Observe and reason: Mary Anning’s fossil challenge

In this activity, your class will think like a palaeontologist and compare their own bodies to one of Mary Anning’s real fossil finds. 

This simple scientific activity is a good complement to learning about Mary Anning or the topic of dinosaurs and fossils.

  • Key Stage:  KS1 Years 1 and 2 (ages 5-7)
  • Time required: 10-15 minutes

About this resource

  • Resource type: Working Scientifically - observation and reasoning 
  • Theme: Science and Scientists (also Rocks, Fossils and Dinosaurs) 

Learning outcomes

  • Learners will develop their understanding of how palaeontologists study fossils. 
  • Learners will strengthen observation skills through comparing  features of a fossil with their own body.    

Running the activity

1. Download the PowerPoint presentation (PPT 11.3MB) above. Introduce Mary Anning and the task (slides one and two).

2 The next three slides (slides three, four and five) show different bones that Mary Anning has found. Going through each slide, as a class:

  • Describe what you see in detail. 
  • Compare the part of the fossil to a part of yourself or other animals. Think about how you and some animals might move and use the body part you are thinking of. 
  • Generate ideas together. Are there any animals that are alive today that the fossil body part reminds you of? Does the evidence you have seen give you any clues about diet, movement, or which habitat this animal might have lived in? 
  • Notice if and how your ideas change after you have looked at the next slide.

3. Reveal the complete fossil Mary Anning found (slide six) and information that scientists think today about plesiosaurs (slide seven). Discuss with the class:

  • How does what you see now compare to your ideas?
  • Were there any surprises?
  • Can you think of some other things you would like to know about the plesiosaur?

4. Based on your class's discoveries today, discuss:

  • Imagine what the plesiosaur might have looked like when it was alive. The last slide (slide nine) shows an artist’s depiction of a plesiosaur. (You can view this article with a 3D animation of how a related plesiosaur may have looked and moved.)
  • What did you do today that great scientists like Mary Anning did? (Looking closely at things; describing what you see; coming up with ideas; looking for more evidence; discussing ideas; changing minds if new discoveries are made). 
  • Scientists do the same things exploring anywhere in nature. Where could you explore next?

See extension activities below for further ways to explore this topic.

Resources required

  • A digital whiteboard or projector

Background science

Fossils are traces of life, from millions of year ago, left behind in the rocks. They are physical evidence of a prehistoric living things including plants and animals.  

Palaeontologists are fossil hunting scientists. Their work helps us to understand the ancient past of life on our planet.

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was a hardworking, poor, self-taught, working class woman who lived in Georgian/Victorian times. She was never formally recognised in her lifetime, but she gave advice and shared ideas with some of the most influential men of science, of her day. This included the founder of the Natural History Museum in London where we display some of her finds.

Today the process of palaeontology continues, and we recognise Mary Anning’s importance as a pioneer of this science. Mary’s contribution to palaeontology, her fossil discoveries and ideas helped to change the way we understand the past of our planet.  

Mary Anning and the scientific process of palaeontology
Hunting and uncovering evidence of the ancient past can be dangerous, Mary once fell from a cliff and was very lucky to survive.

Palaeontologists use their tools and skills to help them in their work. Tools might include rock hammers, pickaxes, and brushes. They use these very carefully and uncover fossils bit by bit. They also use the skills of scientific enquiry including making observations, recording data, idea sharing and discussion.  

Plesiosaurs lived in the Jurassic, when there were dinosaurs on land, but plesiosaurs were marine reptiles and not dinosaurs. Dinosaurs had straight legs which held their weight for walking. Plesiosaurs were adapted to live their whole lives in the water with four fins in place of legs, hands and feet.

Plesiosaurs were carnivores, as their sharp teeth show. Scientists think that they might have used their long straight necks to help them sneak up on fish.

The fossils on the Jurassic Coast where Mary Anning lived were mainly of marine mammals, shells, fish, squid, coral and sponges. These fossils all provide very strong evidence that the south of England was, between 150-200 million years ago, at the bottom of a warm, shallow, ancient ocean.

  • Curriculum links

Suggested extension activities and differentiation

Useful words
Explanation and reinforcement of KS1 History and Science vocabulary: Fossil, ancient, past, skeleton, spine, ribs, legs, hands, feet, tail, flippers, teeth, skull, wings, nose, eyes, long ago, discovery, change. 

In addition: palaeontology and palaeontologist. 

What did plesiosaurs look like when they were alive? 
Without revealing the last slide: based on the evidence that has been discussed, learners draw what they think this animal would have looked like when it was alive. Learners could label the body parts of their drawing.   

Creative writing task
Imagine you could have some of the special features of this ancient animal. Which ones would you like and why?   

Moving bones
While describing and comparing, the learners can point to and move their own bodies. Thinking about how their own bones move.  

Compare me
Learners draw around another child on paper and match parts of the drawn body to a fossil animal. 

Visual impairment

  • Model me: using a modelling material eg. Playdough to make shapes similar to those that are described/seen on a closeup printout or device.   
  • Stone fossils: explain that the fossil would feel like stone. Describing properties of stone as a material. Having something made of stone to touch (pebbles, rocks, fossils if possible). 

Related resources

Dinosaur skeleton

Find out about the skeleton of Dippy the Diplodocus and compare the shape and size of some of its body parts to your own. PDF (2.8MB)

Dinosaur timeline

Make an arm-span timeline to help visualise time. PDF (2.7MB)

Longest bone

Discover the longest bone in your body and find out what dinosaurs were the same height as you! PDF (3.8MB)