Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling, published on October 13 by Palgrave Macmillan (Scientific American is a Macmillan publication). The Fossil Hunter chronicles the work of Mary Anning, a woman born in 1799 in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England, who discovered the first documented dinosaur skeleton. In the following passage from the chapter entitled "A Long-Necked Beauty" Anning first discovers the skeleton of a previously unknown dinosaur type. Her find is met with much skepticism, as no one believes a creature with such a long neck could actually have existed.

It was an object—sleek, glossy, and circular—poking out from an otherwise ordinary cluster of dark-gray mudstones. Most likely Mary rushed over and scraped away the surrounding shale as quickly as she could. There was plenty of it. After a while, though, a creature's skull emerged. But it wasn't elongated or snouted or pointy like the skull of an ichthyosaur. There weren't any huge bony cavities for eyes either. Probably she studied this new find in silence, with only the sounds of birds and waves and her trusted dog, Tray, to keep her company. Her heart surely raced. Just minutes before, she might have felt so chilled that she wondered whether it was worth staying outside. Now she was sure she'd come across something truly sensational, but there was an incoming tide on the horizon. She would have whirled around in a panic. She needed help—and fast.

By this time, everyone in town was familiar with Mary's work. It wasn't hard for her to enlist the aid of a few villagers in digging out the creature. Soon they were slogging away alongside her, into the evening and then—after a respite—returning the following morning. But rewards were forthcoming. Out came the vertebrae, pelvic bones, and—one by one—a series of ribs deeply embedded in the cliff side. First there were 4, then 6, and then finally 14. A bit more digging and the fine bones of what looked to be four legs—or might they be paddles?—also were unearthed.

The creature was starting to resemble not a crocodile but something akin to a turtle with a flat mouth and stubby short tail and, oddest of all, an abnormally long neck. Mary toiled away at the cliff, hour upon hour, chipping away with hammer and chisel, while waves lashed at her hefty petticoats and numbed her fingers. Once she started cutting away at the matrix imprisoning a particularly large fossil, it could take what seemed like forever to make any progress. But she was seeing some results, especially as she likely had others to help her. In the end, after several hours of jabbing away at the mud and rock and shale, a skeleton emerged that was about nine feet long and six feet wide, but with a head that was only about four to five inches in length. Surveying her find, Mary must have marveled at the peculiarity of the skeleton, which didn't boast legs or fins but indeed paddles consisting of many fine, dainty, delicate bones.

Mysterious find

This wasn't the first time Mary had come across remnants of this type of creature. But never before had she found a skull, and, what's more, the bits she'd found in the past had been so brittle they had very nearly withered away by the time she'd gotten them home. Now she had before her a much more substantial find—a complete skeleton. And it was a beauty.

By then, Mary would have known from [Henry] De la Beche and [William] Buckland that fossil experts had long suspected that in addition to ichthyosaurs, a second kind of sea monster had once commanded the ancient oceans. [William] Conybeare, 12 years older than Mary, had become acquainted with De la Beche in the Assembly Rooms, or public halls, of Lyme Regis, and they had remained good friends. While helping De la Beche prepare his own written comments on the ichthyosaur in 1821, Conybeare had urged him to mention some bones that bore little resemblance to those of the ichthyosaur. Indeed, it was Conybeare who, while visiting Somerset, England, had come across a few flat-ended vertebrae that he deduced belonged to a creature nothing like an ichthyosaur. He also had found a jaw in which conical teeth appeared to have rested in sockets, in addition to a badly damaged skull. Raising even more questions were a mishmash of paddle bones. Although he had amassed only a jumble of fragments from various collections, Conybeare felt so confident that he was on to something at the time that he even put forth a name for the unknown beast: Plesiosaurus, meaning "near to reptile." Nevertheless, his enthusiasm was tempered by his own suspicions that he might have concocted a fictitious creature from the juxtaposition of bones belonging to a variety of species.

As Mary surveyed the strange creature before her, she wondered if this could be the entire skeleton of the creature Conybeare had speculated about. When word of Mary's discovery finally reached Conybeare, who was becoming increasingly well known as one of the founders of the Bristol Philosophical Institution in 1822, the rector was so excited that he was unable to finish drafting his Sunday sermon. He simply couldn't wait another minute before writing a euphoric letter to De la Beche, who was in Jamaica at the time: "Buckland . . . brought important news—that the Annings have discovered an entire Plesiosaurus." Three days later, Conybeare received what he called:

"a very fair drawing by Miss Anning of the most magnificent specimen. . . . It was the evening also of our Philosophical Society at the Bristol Institution and you may imagine the fuss this occasioned. My sermon, though finished in scraps was then not half transcribed, but one of my sisters- in- law, who was staying with me, kindly undertook the task, and to the Society I went. . . . Such a communication could not fail to excite great interest; some of the folk ran off instantly to the printing office, whither I was obliged to follow to prevent some strange blunders . . . thus I did not get home till midnight."

