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 1999 Issue - Vol. 3, No. 2

Collecting Fossils with Canadian Rockhounds at Mazon Creek
near Ottawa

By Steve Brusatte

I recently collected fossils with a group of Canadian rockhounds near Ottawa. What is so odd about this statement? How about if I said, "I recently collected fossils with a group of Canadian rockhounds near Ottawa, Illinois." Now do you see my point?

 Pecopteris, fern
Pecopteris, a fossilized tree fern from Mazon Creek. One of many fossils found at this world famous locality. Photo courtesy of the Illinois State Museum.


I am 15 years old and live in the second Ottawa - the one in Illinois, U.S.A. In October of last year I began to turn my love for fossils into a book – the first paleontology book written by a teenager. In April an article highlighting the project was published in the Journal of Amateur Paleontology. This journal has thousands of subscribers in all 50 states and over 20 countries, and it just so happened one amateur named Gina Wysocki read the paper.

Wysocki, you see, is the field trip coordinator for the Mazon Creek Project. As you may know, Mazon Creek is world famous for its fossil biota that stretches across Illinois and Missouri. After reading the article, she e-mailed me and invited me to attend one of her field trips. It just so happened that one of our friends, a newspaper columnist, interviewed Gina a few weeks before. Knowing that my brother and I were fossil lovers, she also invited us.

We quickly accepted both invitations, and on April 25th we boarded a van that would take us from our Ottawa home to the Braidwood, IL cooling lake, some 40 miles away. While the biota stretches across a group of states, most of its fossil riches are centered near Braidwood, and we were very excited about the possibility of discovering something amazing. We arrived at about 8:30, and boarded a van that would take us to our first destination: the shores of the cooling lake.

When we arrived our group was greeted with the grim news that an un-permitted amateur had illegally collected at the pit the afternoon before. While the past week's rain greeted us with the prospect of the erosion of fossil bearing concretions, our guide's news did not sit too well. After one quick look he told us that the site had been terribly picked over. We knew trouble was ahead.

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Pecopteris sp., showing the leaflets. This species was a common tree fern during the late Pennsylvanian and Permian periods. Coin 19 mm. ©1995 Illinois State Museum.


Our fears quickly turned to reality after fifteen fossil-less minutes passed by. Then came another fifteen, and then another. Finally, after about 45 minutes, we located our first concretion on a hill dubbed Insect Mountain. It was a beautiful, inch long oval rock that was immediately identified by our guide as fossil bearing. We were excited, but knew deep down that one mere concretion in 45 minutes was very poor, and we needed to do better. We decided to stay on Insect Mountain, and our decision was rewarded with the discovery of five more concretions in just twenty minutes. We were finally starting to get the hang of collecting at Mazon when our guides told us that it was time to leave.

My family and I boarded the bus once again and were dropped off at camp, where we decided to eat lunch. After our lunch we moseyed up to the center of camp, where I first met Gina personally. We shared a conversation, and she showed me a few nicely fossilized shrimp. I marveled at them, and was surprised when she offered them to me. I quickly took them, and thanked her. The shrimp were our best fossils of the day, at least for the time being.

After Gina handed us the fossils, she told us of another trip. This one, she explained, was a small group outing to a private strip mine spoil pile. Only a select few could come along, and the guides were leaving in fifteen minutes. We decided to tag along, a decision that would prove valuable in the near future.

This decision turned out to be our best of the day. We boarded yet another bus and were let off at yet another location. This time, we had to walk a quarter of a mile before reaching our destination. Our feet ached, our arms were in pain, but we knew good times awaited us.

We eventually arrived at the spoil pile, and were amazed at just how few people were there. Unlike at the cooling lake, there was enough room to spread out a bit. And, that we did. Each family member took their own crevasse and began to carefully look for the iron red colored concretions.

My brother Mike made the first major discovery of the day-a jellyfish fragment. Until that time, we had found nothing of significance, and this find motivated us to continue. I briskly jogged up a hill and dropped down to my knees. I was longing to find a jellyfish fragment, and a few moments later I laid my eyes on one fourth of a concretion. There seemed to be a slight indentation, a slight imprint you may say, so I rushed to show it to our guide. He took a look, and identified it as a jellyfish fragment. Not great, but a start, I told myself.

My other brother, Chris, also discovered a jellyfish fragment, and so did my mother. My brother Mike found another, too. Realizing that it was a good day for jellyfish collecting, Chris was assigned to one side of the spoil pile, I took another, and Mike and my mother volunteered to explore the front. We all knew what we had to find, and went about with our goal implanted in our mind.

