Treasures In The Dust

Some fishermen have all the luck —like Francis Tully. Tully's favorite fishing spot is in the little lakes that punctuate the strip-coal-mining region not many miles south of his home in Lockport, Illinois, near Chicago. When the fish weren't biting, Tully passed the time by breaking open some of the rusty brown ironstone concretions that littered the huge dumps of waste rock.

Occasionally he would find a fossil fern frond inside a concretion, and one day in the early 1960s he found his first fossil shrimp and, later, a worm. Tully, a pipefitter at a Lockport oil refinery, was curious enough to seek further information about his discoveries, which brought him and his fossils to the attention of paleontologists at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Then came a memorable day. Fishing was poor but the red-brown nodules were plentiful. Tully cracked open a few, hoping to find another fern or, as he once had, a dragonfly entombed in the rock. That discovery had cost him a battered thumb from a careless blow of his hammer. But this time what he found was not fern or insect.

What was this strange outline in the rock that he held in his hand? The creature, if it was a creature, had an elongated, cigar-shaped body divided into segments. At one end was a spadelike tail and on the other a slender snout ending in a toothed claw. Behind the snout a bar terminated by two small lumps crossed the body. The strange creature was about five inches long.

Tully was puzzled. So were the experts when he took his discovery to the Field Museum. They couldn't find a place for it in the fossil picture — the jigsaw puzzle of life scrambled in the rocks. Like all scientists, they were primarily concerned with recognizing and then classifying the object into a coherent body of knowledge. Customarily they do this by comparing an undescribed fossil with known, already classified, forms until relationships can be established. Then the fossil takes its place in the scheme of things.

Dr. Eugene S. Richardson, Jr., the museum's specialist in invertebrate fossils, was intrigued by what a visitor called the "impish, benevolent, almost schmoolike expression on its cuddly frame," but he was also baffled by the fossil's enigmatic appearance. Even a stranger needs a name, so he named it Tullimonstrum gregarium (common Tully monster), using the discoverer's name in Latinized form for the genus and a common Latin adjective for the trivial name. But even with a name, Tully's monster lacked a place; it did not even appear to belong to any known phylum, which is one of the most general of all groups of classification. It was an orphan in the family of things, living and dead.

Since that day, Tully has been back to the site of his great discovery hundreds of times and has collected 3,000 animal fossils there, including 150 Tully monsters and nearly as many sea cucumbers, as well as several hundred worms of several species. He keeps them carefully wrapped in paper towels in cabinet drawers.

Scores of other amateurs have swarmed over the strip-mine spoil piles. They, too, have unearthed Tully monsters and added them and other strange fossils to their collections. Many of these collectors have shared their specimens with Dr. Richardson. From the evidence that such cooperation has made available, he deduced that the monster was an animal, a marine animal that preyed on other life in an ancient sea. It may have fed on the strange creatures that are dubbed "blobs" because of their variable shapes, somewhat like wilted lettuce leaves. These creatures are found in the strip-mine concretions and are as little understood as the monster itself.

When the national paleontological convention was held at the Field Museum in the fall of 1969, hundreds of professional paleontologists from all over the world saw a special exhibition of cases full of the specimens that amateurs had made available to the museum.

Most of these scholars had heard of the water-filled pits and sterile gray clay hills south of Chicago left by the huge dragline buckets as they stripped the farmland to bare the coal seams. This area had long been world-famous for the variety of well-preserved Coal Age fossils found there, especially the fossil ferns and other plants. As long ago as the mid-nineteenth century, eager amateurs had waded in shallow Mazon Creek, sixty miles southwest of Chicago, to gather such ironstone concretions.

Systematic studies were based on the specimens they collected, and major museums of Europe and the United States placed these fossils in their cabinets. But the fossils really became abundant —by the thousands and hundreds of thousands—when the strip miners brought their giant draglines to the cornfields after World War I.