Conybeare was worried that in the commotion, people had rushed off so fast they were likely to spread misinformation. It was simply another fossil of a skeleton but, judging by the excitement it was generating, it might as well have been an alien from the moon.

History, or hoax?

News of the find spread fast and exponentially, all the way to France. But after perusing Mary's drawings, the eminent Georges Cuvier at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle expressed suspicions that the new animal might be a sham. The length of the neck seemed impossibly unrealistic. Indeed, the volume of air needed to fill the trachea of such a drawn- out neck would have been extraordinary. To Cuvier, the animal's characteristics broke the almost universal anatomical law that restricts the number of cervical vertebrae, or neck bones, to no more than 7 in animals that walk on four legs. In birds, the number of cervical vertebrae is greater, typically varying between 13 and 25; living reptiles typically have from 3 to 8. Yet Mary's allegedly reptilian creature apparently boasted 35 vertebrae in the neck alone. Cuvier simply couldn't accept such a possibility.

To the scientific community, Cuvier was far too good at what he did to be wrong. Europe's star anatomist, Cuvier was famous for describing whole animals after examining only a single bone from their skeleton. With a long and distinguished history, he stood several rungs above other anatomists and certainly above other anatomists in England. Almost single- handedly, he had founded comparative anatomy—or vertebrate paleontology—as a scientific discipline. By this time he was also noted for his distinctive division of animals into four main branches: Vertebrata, Mollusca, Articulata (arthropods and segmented worms), and Radiata (cnidarians and echinoderms). He was the kind of authority who never had to prove anything; in this case, just his expressions of doubt were enough to cast a shadow over Mary's discovery. If he was dubious, then everyone else would be too.

Cuvier had held little esteem for the work of English anatomists since his dealings with Sir Everard Home, the "Surgeon to the King," whose inept misidentifications of Mary's first ichthyosaur had drawn scorn across Europe. It was easy for Cuvier to assume that the so-called English experts were being hoodwinked by just another fossil-collecting layperson. Perhaps the Annings had taken the head and neck of a sea snake and juxtaposed them onto the body of an ichthyosaur. As if to underscore his reservations, he highlighted the blatant location of a crack in the bone at the base of the neck as possible proof of a hoax. Cuvier wrote to Conybeare warning him that the creature could be a deception.

For Mary, Cuvier's misgivings surely were a disaster. If he convinced others that the new fossil was a forgery, the Anning family's reputation could be ruined forever. For years, amateurs had been known to take liberties with their finds in an effort to dupe professionals into exaggerating their worth. The English collector Thomas Hawkins, for instance, was a master of deception. Just before a 25-foot ichthyosaur from Hawkins was to be placed on display at the British Museum, curator Charles Konig had given it a careful examination. It had looked perfect. In fact, it had looked too perfect. Konig checked the catalog and discovered that the very real-looking right front fin was merely outlined in the catalog, indicating it was missing. A large piece of the tail also wasn't to be found in the catalog's version. All in all, the "fossil" he was inspecting was largely plaster, although the museum had been under the impression it was genuine bone.

The verdict

Gossip quickly arose about the beast from Lyme. Had it been fabricated? A special meeting to arbitrate on the matter was convened at the Geological Society of London, most likely in January 1824. Mary wasn't asked to attend. Most members were aware of and even sympathized with Cuvier's qualms; they were themselves stumped by how any animal could compensate for the weakness that would have resulted from such a lengthy neck. But as the gentlemen debated the creature's improbable combination of characteristics, they recognized that its features precisely matched all the fossil findings that Conybeare, with De la Beche's help, had made earlier in Somerset, findings that had led Conybeare himself to propose the existence of such a long-necked beast.

After lengthy and often heated debate, these earlier findings eventually convinced the society members that Mary's skeleton wasn't a fake. By the end of the evening, the Annings were vindicated, and, perhaps for the first time, Cuvier was shown to be fallible. Later, after more careful study of Mary's drawings and eventually the bones themselves, Cuvier openly admitted that he'd rushed to judgment and made a mistake.