Just a few moments after our separation, I brought back a jellyfish piece to show to the rest of the family and get properly identified by our guide. While I was there showing off my latest find, Mike and my mother walked up with a few cracked concretions and proceeded to question if they represented anything of significance. Our guide quickly shifted though them, periodically tossing junk pieces to the rocky ground. With every toss our hopes were dashed further, until an odd smile came over our guide's face.

A shriek followed the smile, and then our guide began to rub the thick cake of dirt off of the surface of one of the rocks. The frantic cleaning was followed by, "this is the best jellyfish fragment I have seen all day!" We were amazed, and so was he. Knowing we only had one half, Mike and my mother led the guide to their spot of discovery, and within seconds he located the other half of the jellyfish-bearing concretion. He quickly cleaned it, too, and handed me the finished piece.

I looked down in my hand and saw an absolutely beautiful fossil of a Pennsylvanian jellyfish, which our guide assigned to the species Essexella asherae. I held it up to the sun and stared in awe at the perfectly preserved medusa. I do not have a trained fossil eye. I can't tell a smudge from an ancient worm, or a blur from an ancient fern. But, I could clearly see all of the features of the jellyfish. Our guide also began to look with me, and pointed out the rarely preserved feeding tube. As with the medusa, I could also clearly see the tube.

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 Essexella Essexella asherae, a scyphomedusan jellyfish. This image shows the organism's manubrium (bell). Coin 19 mm. ©1995 Illinois State Museum.


Our find came just in time, as our guide then passed along the news that it was time to leave. Upon our departure, the few people who came along with us gathered around me to see the beautiful fossil in my hands. Two of these people were Canadian, and surely compared the jellyfish to the odd jellies found in their Burgess Shale.

When we arrived back at "base camp" I showed Gina and she too was surprised. We then had to tell her good bye. It was now time for us to leave the Mazonia outcrops, unsure what awaited us in our unopened concretions, but amazed at our last second discovery. The sunstroke had caught up to us, but our spirits still soared along with the magical jellyfish, which had received its first ray of sunlight in over 300 million years.

Now, amazed as I was, or you may be, at the discovery, we do have to realize that Essexella jellyfish are some of the most common fossils unearthed at Mazon. Although their lack of hard parts makes fossilization rare in most parts of the world, the ancient Mazon coal forests provided an ideal location for remarkably ideal fossilization. This point can be proven by our discovery of several jellyfish fragments. But, once again, I must accent the word fragments. Only one of our jellyfish was complete, and finding one of these whole fossils is becoming rarer and rarer with the digging of each determined collector and each passing rain storm. In all reality, our find was a somewhat common one, but it made the day worthwhile.

As of now, none of our collected concretions have yielded any fossils. I am still freeze-thawing them, hammering them, and praying that I can crack open a remarkable new discovery. I realize the possibility that none of our concretions may be fossil bearing, but regardless of what turns up, our jellyfish has encouraged us to return to Mazon. Hopefully, it will also encourage our Canadian friends to once again make the long trip to Illinois.

Steve Brusatte, 15 from Ottawa, Illinois, USA, is trying to become the first teenager to write a book on paleontology. The book will highlight the contributions of modern paleontologists, including Robert Bakker, John Horner, Don Brinkman, and Darren Tanke. For more information, or to make a publishing offer, contact Steve at or visit his site at

Copyright ©1999 Steve Brusatte

Permission is given to freely reprint this article from the Canadian Rockhound for non-commercial and educational purposes, provided the author and the Canadian Rockhound are acknowledged, and that the website URL address of the Canadian Rockhound is given. The article may not be edited or rewritten to change its meaning or substance without the author's permission. To contact the author, please use the e-mail address provided.

Photos of the Mazon Creek fossils are copyright ©1995 by Illinois State Museum, Illinois, USA. They are used here for educational purposes. More fossils can be viewed online by going to the online Mazon Creek Exhibit maintained by the Illinois State Museum. Photos used with permission.

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Collecting Pennsylvanian Fossils at Mazon Creek, Illinois

When you think of Illinois you think of rolling prairies, right? You envision a boring state with no mountains or plateaus, just farms and small villages, and no excitement. Then, you think about paleontology in Illinois. Really boring, huh? While we do not have 40 or so different dinosaur specimens like New Jersey, we are home to the Mazon Creek biota.

Any paleontology buff, whether a casual amateur or a professional with a Ph.D., knows of the world famous Mazon Creek. The site is located in Will, Grundy, Kankakee, and Livingston Counties in my home state. Even though it sounds small, a creek, it actually encompasses several thousand acres, and many of them are full of new discoveries. The biota has a long and glorious history. It was discovered by Joseph Even in the late 1800's, went onto be explored by famous amateurs George Langford and Francis Tully. The site's most famous discovery was that of the Tullymonstrum. This odd worm like animal is seen nowhere else in the world but in the rocky deposits of the boring backroads of Illinois.

