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  • Remembering Dr. William J. Beecher - Part 2

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, fossil, Beecher, volunteers

    Created: 7/27/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Dr. William Beecher died on this day in 2002. In addition to being a Chicago native and ornithologist, Dr. Beecher held the position of Chicago Academy of Sciences director for 24 years! His legacy continues to live on at the Museum. The Beecher Lab, located in the Wilderness Walk, is named after him, and some of the students who studied under him as teenagers have returned to the Museum as volunteers! In this post, Collections volunteer Joan Bledig remembers her time with Dr. Beecher.

    Dr. William Beecher holding binoculars

    Dr. William Beecher

    Dr. William J. Beecher was a dominant force in my life in the late 1950s-early 1960s. In an era when young women interested in science were considered weird, Dr. Beecher was there championing everyone’s right to study science and nature, girl or boy. He was my mentor in things scientific. And, unlike most adults of that era, he treated me and the other members of what he named his Junior Academy as equals, never talking down to us, never disregarding our questions or comments.

    I was interested in anthropology at the time I discovered the Academy, but Dr. Beecher widened my horizons to include an appreciation of many other natural sciences, including Geology. Because of my participation in the fossil hunting trips Dr. Beecher arranged to the Mazon Creek area about 70 miles south of Chicago, I developed a love of this fossil assemblage which I never lost, and resulted in my returning to volunteer once again 45 years later.

    Dr. Beecher had developed a program at the Academy to assist high school students with their science fair projects. I decided to participate, wanting to do something concerning human evolution. Beecher said that was out of field for the museum, since the projects would be incorporated into future exhibits once the science fair competitions were over. He said, “You enjoyed participating in those fossil hunting field trips to Coal City and Braidwood. Why don’t you do something on the Mazon fossils?” He was very convincing, so I agreed to do a science fair project on how the Mazon area had appeared when it was a living forest of tree ferns and giant insects 306 million years ago. And what an experience that became!

    Joan Bledig with her 1961 Science Fair project at the Academy.
    Joan Bledig with her 1961 Science Fair project at the Academy. Photo by Nancy Bledig.

    The entire museum preparation staff, it seemed, helped me create a life-size tree trunk, some examples of ground plants, and the piece de résistance, Meganeura, a dragonfly with a two-foot wingspan. Dr. Beecher made arrangements with a noted expert at the Field Museum, George Langford, Sr., to assist with the research portion. When the science fair was over, parts of the project were eventually incorporated into a life-size, walkthrough coal forest in the back of the lobby of the building at 2001 N. Clark Street.

    Dr. Beecher had a humorous side as well. Once he told us about one of his experiences while stationed on a remote Pacific island when he served in World War II. It was hotter than Hades; the native population didn’t speak English; and it was doubtful that they had much, if any, previous contact with modern civilization. He managed to get it across to one of the natives that he was thirsty. Suddenly, an islander appeared, offering him a bottle of Coca Cola! The islanders may not have had 20th century civilization, but they sure had Coca Cola. The punch line? Beecher said some future archaeologist would be beating his head against a wall wondering what the culture of “Coca Cola” was since its bottles were found everywhere on Earth.

    With great regret I tendered my resignation from the Junior Academy when I finished high school in 1964. My father had recently passed away and I needed to find a full-time job in order to earn money to pay for college. It was a sad day, parting from the Academy and Dr. Beecher. However, I never left behind the marvelous influence he had on me. A great friend of Dr. Beecher, June Hanna, stated he said he chose not to marry because he felt he could be either a great ornithologist or a great father, but never both. Maybe he didn’t think he could be both, but I believe he did a great job being both to all the boys and girls he influenced during his tenure as Director of The Chicago Academy of Sciences.

    Joan Bledig
    Collections Volunteer

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  • Paleontology Underfoot – Celebrating National Fossil Day

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    Tags: fossil, paleontology, Mazon Creek, Illinois

    Created: 10/16/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    How often do you think about the ground under your feet? About what it is composed of or how old the rocks are? Did you know that under your feet, there are not just rocks and soils, but fossils? Most of Illinois’ exposed rock layers, and the fossils found in them, were formed during the Carboniferous, approximately 355 to 290 million years ago. Check out the Paleontology Portal’s website about Illinois’ paleontology and geology, http://www.paleoportal.org/index.php?globalnav=time_space&sectionnav=state&name=Illinois.

     

    The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (CAS/PNNM) has over 22,000 fossils in its collection, most of which were collected from sites in the Midwest. To celebrate National Fossil Day, here are some specimens from CAS/PNNM’s paleontology collection.

    Macroneuropteris macrophylla fossil

    Macroneuropteris macrophylla, a Neuropteris-like group seed fern from the Braidwood flora of the Mazon Creek area, IL. Carboniferous, Francis Creek Shale.

