Published: September 5, 2017

Bringing Fossils to Life Through Art

Science illustrator Miranda Zimmerman brings the amazing creatures of the Mazon Creek and Silurian Reef to life by studying their fossils. 

Miranda Zimmerman is a science illustrator and recent graduate of the California State University-Monterey Bay Science Illustration program. This summer, she interned in the fossil invertebrates collection.

From a young age, I have juggled my love of both nature and art, eventually leading me to get my Bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in visual and public arts. From there, I discovered the exciting field of science illustration (and subsequently, CSU Monterey’s post-graduate program), and I have not looked back since!

This summer, I had the exciting opportunity to work at The Field Museum and bring the amazing creatures of the Mazon Creek and Silurian Reef to life. Using fossil specimens and relevant literature, I’ve reconstructed many of the organisms that called Illinois their home 307 and ~430 million years ago, respectively. Through carefully measuring the fossils and reading about their morphology, I am able to recreate these creatures in a way that shows what they may have looked like while they were alive. These illustrations help us understand what life looked like during these time periods, and they'll be used as educational materials. It has been such a pleasure to work with the Mazon Creek fossil collection, and I hope to continue working with museums and other institutions to provide educational visuals for people of all ages.

Here are a few illustrations I worked on during my time in The Field Museum's collections: 

Cyclus americanus

Cyclus was a small (~15 mm) aquatic organism that lived in the Mazon Creek 307 million years ago. The Mazon Creek was a tropical estuary with a large area of shallow water habitat. Although originally thought to be a crustacean, we now believe Cyclus to be more closely related to copepods. The fossils of this organism show us, in great detail, the shape of the carapace (the hard outer covering), antennae, and legs. I chose a brown, mottled coloration to mimic the muddy environment that this organism inhabited and likely took shelter in.

Tyrannophontes theridion

Tyrannophontes is best described as a prehistoric mantis shrimp (or proto-mantis shrimp) that lived in the Mazon Creek 307 million years ago. From fossil specimens, we can see that it had backward-facing thoracic limbs, with the front-most limbs being enlarged, much like modern species of mantis shrimp! Tyrannophontes likely used these enlarged front limbs for hunting and was probably a successful predator, prowling in the shallow waters of the Mazon Creek. Although the most well-known living mantis shrimp, the peacock mantis shrimp, is very colorful and highly decorated, not all mantis shrimps show such wild coloration. Many extant mantis shrimps actually have muted colors and some slight patterning. I used these as the inspiration for Tyrannophontes' colors.

Halysites catenulatus

This illustration depicts an extinct species of tabulate coral commonly called chain coral that lived in Illinois approximately 430 million years ago. During this time, Stromatoporiods were the primary reef builders, but tabulate corals such as Halysites were also major reef builders. On the right side of the illustration, you can see what the coral skeleton looks like without any living coral polyps inside it. Its "chains" of holes are why this species got the name "chain coral." The horizontal striations across the coral are growth lines and can offer us information about the age of the coral as they grow upward. Corals come in a wide variety of different colors, so I scanned this illustration and colored digitally to allow for easy editing of the coral polyp coloration. This way, we can see what the organism may have looked like in a variety of different colors!


Jolietoceras was a species of cephalopod with a coiled shell that swam in a shallow sea covering Illinois approximately 430 million years ago. It is characterized by its open coiled shell, similar to a modern nautilus, but not fully enclosed. Some fossilized specimens had preserved growth lines—in this illustration, I based the shell's color pattern on Devonian specimens with preserved color patterns. There is little fossil evidence related to the soft-bodied part of the animal, however. To develop an idea of what it might have looked like as a living animal, we can use the few fossil specimens, modern specimens, and environmental clues. For example, the specimens are found in rocks deposited in a relatively shallow water environment, so we know that the eyes on Jolietoceras probably did not look like those of the modern nautilus, which are evolved for vision in the deep sea. It is also safe to assume that Jolietoceras had an even number of tentacles, perhaps eight or 10 like many modern cephalopods.

Watch Miranda in action, as she draws and watercolors different fossil species.