or a hippo is chunkier than the humerus of a bat - obviously in absolute terms but also relatively, that means that the whale ribs are going to be more massive as well. Actually the hippos rib cage is relatively stronger than a whale's because the latter passes of some of the function of ribs (supporting the wobbly bits in the thorax) onto the surrounding water. You can infer a lot about the mating structure in a species if the males are bigger than females or if they have massive horns; you know what a fossil ate from the shape of its teeth, you know if it has seven cervical vertebrae it is likely a mammal. A single grinding molar, a single elongated neck bone and one femur will tell you that the animal ate leaves not rodents.
Cuvier sat in his majesty in his office in the Jardins des Plantes in Paris much is Darwin lay on his chaise-longue in Downe House farting and reading and dictating letters to a world-wide network of collaborators. The Frenchman described and named an ark of miscellaneous creatures, so where did he get the primary data - the bones and skins? From among others, Mary Anning [below R with the distinctive headland of Golden Cap in the background], a poor but determined woman from Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset in Southern England.
I think her insight and imagination are more tellingly revealed by her explanation of bezoar stones which were spheroidical masses believed by medieval doctors to be antidotes to all poisons. Anning found a number of them in situ in the abdominal cavity of the marine fossils that she was preparing for pay or display. The juxtaposition was too frequent to be coincidental and she concluded that they must be fossilised turds. One of her blokey collaborators William Buckland wrote up her conclusions, citing her, and called them coprolites. The name and the explanation have stuck to this day. Bezoars are still being exploited nowadays "by practicing occultists, pagans, wiccans, shamans; including New Age, magick, and Hoodoo practitioners" but few of them refer back to Anning's theory of intestinal origins. Buckland, on the contrary, exploited coprolites for science. Just as Cuvier could reconstruct the entire animal from a single bone, Buckland had a shot at explaining an entire ecosystem, as in who ate what, from a systematic study of the make-up of bezoars. Nifty!
The list of Anning's correspondents and visitors reads like the pantheon of early 19thC geology and palaeontology: Charles Lyell, Darwin's mentor, Adam Sedgewick, Roderick Murchison all benefitted from her material and her own interpretations of what they indicated. Louis Agassiz crossed the Atlantic especially to solicit her help to locate key fossil fish from the era whose rocks are exposed on the Dorset coast. It is clear that Anning was regarded as a "curiosity" herself, contemporary opinion suggested that her formidable intellect and diligent pursuit of scientific evidence were the result of being struck by lightning when a child. Several of the men who benefitted from her knowledge plagiarised her work and made money from its publication. It is striking how often collectors would pay Anning £X and sell the material on for £2X shortly there after, like rather aristocratic fences - they had better connexions than she did and had no compunction about profitting thereby.
young woman was killed by a fall as recently as 2012.
You can go fossilling with a local expert this morning at 0900hrs and indeed most mornings of the month. Indeed I've been out along the Dorset coast myself washing a world of invertebrate fossils out of grey clay boulders that litter the beach. I wouldn't have Mary Anning's patience to preserve and process anything substantial. She featured 10 days ago on the Guardian as one of 10 unsung women of science. Hank Green summarises her whole life in 5 minutes in his characteristically shrieky babble.
The Blob's Women in Science List.