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Last updated on April 23, 2014 at 13:31 EDT

Fossil hunters dig the past In Illinois or out West, suburban residents seek bits of history

July 3, 2003

In the fall, the Fairchild family of Streamwood gathers an unusual harvest: unassuming smooth stones found at the Mazonia- Braidwood Fish and Wildlife Area in Grundy County.

Jim, Mary and their children, Allison, Chelsea, Aaron and David, place the stones in barrels of water on their back patio, where they remain all winter.

Then, in the springtime, like Easter eggs, some crack open, revealing marvelous surprises – perfect impressions of 300-million- year-old ferns, insects, fish, worms and a strange squid-like animal that goes by the intriguing name of the “Tully monster.”

“You’re always looking for Tully monsters,” said 14-year-old Chelsea.

Jack Legg of Elgin and his son Mitch travel to the desolate lands of Montana each summer in search of bigger prey -fossilized bones of giant reptiles that roamed the land millions of years ago.

And in Nebraska, Aurora resident Rob Sula has unearthed the remains of a mosasaurus, a 30-foot predator that resembled a giant crocodile and swam in the vast sea that once covered the central United States.

Sula’s fossil collection also includes a horn and skull fragment from a baby triceratops, which reveals that dinosaur babies, like mammal babies, had big round eyes.

“It’s the cuteness factor that makes us want to care for them,” Sula said.

Paleontology, the study of fossils, isn’t just for scientists and movie characters destined to become T-Rex chow. It’s a popular pastime for a growing number of Fox Valley residents who are looking for traces for a lost world all around us.

Mike Henderson, a paleontologist with the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, says the museum’s fossil field trips are one of its most popular programs.

“We generally max out on the number of people we can take,” he said.

Jack Legg got hooked on his first trip when he helped unearth a triceratops femur with an embedded raptor tooth. Son Mitch also has collected triceratops bones and a tooth from a dromaeaeosaur, a meat- eater.

Karen Nordquist, president of the Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois, said fossil-hunting is addicting.

“It’s fun looking, and when you do find something, you’re the first person to see it in millions and millions of years,” said Nordquist of Willowbrook.

ESCONI is one of a number of local groups devoted to the study and exploration of regional rocks, fossils and archeology. The group is based in Downers Grove and has about 150 active members. It offers study groups devoted to different earth science topics. Nordquist says the paleontology group is the largest and most active.

“We’re diehards who love to get out in the dirt and dig and ask each other, ‘what did you get?’” she said.

ESCONI offers frequent field trips to the Mazon Creek site, considered one of the most important fossil sites in the world for soft-bodied animals.

One of the most unusual creatures uncovered at Mazon Creek is Illinois’ state fossil, the Tully monster.

Named for the amateur collector who discovered it in the 1950s, tullimonstrum gregarium bears a resemblance to a modern squid turned backward. Its tail ends in a spear-shaped paddle. It has a flat, segmented body, eyes that protrude from stalks and a single tentacle that ends in a claw, used to snare prey.

Ranging in length from a few inches to almost 2 feet, the Tully monster has been found nowhere else in the world – other than Illinois.

The Fairchild family’s collection contains several Tully monsters as well as a jellyfish that resembles a small octopus, a baby shark, ancient shrimp that resemble modern centipedes, and ancient centipedes that resemble modern shrimp.

The fossils are found inside concretions – smooth, round rocks that were formed when ironstone deposits formed around the decaying bodies of plants and animals. The concretions were buried in layers of shale that were stripped away during coal mining. Most of the concretions ended up tossed aside in spoils piles.

While the area’s popularity has meant that fossils are harder to find, it’s still possible to locate them, said Jim Fairchild, a member of ESCONI.

“I led a field trip out there, and someone found a millipede fossil, so lightning still does strike,” he said.

The scarcity of dinosaur fossils in the Midwest means enthusiasts have to travel west to hunt big fossil game. Trips are available through clubs like ESCONI, museums such as Chicago’s Field Museum and Rockford’s Burpee Museum or through private tour operators.

Legg and Sula are affiliated with Paleo Prospectors, Inc., an Atlanta-based company that organizes fossil-hunting field trips to Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.

Both men consider their first fossil trip a life-changing experience.

Legg had never been interested in fossils before but signed on for a trip at the urging of a friend four years ago. Since then, he has found fossilized bones from numerous dinosaurs, including a duck- billed hadrosaur, triceratops, ankylosaurs and a tyrannosaurus rex.

“I caught fossil fever,” he said, remembering one trip where he spent four days digging a triceratops skull out of a hole. “I wanted to have the experience of touching something no one had ever seen or touched before.”

In 1997, Sula was working in exercise physiology when he noticed a client’s tattoo of a triceratops.

“I wasn’t into tattoos, but I appreciated the artwork,” Sula said. “We started talking about dinosaurs and I learned you could go fossil-hunting out west.”

The trip awakened his childhood love for fossils and dinosaurs, and Sula returned from Montana determined to learn everything he could about fossils.

“I started devouring books, and in a short time, I became a quasi- expert and started doing lectures at Nature Company stores,” he said.

Six years later, Sula has turned his passion for fossils into a career that includes teaching classes at the Sci-Tech Children’s Museum in Aurora and through the continuing education program at the College of Du Page. He spends summers leading trips for Paleo Prospectors.

Since fossil-hunting expeditions in the west can involve long, extremely hot days, Legg recommends anyone considering one be in good condition and able to do a substantial amount of walking. He also suggests that children be at least 10 years old.

“We get (inquiries) from people with kids who are 5 to 7 years old, and they don’t understand what’s involved,” Legg said. “But it depends on the person. We’ve had people aged 7 to 72.”

Adult trips cost more than $2,000, but don’t expect posh accommodations after a day in the fossil fields.

“There’s not a lot of choice when the town has a population of 350,” Legg said. “We’re talking about a motel and a cafe – not luxurious, but not a tent, either.

“What you get is a bed, a shovel, meals and expert guidance. Everyone there is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.”

Fossil-hunters are also allowed to keep what they find, up to $3,000 worth, with the option to purchase more. Scientifically significant finds are turned over to museums.

According to Paleo Prospectors’ Web site, www.paleoprospectors.org, groups hunt fossils on 11 privately owned ranches, with permission of the landowners.

Permission is an important consideration as public lands in the west are subjected to illegal fossil poaching. Federal law prohibits removing vertebrate fossils from most of the 622 million acres of government-owned open land and removing any fossils from national parks without a permit. Henderson says this underscores the importance of obtaining permission from any landowner before going fossil-hunting.

“It’s the No. 1 thing you need to do, especially in a quarry,” he said. “Just going in can be tempting, but if you’re caught, it’s hard to go back later and get permission, and if you get hurt and sue, you shut off access to all fossil hunters.”

Henderson recommends group trips as the ideal way for novice fossil-hunters to get started.

“It’s a good way to get to know people who have collected more than you have,” he said.

Henderson added that amateur fossil collectors, like the discoverer of the Tully monster, can be a valuable resource for scientists, especially in the area of invertebrate fossils.

“The amateurs often have more time to devote and often bring discoveries to the attention of professionals, and loan specimens,” he said.

“One of the best examples of cooperation is Mazon Creek, where most of the fossils were discovered by amateurs.”

For details on Mazon Creek, contact the Illinois Department of Natural Resources office in Braceville, (815) 237-0063.

For details on the Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois, visit the club’s Web site, www.ESCONI.org.