Today the Mazon Creek Project, founded originally in the 1960's by Field Museum paleontologist Gene Richardson, operates the many pits, spoil piles, and outcrops that call Mazon Creek fossils home. While Charles Shabica is the curator of the project, Gina Wysocki acts as the Field Trip coordinator. She leads numerous trips to numerous digging sites yearly. My family and I, along with a group of friends, tagged along on one of her trips on April 25.

While we woke up at 6:00 in the morning to leave our home in Ottawa (in nearby LaSalle county, where you can actually find a few Mazon type specimens), we knew that the trip was going to be worth every second. We arrived at about 8:00 A.M., listened to Gina give a short talk, and hopped on the bus that was going to lead us to fossil hunting fame and fortune.

To tell you the truth, it did not start out as good as I hoped. Once we arrived one of the trip leaders disgustingly explained to us how a group of six collectors had been spotted illegally hunting on the outcrops the previous day. After poking around for a few moments, he could already tell that most of the concretions eroded from the past week's rain were already taken. I was discouraged, but continued to hunt around. For about 45 minutes I did not find anything, and I thought for a moment that I may have to leave empty handed. Not only that, but I though to myself, "I am writing a book on this stuff, and I can't even find one mundane plant fossil!"

But, the moment finally came. I was on top of a hill about one hundred feet high, looking over the Commonwealth Edison cooling lake, when my hammer struck a concretion. It was perfectly shaped-ovalish, reddish-brown color, and had a slight crack in it. Perfect, I though. Although I have not had the chance to crack it open yet, I know something truly amazing awaits me. After that find my confidence suddenly built back up and I rushed over to another hill, and, found another concretion. By the time we were finished at that site, in about two hours, I had found about five concretions.

After our trek to the lakeshore was finished, we boarded the bus to a privately owned spoil pile. I immediately knew this site was going to contain some good stuff, for no collectors were permitted to explore it, except on Mazon Creek Project special occasions. This was one of them, and I knew luck was on my side!

I took one gully, and my brother another. I immediately found numerous concretions. So did my brother. Not only that, be he happened to glance upon two very nice Essexella asherae jellyfish specimens lying right on top of the eroded sand. We realized the site was rich, so we began to explore vigorously. The exploring worked, as we found two more jellyfish fragments. I then began to scour over another site, and found another fragment, as my brother and mother both saw an odd looking rock. They took it to the guide, and he identified it as the best jellyfish he had seen in a long time. The guide was so impressed that he followed us back to the site in hopes that he could find the other half of the specimen. As soon as he got to the site, he did. We now had a rare softbodied fossil that was complete!

It was soon time to leave, so we boarded back onto the bus, and went back to the meeting site. We showed off our fossils to Gina, and she was impressed, at least she seemed like it. She gave us a few Palaeocaris typus shrimp, and we headed home. Saying it was a fun, awesome, exciting day would be an understatement. So, if any of you pass through boring, flat, and unexciting Illinois, stop by Braidwood Lake and try your luck at discovering these exotic fossils.

**This article, written by Dino Land's Steve Brusatte, originally appeared in the May 1999 issue of the New Jersey Paleontological Society Paleontograph. For more information on this fine amateur paleontology club visit their website. Or, email newsletter editor Tom Caggiano at **


Collecting Fossils at Mazon Creek by Steve Brusatte (appeared in the Summer/Fall 1999 edition of The Canadian Rockhound.

Illinois State Museum-Mazon Creek Fossils

Dino Land's FREE Online PALEOBOTANY Club (several Mazon Creek photos)



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 Welcome to Cub Scout Pack 239

Fossil Hunting!

Pack 239 enjoyed a beautiful spring day searching for fossils in the Mazon Creek deposit area near Braidwood Illinois. Our trip was led by Gina Wysocki ( who specializes in leading educational field trips and is an expert on Mazon Creek fossils. We started the day viewing a video showing safety tips as well as information about how concretions form around a plant or animal after it died, (some 300 million years ago!) preserving a cast of the original object. Then we were off to find our own specimens. We spent several hours digging in the ravines by the cooling lake and at the end of the day were rewarded for our efforts having collected around 60 concretions. Some of them were not sufficiently cracked to open them without damage, so Gina traded these with the boys for some interesting shrimp, jellyfish and worm samples that she had already opened. Those of us who wanted to try to open them on our own learned how to freeze/thaw the concretions in hopes of expanding small cracks.

For more information about collecting Mazon Creek Fossils:

Click on the small images for a larger view:

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For more information, please contact us at info@pack239.or