    Spirorbis sp. fossil 

    Spirorbis sp. (on Stigmaria sp.), worms on root structure, from the Essex fauna and flora of the Mazon Creek area, IL. Carboniferous, Francis Creek Shale.

     Lobatopteris lamuriana fossil

    Lobatopteris lamuriana, a true fern from the Braidwood flora of the Mazon Creek area, IL. Carboniferous, Francis Creek Shale.

     Hystriciola delicatala fossil

    Hystriciola delicatala, an annelid worm from the Essex fauna of the Mazon Creek area, IL. Carboniferous, Francis Creek Shale.

     Annularia sp. fossils

     Annularia sp. specimens collected by Jonathan H. Britts from Henry County, MO.

     Pecopteris vestita fossil

     Pecopteris vestita, a fern leaf collected by Jonathan H. Britts from Henry County, MO.

     Pentremites obesus fossil

    Pentremites obesus, a blastoid from Anna, IL. Mississippian, Chester Limestone.

     Platystrophia acutilirata fossil

     Platystrophia acutilirata, brachiopods collected from Cincinnati, OH. Ordovician, Cincinnati Limestone.

     Conularia crawfordsvillensis fossil

    Conularia crawfordsvillensis, (animal) collected from Crawfordsville, IN. Mississippian, Keokuk Group.

      Phillipsia bufo fossil

    Phillipsia bufo, a trilobite collected from Crawfordsville, IN. Mississippian, Keokuk Group.

     

    Stop in at the Nature Museum for a visit to see fossils up close. Here are a few of the fossils you can find on display:

    Mammut giganteus, mastodon mandible and tooth from Macon County, IL

    Receptaculites oweni, fossilized coral collected from Galena, IL

    Tremanotus chicagoensis, gastropod (snail) specimen from Bridgeport, IL

    Lepidodentron aculeatum, fossilized bark collected in Orange County, IN

    Calymene niagarensis, trilobite specimens collected from section 6 of the drainage canal, Chicago, IL

    Want to learn more about the fossils under your feet?

    Gugilotta, Guy. “The World’s Largest Fossil Wilderness.” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2009. [Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Phenomena-Forest-Primeval.html]

    “How Do We Know? – Fossils” webpage on MuseumLink Illinois site. Illinois State Museum, 2000. [http://www.museum.state.il.us/muslink/forest/htmls/how_foss.html] Information about how fossil pollen is used to study past environments.

    Wittry, Jack. Mazon Creek Fossil Fauna. Illinois: ESCONI and Northeastern Illinois University, 2012.  * Includes photographs of specimens from the CAS/PNNM collection!

     

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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  • Mazon Creek Area Fossil Specimens

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, paleontology, fossil, Mazon Creek, collection, Francis Creek Shale

    Created: 5/24/2013      Updated: 8/10/2016

    Fossilization is a rare process. In fact, most of the plants, animals, and insects that existed on earth have not been retained in the fossil record because the conditions required must come together with such precision and timeliness that most just miss the boat. Occasionally, a fossil is produced – a leaf, a tooth, maybe a partial skeleton. From these, paleontologists try to piece together the earth’s history.

    Most of the time, it is the hard parts of an animal that are fossilized because bone and teeth don’t succumb to the decay process as quickly as the soft parts of an animal, such as muscle tissue. Think about a banana left out on your kitchen counter too long – it will rot away, decomposed by bacteria. Every once in a while though, the conditions are just right to where the fossilization process includes those soft parts. This is rare, but can provide a more complete picture of an animal or an entire paleo-ecosystem.  These are truly a remarkable resource, permitting us to look back in time.

    Fossils from the Mazon Creek area in Illinois are associated with the Francis Creek Shale formation and date to approximately 307 million years ago, during the Pennsylvanian. This site is unique in that the fossil assemblage includes the preservation of soft tissue, even of animals such as worms and jellyfish! This paleontological site is called a “lagerstätten” or “mother lode” due to the diversity of the flora and fauna represented. Such sites are recognized worldwide as having importance for our national heritage and the process of understanding earth’s history.  

    Here are a few of the fossil specimens from the Mazon Creek area in the Academy’s museum collections:

    Fossilized Mazonomya mazonensis

    Mazonomya mazonensis -- a clam

     

    Fossilized Euphoberia sp.

    Euphoberia sp. -- a spiny millipede

    Fossilized Tully Monster

    Tullimonstrum gregarium
    - the "Tully Monster",
    a carnivorous marine soft-bodied animal, and the Illinois state fossil


    Fossilized Macroneuropteris macrophylla

    Macroneuropteris macrophylla


    Fossilized Lobatopteris sp.

    Lobatopteris sp. -- a fern


    Fossilized Annularia stellata

    Annularia stellata
    -- a plant similar to a horsetail


    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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