The coal beds were formed in the Middle Pennsylvanian period about 300 million years ago. At that time, forests grew on a featureless coastal plain that lay between a sea to the southwest and a hilly upland far to the northeast. Giant tree ferns and horsetails, ancestors of the puny present-day representatives of these families, and other vegetation flourished in the swampy plain between sea and hills. Trees fell, plant life died, and the advancing sea buried the debris under layers of mud. Instead of rotting away, as it would have done if it had been exposed to the air, the vegetable mass accumulated in water and then was compressed by the blanket of mud and sand above it while it slowly turned into fossil fuel.

Tully's monster and its exotic playmates apparently lived in the swamps and shallow offshore waters, with sand bars and mud flats. It was a setting rich in animal life. Pectens and snails, sea cucumbers, horseshoe crabs, annelid worms, and even rare amphibians lived here. Insects cruised overhead, and the little monster paddled its way through the murky, milkwarm waters along with sharks, primitive fish, shrimp, and squid. Like the trees, these animals died and their bodies sank to the muddy bottom. Products of decay caused iron to precipitate from the sea water and to harden the mud around their bodies in concentric layers. Seas rose and fell, the coal formed, the mud hardened into shale, glaciers planed the land and left behind a fertile prairie. The concretions waited 300 million years until someone finally tapped the rusty coffins and exposed their flattened ghosts to the open air again.

Besides the monster, the strip-mine dumps yielded other prized fossils— jellyfish. These are rare in any rocks because the soft, watery tissues of jellyfish leave a fossil record only under the most favorable conditions. They are exceptional fossils, and paleontologists prize them because paleontologists, like other people, treasure the improbable. Amateurs again made the two big discoveries. Jim Turnbull of Libertyville, a suburb north of Chicago, brought to the Field Museum the fossil of a jellyfish four

Cliffwood Beach Sand Stone FossilsFossilised Jellyfish
Fossilized squid from a coal mine concretion near Braidwood, Illinois. It was named Jeletzkya douglassae for the young amateur who found it.

inches across. Like Tully, he was honored in the name given it — Anthra-comedusa iurnbulli, which in plain English means "Coal Age jellyfish of Turnbull." Dr. Richardson also discovered tiny jellyfish among fossils in the collection of the Ted Pieckos of Chicago. These, too, had come from the strip mines. He named them Octomedusa pieckorum, or "eight-sided jellyfish of the Pieckos." A museum visitor, one of the cooperating amateur collectors, viewed pictures of the jellyfish and came back a week later with 400 specimens!

The Pieckos later topped their jellyfish discovery by bringing to the museum the first fossil lamprey ever found, one of seven they had col-Helen and Ted Piecko of Chicago, discoverers of several new fossils and owners of one of the largest collections of fossils from the strip mines southwest of Chicago. (Photo courtesy Mr. and Mrs. Piecko)

lected at the same strip mines that had yielded the jellyfish. It, too, was named in their honor.

Tully, Turnbull, and the Pieckos are only examples of the hundreds of amateur collectors in the Chicago area who have "pursued their hobby and the advancement of science at the same time," as Dr. Richardson says. In this way amateurs and professionals help each other to read the story of the past written in the rocks that lie almost in the shadow of a great city's skyscrapers.

Finding marine monsters in a coal mine and jellyfish on a barren hillside a thousand miles from the sea is strange enough, but no stranger than gathering a bouquet of 325-million-year-old lilies in a railroad stone quarry. Crop after crop, too! Burnice H. Beane of Le Grand, Iowa, a singularly frail-looking man for such a career, spent his lifetime cultivating his lily garden. He was born in 1879, five years after a blast in the quarry at Le Grand laid bare a bed of "stone flowers" on the dislodged limestone slabs. These were fossils of crinoids, marine animals related to starfish but bearing a deceptive likeness to daisies or lilies.

Beane spent many days of his boyhood in the quarry, asking questions of the workmen and of collectors, and gathering crinoids himself until

B. H. Beane with a slab of crinoid fossils from a quarry at Le Grand, Iowa. (Photo Des Moines Register & Tribune)

the exposed bed was exhausted in 1890. But he kept close watch for forty years, waiting and hoping, until in 1931 another blast uncovered an even more extensive fossil garden. One slab he saved from the crusher bore on its face the fossil imprints of 183 starfish, 12 sea urchins, 2 trilobites, and some other organisms. When Dr. A. L. Thomas, professor of geology at the State University of Iowa, saw the slab he is reported to have exclaimed: "Good Lord, Mr. Beane! Where did you find them?" Professor Charles Schuchert of Yale University described the slab as the greatest known assemblage of fossil starfish.

