many years not properly recognized.

Mantell was born in February 1790 in the small Sussex town of Lewes. Because of his parents’ Methodist beliefs, he was unable to attend the local grammar school, but, by the age of 15, showed sufficient promise to be taken on as an apprentice by a local surgeon. He was eventually able to complete his medical education in London and set up a practice in his hometown, specializing in obstetrics.

His work came with a lot of pressure, but Mantell relaxed by indulging in his passion for fossil hunting on the nearby South Downs. His first book, The Fossils of the South Downs, was published in 1822 and includes a reference to an extraordinary discovery made by Mantell and his wife, Mary Ann. 

The exact circumstances behind the find remain unknown, but the couple are said to have been visiting the village of Cuckfield when they spotted several large tooth-shaped fossils embedded in some broken rocks at the side of the road. The rocks had come from a nearby quarry and a search of the area revealed more remains.

Using the age of the rock as a guide, Mantell became convinced that the remains belonged to an extinct giant land reptile which existed long before the evolution of mammals. His findings contradicted the scientific thinking of the day and at first, were treated with great skepticism. Only when he uncovered further evidence and, in 1825, published Notice on the Iguanodon, a Newly Discovered Fossil Reptile, from the Sandstone of Tilgate Forest, in Sussex, did he convince the scientific community.

Mantell proceeded to discover more extraordinary giant reptile fossils in the area around Tilgate Forest, but his later life proved unhappy. He endured the collapse of his marriage, faced severe financial difficulties and was in constant pain from a spinal condition. 

By the time of his death in November 1852, he had discovered and named four of the five species of dinosaur then known. Yet it was his biggest rival, Richard Owen, who was for many years credited with the discovery of the dinosaur, as he first coined the term (derived from the Ancient Greek for “terrible lizard”) to describe the prehistoric land reptiles.

Joseph Leidy

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Born in 1823, Philadelphian Joseph Leidy is widely regarded as the founding father of paleontology in the United States. 

Leidy’s big breakthrough came with the 1847 publication of On The Fossil Horse of America, in which he revealed that the horse had lived and become extinct on the American continent long before it was reintroduced by the Spanish in the late 15th century. Through evidence gathered from fossils, he subsequently discovered that several other large mammals, including lions, an early form of camel and a previously unknown species of rhinoceros had also once roamed across North America before becoming extinct about 10,000 years ago.

He also played an important role in the early study of dinosaurs in North America. In 1858, Leidy was contacted by geologist William Parker Foulke for help in excavating the remains of a nearly complete fossilized skeleton from a marl pit in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Because of its similarity to that of the Iguanodon discovered by Gideon Mantell some three decades earlier, Leidy ascertained that the remains were that of a dinosaur and named the species Hadrosaurus foulkii (the latter in honor of Foulke). 

At the time, the skeleton was the most complete dinosaur specimen to be discovered in North America and it subsequently aroused great public interest when it was put on display at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.

Leidy was a true scientific all-rounder, who made important contributions to the study of human anatomy and parasitology as well as paleontology. He is also credited with popularizing the microscope as a serious piece of scientific equipment and is believed to have been the first person to use one as a forensic tool in a murder case.

Edward Drinker Cope & Othniel Charles Marsh 

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  • Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope (right).

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Western European paleontologists may have led the way during the early 1800s, but in the latter part of the 19th century two US fossil hunters dominated the headlines. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh made many astonishing discoveries, predominantly in the American West, but became equally famous for their bitter rivalry which was dubbed the “Bone Wars”.

The pair came from different backgrounds. Cope was born into a wealthy Pennsylvanian family in 1840. Marsh, nine years his senior, was brought up on a farm in Lockport, New York and relied on a wealthy uncle to finance his university education at Yale. However, they appear to have struck up a friendship of sorts after first meeting in Germany in 1864.

Four years later, their relationship soured following an incident relating to the quarry in New Jersey where the Hadrosaurus fossil, made famous by Joseph Leidy, had been discovered. Cope had been involved in excavations at the site for some time and invited Marsh to see it for himself. On witnessing the rich pickings to be had there, Marsh went behind Cope’s back and paid some of the diggers to have new fossils sent directly to him at Yale.

The rivalry escalated during the 1870s with the discovery of numerous dinosaur fossils in the American West. As the Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at Yale University and with his rich uncle’s money behind him, Marsh organized digs in Colorado and Wyoming which yielded many spectacular finds. He was responsible for the identification and naming of some of the most iconic dinosaur species of all time such as the Triceratops, Stegosaurus and Brontosaurus. He is also credited with discovering the previously unknown link between dinosaurs and modern species of birds.

Cope adopted a more hands-on approach and often attended digs personally. He also published an astonishing number of academic papers; more than 1,400 by the time of his death in 1897. In one year alone, between 1879 and 1880, he published 76 articles. Sometimes his haste to publish his findings before his rival, Marsh, resulted in errors in interpretation, but Cope’s contribution to paleontology should not be overlooked. He was responsible for the identification and naming of around 1,000 extinct vertebrate species.

The outstanding achievements of Cope and Marsh were often overshadowed by accusations of bribery, spying and theft on both sides. By the end of their lives both men faced financial and social ruin because of their determination to outdo each other. Yet, the sensational headlines generated by the “Bone Wars” did bring dinosaur discoveries to the attention of the general public and sparked an interest in the subject which has continued to the present day.

Barnum Brown

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  • Brown, right, in 1911 on a barge lent to him by the American Museum of Natural History.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Born in Carbondale, Kansas in 1873, Barnum Brown was named after the “Greatest Showman”, PT Barnum. He too proved to be a colorful character, who travelled the world in pursuit of fossils and even worked as a spy during World Wars I and II.

Whilst studying paleontology at Kansas University, Brown developed a reputation as an excellent field worker and was offered a job by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). His career as a fossil hunter, travelling across the country to acquire specimens, was under way. 

During a dig in Montana in 1902, Brown reported that he had discovered a partial skeleton of “a large Carnivorous Dinosaur”, adding that “I have never seen anything like it from the Cretaceous”. Six years later, he found a better-preserved skeleton, complete with skull, of the same dinosaur. He had uncovered one of the most fearsome carnivores of all time, the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex.

He subsequently travelled all over the world, sending the AMNH vast quantities of fossils from such far-flung locations as India, Burma and Abyssinia. Brown, or “Mr. Bones” as he was affectionately nicknamed, continued working until the mid-20th century. The longevity of his career meant that he spanned the period from the Bone Wars to the start of the modern era of paleontology.