In this new UnderCover interview, we chat with Victoria Markstrom, Curator for the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre, about the work and legacy of Mary Anning, whose artwork is featured on the cover of Joanna Lilley's Endlings.
1. The illustration on the cover of Endlings was drawn by 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning. Can you please tell us a bit about who she was?
Mary Anning (1799-1847) was an English paleontologist, avid fossil collector and dealer well known for her numerous important discoveries within the Jurassic deposits in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Mary would comb the beaches and rock cliffs collecting ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaur, and belemnites fossils. Eventually she opened her own shop selling her discoveries to tourists and an array of international paleontologist. Mary has greatly contributed to the field of paleontology; her findings have led to many scientific discoveries, improving our understanding of prehistoric life.
2. Can you tell us a bit about the specific fossil on the cover of Joanna Lilley’s book?
Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus was a moderately sized plesiosaur that could reach up to 3.5 meters. It lived during the early part of the Jurassic period around 200-175.6 million years ago. They mainly preyed upon belemnites and fish. Specimens have been found in Dorset, England and Mary Anning’s Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus is the first complete specimen discovered of that genus.
3. What were some of the challenges/barriers Mary Anning would have encountered as a female fossil hunter in the early 19th century?
Like other women in 19th century England, Mary Anning wasn’t allowed to vote, go to university or be a part of the geological society of England. She couldn’t publish her findings but her specimens were often studied and published by her male colleagues. Though she was friends with many of them she was frustrated by this system. Though her contributions are many, it makes you think of all of the scientific discoveries she might have made if she had same opportunities as some of her colleagues. I think this illustrates that keeping a career path or a scientific field available for only a specific class of people ultimately does a disservice to the field, a lesson we should all keep in mind for the future.
How you prospect and excavate depends on the fossils themselves, the locality and the geological formation you’re hunting in. The goal of fossil hunting hasn’t changed much: to find and/or collect fossils while documenting as much associated information as possible (i.e. location, geological formation/member/horizon, orientation, articulation, associated specimens, etc.) but the process has changed with new technology. We do use some of the same tools as they did back in the 1800s like rock hammers, picks, grids, sieves and brushes but new technology has made the whole thing easier. Equipment like field vehicles, cameras, and aerial maps has drastically improved our ability to hunt fossil more efficiently and explore new areas. It will be interesting to see how recent inventions like drones and 3-d printing will help us prospect, collect and study fossils in the future.
5. What legacy has Mary Anning left behind for the field of paleontology? For female scientists?
I think her contributions are twofold. Obviously there are the specimens themselves and the scientific information that the field of paleontology gained through studying her discoveries. Secondly, the lasting impact she had on paleontological community. I of course cannot speak for everyone, but as a young woman I was inspired by her story and particularly how she was able to carve out a place for herself within the field of paleontology. For me, the thought definitely was “If she can do it, so can I”.
6. As a paleontologist yourself, you must be well-versed in the science of extinction. What can you tell us about the Holocene extinction (also called the “Sixth Extinction”) which is happening as we speak?
We are currently experiencing a marked decrease in biodiversity, well beyond background extinction levels. Unlike previous extinctions, anthropogenic impacts such as habitat loss, overexploitation, and climate change are driving the defaunation that we are facing today. By studying the extinctions of the past scientists can better understand the wide scope and the rapid nature of the Sixth Extinction. Many studies and scientific institutions have recommended various mitigation techniques including the most recent UN draft plan for a 2030 target. However, much more work is needed on both a personal and political level to reduce the damage that we’ve already caused.
Victoria has always been very interested in palaeontology, specifically cretaceous vertebrates. She obtained her B.Sc. Hons in geological science at the University of Manitoba in 2014. During her degree she wrote her bachelor’s thesis entitled “The Growth Rate and Cyclomorphism of the Late Ordovician Solitary Rugose Coral Grewingkia canadensis from the Cincinnati Arch Region, Indiana” and received the Mineralogical Society Award for Excellence in Paleontology. After graduation, she worked at the Manitoba Museum as an intern for six months then was hired at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre. In her current position as Curator, Victoria focuses on Mesozoic marine reptiles and has a special interest in mosasaurs.