Two years later, a third extensive bed came to light. In the next four years, thousands of specimens were lovingly taken from it. They included 40 species of crinoids and many species of the closely related blastoids, as well as brachiopods, bryozoans, and corals. In this way and in a single lifetime, one of the world's most spectacular fossil sources was opened and made available to scientists everywhere. Had this amateur collector not watched the quarry patiently and untiringly, the Le Grand crinoids would have been crushed to gravel, ballast for the railroad tracks.

Crinoids were among the dominant forms of life in Mississippian times, the geological period just before the time of Tully's monster. Although they grew abundantly, they were rarely preserved as complete fossils because the crowns of "calyx and petals," formed of loosely connected plates of brittle calcite, usually broke apart before they became fossilized. The jointed stems that moored the flowerlike top to the sea bottom also separated into segments, which in many places became the raw material of limestone.

The Le Grand crinoids presumably remained intact because they were gently washed loose and moved by currents only a short distance before they were deposited as a tangled mat in depressions in the limy ooze of the sea bottom. While still intact, they were buried in the mud and lime, which protected them as they became fossils. Besides their excellent state of preservation, they have one other important quality of value to paleontologists. The various species show some differences in color, and this is possibly a clue to their color pattern when alive. Such clues are rare in paleontology.

Preparation of the Le Grand fossils became a labor of love for the Beane family. A slab showing evidence of a fossil layer inside was tapped gently until a fine crack opened at the edge. Nails were driven in along the crack to split the slab and expose the fossil-bearing surface. Brush and needle then freed the fossil of adhering rock until its intricate detail was fully visible and it was ready to grace a private cabinet or a museum case. Before his death, part of Mr. Beane's collection was placed in the Iowa State museum in Des Moines. Here, as well as in other institutions that have specimens of the Le Grand fossils, paleontologists can continue the work of describing and studying them, just as they did in collaboration with this inspired amateur during his lifetime. For, like many other amateurs, Mr. Beane made his greatest contribution by providing the materials by which professionals could add to the world's knowledge of its past.

Mr. Beane's lifetime of service lends point to the recent words of a museum curator from his native state of Iowa, who wrote: "I am amazed at times that the Federal Antiquities Act has recently closed many areas to amateur collectors. I know there are abuses of fine fossil areas. But, on the other hand, most outstanding finds have been the work of amateurs, and is it not better, except for preserve areas, that these go into amateur collections and eventually to museums rather than to disintegrate under natural processes?"

"Enlightened amateurs can make worthwhile contributions to mineralogy and paleontology," wrote Ralph H. King of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, "if they know enough to recognize significant finds and to report them to public agencies. Mineralogists and paleontologists working for public agencies would rather take time to look at hundreds of specimens of ordinary material than to have one significant specimen escape them."

One striking instance of such a rewarding collaboration of the sharp-eyed amateur and the professional occurred in 1966 in New Jersey. Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Frey were collecting on the beach at Cliffwood when Mrs. Frey saw something shining in a clay bank. It was a piece of amber. When the Freys got the specimen home and washed it, they discovered several insects embedded in the fossil resin.

They lent the specimen to Professors Edward O. Wilson, F. M. Carpenter, and W. L. Brown, Jr. of Harvard University. When one face was polished, two ants were disclosed, one head-on with a bubble of air beside its mouth and the other presenting a full side view. Study revealed that these worker ants were intermediate between primitive ants and wasps and were the "first undisputed social insect remains of Mesozoic age and extend the existence of social life in insects back to approximately 100 million years." Social ants live in colonies and divide the work of the colony among the soldier ants, the worker ants and the queen, who is the mother of them all. In addition, these scientists were delighted to find confirmation of their "fondest speculations about what a Mesozoic ant might be like and thus demonstrate to us anew the predictive power of phylogenetic reasoning." In laymen's language, this means that theoretical biology had scored a coup by confirmation in fossil form of predicted characteristics of the wasp-ant common ancestor.

