Go digging in the right place in Illinois and you’re liable to find some of the best Carboniferous fossils in the world. This episode, we discuss the history, the geology, and the incredible – and sometimes bizarre – plants and animals of the Mazon Creek Fossil Beds.
In the news
This Cretaceous shark had wing-like fins and perhaps a unique swimming style
A new Asian ankylosaur has paleontologists thinking about digging dinosaurs
These new fossils might be the oldest known cephalopod
An Eocene fly is the first known with a stomach full of pollen
Fossils of Mazon Creek
Since at least the mid-1800s, geologists and fossil collectors have recognized that the banks of Mazon Creek (Mazon River) in Northeast Illinois are a source of exceptional fossils. Throughout the 1900s, as extensive mining operations dug into the geologic formation known as the Francis Creek Shale, it became clear that these Mazon Creek fossils were also exceptionally widespread, found over an area of some 150 square kilometers. Today, thousands and thousands of Mazon Creek fossils are held in museum collections and private collections, making this one of the best-sampled fossil localities in the world.
The Francis Creek Shale was deposited in a deltaic environment, a vast region where freshwater flowed into an ancient shallow sea around 310 million years ago during the Pennsylvanian Period, at a time when Illinois was very near the equator. The fossils of Mazon Creek represent animals that lived in these tropical waters, as well as land-dwelling plants and animals washed into the delta by the flowing rivers.
The Mazon Creek Ecosystem
Several hundred species of ancient plants and animals have been identified in the Mazon Creek beds. These include many soft-bodied animals that rarely fossilize, such as jellyfish and worms, as well as fossils that represent milestones in evolutionary history, including some of the earliest widespread ferns, some of the earliest known insect larvae, and some of the earliest true reptiles. With such a variety of fossils over such a wide area, Mazon Creek provides an excellent opportunity to explore multiple communities, terrestrial, freshwater, and marine. It has even been suggested, given the abundance of shark egg cases and juvenile fish preserved here, that this habitat might have acted as a nursery for certain aquatic animals.
Without a doubt, the most famous fossil species from Mazon Creek is the Tully Monster, Tullimonstrum gregarium. Since its discovery in the 1950s, paleontologists have debated what exactly this animal is. It has such a strange combination of characters that it’s proven difficult to identify what phylum it belongs to. Although the most common suggestion is that it is some kind of strange mollusc, other scientists have suggested it might belong to the nematodes or annelid worms, and some recent research has been amassing evidence that the strange Tully Monster might actually be a cousin of vertebrates.
Check out this overview of Mazon Creek Flora, with lots of plant pictures!
Recent research suggests the Tully Monster is a vertebrate:
Ancient ‘Tully monster’ was a vertebrate, not a spineless blob, study claims (non-technical, includes link to paper)
The eyes of Tullimonstrum reveal a vertebrate affinity (technical, paywalled)
But other researchers disagree:
The mysterious ‘Tully Monster’ fossil just got more mysterious (non-technical)
The ‘Tully Monster’ is not a vertebrate (technical)
This 2016 episode of Brain Scoop features Tully Monster research and cracking open some Mazon Creek nodules!
Please feel free to contact us with comments, questions, or topic suggestions, and to rate and review us on iTunes!