Deborah Cadbury relates the incomparable Mary Anning’s discovery of Plesiosaurus:
“Black Ven cliff at Lyme Regis, a dark, forbidding shape visible even through sea mists from the Cobb and the harbour a mile away, continued to surrender to Mary Anning the wreckage of the Jurassic age. After ten years of searching for fossils, every part of the cliff-face had become familiar to her. The grey limestones and shale, the rocks that had precipitated the early death of her father, now provided income for the family. By the early 1820s, Mary had developed such a skillful grasp of where to find fossils that according to one report: ‘she would have been able, for instance, out of fifty “nodules” all looking . . . much of a muchness, to pick without hesitation the one which, being cleft with a dextrous blow, should show a perfect fish embedded in what was once soft clay’.
“Since Lieutenant-Colonel Birch’s sale of his private collection in 1820, which included many of Mary Anning’s finds, she had uncovered several different species of ichthyosaurs. In May 1821, accompanied by her dog Tray who would guard her discoveries while she went for help, she excavated the first Ichthyosaurus platyodon, a creature almost twenty feet long. Two months later she found a five-foot fossil close by that was named Ichthyosaurus vulgaris. Early the next year another large ichthyosaur, this one nine feet long, was retrieved. But despite this success, Mary and Joseph and their mother Molly were often short of money. The fossil-hunting business was erratic, and already by the early 1820s there was increasing competition from other collectors.
“So it was with an unaccustomed sense of anticipation that on the evening of 10 December 1823, as she worked at the foot of Black Ven cliff, Mary Anning uncovered something she had not seen before. The object looked like a creature’s skull. Yet it was not long and pointed with huge bony cavities for eyes like an ichthyosaur’s, but small, a mere four or five inches long, more like that of a turtle. As she excavated around the deeply embedded bones, beneath the circling gulls, it became apparent that the animal had a greatly elongated serpentine frame, with a large number of vertebrae making up the backbone. The neck of the beast appeared to be at least as long as the rest of the body and tail. It was quite dissimilar to any creature yet known to science.
“With the help of some villagers, Mary worked through the night against the incoming tide. The conditions were bitter as the winter winds whipped up sand and spray until all were drenched and numb. By early morning, they had gradually revealed the spine of the beast, consisting of ninety bones: the bizarre ‘turtle’ was nine feet long, more like a snake. They retrieved fourteen ribs and the bones of the pelvis, deeply embedded in shale. Rather than legs like an amphibian’s, or fin’s like a fish’s, it had paddles made up of many fine bones.
“Mary Anning knew that the experts, such as Buckland’s friend Conybeare, had long suspected that in addition to ichthyosaurs a second kind of sea lizard had once roamed the ancient seas. While preparing his study on Ichthyosaurus in 1821, Conybeare had reported large bones that did not match those of the first sea lizard. In Somerset he had come across a skull that resembled that of a turtle, but was not associated with any shell; paddle bones and unusually shaped vertebrae added to the mystery. Although he had only a few fossils, the Reverend Conybeare had felt sufficiently confident to suggest a name for the unknown beast: Plesiosaurus, meaning ‘near to reptile’. Yet even Conybeare had accepted that ‘there was reasonable grounds for suspicion’ that he had inadvertently created a fictitious animal from the juxtaposition of bones belonging to different species. As Mary Anning surveyed the strange beast before her eyes, she wondered if this could be the entire skeleton of the creature Conybeare had been predicting.”