In honor of the Freys, the Harvard scientists named the amber-entombed insects Sphecomyrma freyi, or "wasp-ant of Frey."

These examples mean something more than the discovery of fossil species, important though that is. Tully might have tossed his strange fossil back into the pond, or the Freys might have placed their bit of amber on the shelf. But they didn't, because they possessed a persistent trait of the true collector —stubborn curiosity. They were curious enough to want to know more, to learn all they could about their specimens and to deepen their understanding of the science of paleontology and the craft of collecting.

Collectors learn in many ways. They learn from other amateurs, from professional paleontologists, and from books, which preserve the accumulated experience and knowledge mankind has painfully won. When the young Charles Darwin went aboard the Beagle in 1831 he carried with him Sir Charles Lyell's newly published Principles of Geology. While he sailed around the world, Darwin read, and what he learned from Lyell's

Sphecomyrma freyi, in amber, the primitive ant that appears to be a link between ants and wasps. (Photo courtesy Dr. F. M. Carpenter)

book opened his eyes to new meanings in the fossils he discovered in South America and the Galapagos Islands. From understanding —and genius — grew the theory of evolution.

The book you are now reading presents the essential background and the practical techniques that will enable the amateur collector to get more pleasure and intellectual satisfaction from his activities. As a glance at the table of contents shows, it describes what a fossil is and how to distinguish it from other rocks. It speaks briefly about the vast extent of geologic time and the patient workings of geologic processes, and it maps, state by state, the rocks that are likely to contain fossils, with particular emphasis on areas known to be productive.

From such basic information, the book turns to preparations for a collecting trip, interpretation of maps, and a summary of state and federal laws regulating the collecting of fossils. Once the fossil is collected it must be prepared for study or display; so the book describes the latest techniques for freeing fossils from the matrix and protecting them on the long trip home. It also describes in detail how to clean, prepare, preserve, exhibit, and photograph specimens.

The last chapter outlines the procession of life from the most primitive plants and animals to those invertebrates that prepared the way for the development of the mammals. It mentions the major fossils the amateur will be likely to collect and is designed to serve him as a quick reference source for identifying and classifying his treasures.

The scope of the book has purposely been limited to invertebrate fossils for two reasons: first, because these are generally the fossils that amateurs collect, and second, because in collecting, preparing, and exhibiting vertebrate fossils—especially the bones and teeth of large animals —problems are presented that can be solved only with the facilities of a museum or university. The amateur who collects vertebrate fossils may destroy material that is of major scientific value and may also subject himself to penalties for violating the law.

Dr. I. R. Macdonald, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Los Angeles County Museum, offers sound counsel on this point. After citing instances of destruction of vertebrate fossils by thoughtless or unskilled collectors, he writes: "One would almost get the feeling that I am against rockhounds, pebble pups and the rest of that large group of hobbyists. This is not true; rather than fight them I'd much rather see them join us. It is from these outdoor enthusiasts that we get much of our scientifically valuable material and leads on sites which help us to expand our knowledge of life in the past."

Dr. Macdonald mentions several important discoveries made through this kind of cooperation in California. Nor was the gain all on the side of the professionals, for the amateurs enjoyed the experience of helping to excavate a major fossil, of working on it in the laboratory, and even, in some instances, of having fossils named for them.

"To collect most fossil vertebrates properly," Macdonald writes, "a great deal of time, training and skill is required. Once collected, it is not a scientific specimen but just a curiosity unless the specimen is accompanied by complete geographical and geological data. . . . Why can't the hobbyist join us in our search for knowledge and in the reconstruction of the history of earth's past?"

There is plenty of room for the amateur to have his fun and the scientist his knowledge. For, as the eminent Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson once wrote: "Fossil hunting is far the most fascinating of all sports. . . . The hunter never knows what his bag may be, perhaps nothing, perhaps a creature never before seen by human eyes. Over the next hill may lie a great discovery. It requires knowledge, skill, and some degree of hardihood. And its results are so much more important, more worthwhile, and more enduring than those of any other sport. The fossil hunter does not kill; he resurrects. And the result of his sport is to add to the sum of human pleasure and to the treasures of human knowledge."

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