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Focus: Fossil Invertebrates

Fossil invertebrate animals (animals without backbones) are a wondrously diverse group with a fossil record spanning over 600 million years. Their abundance, diversity, and wide range of adaptations make them an ideal resource for scientists to use in understanding how our planet has changed over time. Paleontologists at the Field Museum and from around the world study fossils in our collection to learn about these extinct animals and how they are related to modern animals. By studying these fossils paleontologists are able to learn  about the history of biodiversity, evolution, extinction events, climate changes, and paleobiogeography.

About our Collections

The Field Museum’s fossil invertebrate collection started with the purchase of the Ward's Natural Science Establishment collection displayed during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The collection grew steadily over the years with the work of A.W. Slocom, S. K. Roy, E. S. Richardson and other Field Museum geologists plus numerous donations from other museums, universities, and the general public. In 1965 the Field Museum acquired the University of Chicago’s Walker Museum fossil invertebrates, which more than doubled the total number of specimens in the collection. Today there are an estimated 2 million specimens divided into ~320,000 specimen lots. The majority of the collection is arranged systematically divided by geologic periods. The remaining collection is organized stratigraphically.

Geologic Time

The collection has fossils ranging in age from over 550 million years to the present. The collection spans all the geological periods from the Cambrian through Quaternary with a focus on Ordovician through Pennsylvanian fossils.

Diversity

The diversity and abundance of invertebrate fossils is truly amazing. Scientists have divided the invertebrates into 33 phyla of which 25 have a fossil record, and of these 25 phyla 15 are represented in the Field Museum’s collections (see fossil photo gallery). Approximate representation by major groups in the collection is:

  • Porifera 5%
  • Cnidaria 11%
  • Bryozoa 5%
  • Brachiopoda 17%
  • Mollusca 23%
  • Arthropoda 9%
  • Echinodermata 10%
  • Faunal Associations 12%
  • All others  8% (This includes: Nemertea, Nematoda, Priapulida, Echiura, Annelida, Onychophora, Chaetognatha, and Hemichordata).

In addition, significant components of the collection include:

Geography

The fossil invertebrate collection houses specimens from every continent. The collection’s focus however is material from the Paleozoic of the North American mid-continent with large holdings from the Illinois, Michigan, Iowa and Appalachian Basins.

Historic Collections

Notable historic collections include those of:

  • University of Chicago’s Walker Museum
  • James Hall
  • Eugene Richardson
  • Anton Schrammen
  • Stuart Weller
  • William Gurley

Collection Visits

Visits to the collection by scientific researchers are strongly encouraged. Loans of collection material may be made only to individuals affiliated with reputable scientific institutions (see Geology policy page). Visits and loans are arranged through the Collections Manager.

Focus: Fossil Invertebrates Collections

Photo Archives - Charles Knight Collection

In the early 1920s, among Knight's great admirers was Dr. George Kunz, the renowned gemologist for Tiffany. Visiting Knight's studio, Kunz was struck by the fact that The Field Museum did not own any of Knight's work. Dr. Kunz worked with Knight's daughter Lucy, to secure a contract to create his biggest commission yet: a series of 28 murals to enclose the Museum's new fossil hall. The murals show the development of life on earth, from its earliest origins through the ages of amphibians, reptiles and mammals. Knight and Lucy traveled to Chicago in 1926 to begin the project.