By this time, however, paleontological momentum had moved to England. In 1812, at Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast, an extraordinary child named Mary Anning—aged eleven, twelve, or thirteen, depending on whose account you read—found a strange fossilized sea monster, seventeen feet long and now known as the ichthyosaurus, embedded in the steep and dangerous cliffs along the English Channel.
It was the start of a remarkable career. Anning would spend the next thirty-five years gathering fossils, which she sold to visitors. (She is commonly held to be the source for the famous tongue twister "She sells seashells on the seashore.") She would also find the first plesiosaurus, another marine monster, and one of the first and best pterodactyls. Though none of these was technically a dinosaur, that wasn't terribly relevant at the time since nobody then knew what a dinosaur was. It was enough to realize that the world had once held creatures strikingly unlike anything we might now find.
It wasn't simply that Anning was good at spotting fossils—though she was unrivalled at that—but that she could extract them with the greatest delicacy and without damage. If you ever have the chance to visit the hall of ancient marine reptiles at the Natural History Museum in London, I urge you to take it for there is no other way to appreciate the scale and beauty of what this young woman achieved working virtually unaided with the most basic tools in nearly impossible conditions. The plesiosaur alone took her ten years of patient excavation. Although untrained, Anning was also able to provide competent drawings and descriptions for scholars. But even with the advantage of her skills, significant finds were rare and she passed most of her life in poverty.