When it comes to scientific, archaeological and paleontological discoveries, girls really DO get it done! If a casual Google search is anything to go by, it sometimes seems like girls are making astonishing finds every day, advancing our knowledge of science, nature, the ancient world and so much more.
In honor of the upcoming International Day of Women and Girls in Science (Feb. 11), here are a few of our favorite discoveries, and the girls who made them.
1. Molly and the Megalodon
The most recent find comes courtesy of 9-year-old Molly Sampson. In 2022, the 4th-grader and her family were combing Calvert Beach in Maryland on Christmas morning, looking for shark teeth. Actually, Molly, who shares a love of fossils with her dad, was specifically looking for megalodon teeth, and Calvert Beach is a popular place to find them.
But Molly got way more than she bargained for when she discovered a meg tooth as big as her hand, about five inches long. Even coming from an extinct shark whose name literally means "giant tooth," this was definitely an uncommonly large find (the biggest megalodon tooth known is only a couple of inches longer).
The once-in-a-lifetime discovery was massive enough to make headlines around the world, when Molly confirmed her 15- to 20-million-year-old find at a local marine museum. The tooth remains in her private collection.
2. Saga's Sword
Once upon a time, a little girl named Saga discovered a mysterious sword, hidden for centuries in the waters of a lake. Yeah, it does sound like the beginning of some ancient epic, but it happened for real in 2018.
While on summer vacation at a lake near Tånnö, Sweden, Saga Vanecek, then 8 years old, plucked a long, rust- and sediment-covered object from the lakebed. It had been there for quite a while — as much as 1,500 years — but Saga instantly recognized it as a sword, still sheathed in what remained of a leather and wood scabbard.
Originally believed to be a Viking-Age sword, archaeologists later determined that the blade is older, from around 400 to 500 A.D., during a time known as the Migration Period. Despite the Internet’s near-universal wish that Saga should keep the sword and claim her rightful place as queen of Sweden, the artifact instead resides at a museum, not far from where it was found, under the care of conservators who will continue to preserve and study it. In lieu of a coronation, Sweden’s national heritage board paid Saga a cash bounty of around $1,600.
3. Neshama's Egyptian Amulet
Neshama Spielman was also just 8 years old when she and her family were doing some citizen science work by participating in the Temple Mount Sifting Project, an initiative to examine tons of dirt and debris that had been improperly excavated and moved without archaeological supervision, as required by law.
Neshama was sifting debris in Jerusalem when she found a small object — part of an amulet that its long-ago owner would have worn around their neck. It wasn't until 2016 that archaeologists informed Neshama, and the rest of the world, that the amulet was Egyptian in origin, and more than 3,000 years old.
Furthermore, the amulet bore the name of a pharaoh: Thutmose III, who ruled from 1479 to 1425 B.C., roughly the time when Jerusalem would have been under Egyptian rule. To see other surprising finds from the project, you can tour a virtual exhibition here.
4. Clara’s Amazing Molecule
For Kansas City, Missouri 5th-grader Clara Lazen, a mundane school experiment launched her into the heights of academia. Working with a kit that allowed her to build models of different kinds of molecules, Clara went freestyle, assembling a combination of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms that left her teacher scratching his head: She had created a molecule he’d never seen before.
The teacher shared the mystery configuration with his friend Robert Zoellner, a chemistry professor at California State University, Humboldt. Zoellner determined that Clara’s molecule, tetranitratoxycarbon, was indeed new, and special enough that it warranted a scientific paper on its discovery. The resulting work appeared in 2012 in Computational and Theoretical Chemistry, with Clara earning a co-author credit on the paper. Not bad for a 10-year-old.
5. Mary’s Fantastic Fossils
Our last entry lived about 200 years before any of the other girls mentioned here. But she’s a sentimental and historical favorite when it comes to recognizing girls who made amazing discoveries. Her name was Mary Anning. Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset in England, Mary was a proto-paleontologist.
Despite a limited education, Mary nevertheless made a name for herself as a fossil collector. She and her father would often comb the cliffs near her home, part of what is now known as the Jurassic Coast, for its richness of fossils from that period. It was common for locals to gather fossils or shells to sell as curiosities to tourists, and Mary's family did likewise to support themselves.
Read More: The Unsung Heroes of Science
But Mary was particularly gifted at identifying and carefully extracting choice fossils from the limestone and shale cliffs. As a child in 1811, Mary’s first major find was of an ichthyosaur skeleton, one of the earliest specimens ever found and arguably the finest of its kind. She also made important early discoveries of plesiosaur and pterosaur fossils.
Within her lifetime, Mary became known throughout Europe for her work. And while many geologists of the day were her regular customers, she endured a notable lack of recognition from the scientific community. Like all women of the era, she was barred from joining or even attending meetings of the prestigious Geological Society. However, towards the end of her life (Mary died of breast cancer in 1847) the Society belatedly acknowledged her contributions to science and donated money to support her. That was awfully big of them, considering how many of its members benefitted from her discoveries. But it’s not like they erected a statue of her or anything.
Instead, that task would fall to another remarkable girl, more than 150 years later. In 2018, 11-year-old Evie Swire began a fund-raising campaign for a bronze statue of Mary Anning. After raising more than $100,000, the Anning statue was finally created and unveiled in Lyme Regis in May of 2022. Well done, Evie!