Focus: Fossil Invertebrates - History

Over the 100+ year history of The Field Museum, the fossil invertebrate division has seen considerable change. There have been seven curators of fossil invertebrates. Each curator has had (or has) his own specialties and research interests. These research interests have also changed from a primary focus on systematic paleontology in the early years to studies of paleoecology and evolutionary biology in more recent years. Each curator has left their own unique mark on the department. This is reflected in their expeditions, research papers, additions to the collection, popular articles, public lectures, and the public displays.

As the collections have grown over time, the job to maintain these collections has also grown. Care of the collections has been the job of curators, volunteers, paleontology assistants, and today, collection managers. Since the position was first created in 1979 there have been 11 fossil invertebrate collections managers. Their duties include documenting and maintaining the collections and new accessions, organizing visitors and volunteers working in the collections, and preparing loans (and also writing web pages).

The public displays have also changed over time. The first fossil invertebrate displays were dusty cabinets filled with black-and-white, systematic arrangements of fossil specimens and their handwritten labels. Over time the displays began to include fewer specimens and more interpretation and small dioramas reconstructing the fossil animals and their ecosystems. Today there is a full-color, life-like, computer-animated reconstruction of the 500 million year old Burgess Shale fauna and ecosystem.

Despite all of this change there is one thing that remains a constant, the fossil specimens within the collection. The collection has grown from fewer than 5,000 specimens in 1893 to over 2,000,000 specimens today. This collection is a permanent record not only of life on earth and evolution, but also of the people who have collected, researched and cared for the fossil specimens.

World's Columbian Exposition

If you could go back in time and wander through the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 you may very well miss the start of The Field Museum’s fossil invertebrate collection. There were several places to see fossils at the Columbian Exposition including a beautiful, 6,000-specimen display prepared by Charles D. Walcott for the USGS and Smithsonian. This collection was exhibited in the U.S. Government Building on the main promenade. After the fair these specimens were all returned to the Smithsonian Museum.

In the southeast corner of the fair grounds, on the second floor of the Anthropological Building was a slightly out of place natural history gallery exhibited by the Ward's Natural Science Establishment. In this gallery, near the Papier*-*mâché “devil fish” (octopus) and next to a reconstructed woolly mammoth, was a set of cabinets displaying 5,000 fossil specimens.  H.W. Nichols (Field Museum Geology Curator) described this collection as “… containing thousands of specimens and being especially strong in European material, yet there are many serious gaps…”.  The purchase of this collection begins the Field Museum’s fossil invertebrate collection. Specimens from this collection are still part of the FMNH’s fossil invertebrate collection.

Field Columbian Museum of Natural History

One year after the close of the World's Columbian Exposition the Field Columbian Museum of Natural History opened in the Exposition’s Fine Arts Building (today this building is home to the Museum of Science and Industry). Geologist Oliver C. Farrington helped prepare some of the exhibits for the World's Columbian Exposition. He was then hired as the Field Columbian Museum’s first Curator of Geology. His interests were primarily minerals and meteorites, but he did some fieldwork collecting fossil mammals in the Badlands of South Dakota and in South America.

Other curators were soon added to the Geology Department’s staff. H.W. Nichols was primarily a mineralogist and E. S. Riggs was the first Curator of Paleontology. Riggs was a vertebrate paleontologist, although he did collect some invertebrate fossils on his expeditions to the western United States, Canada, and South America. In these early years most of the paleontology expeditions were organized to collect large fossil mammals and dinosaurs. Fossil invertebrates were also collected on these trips but were not the primary focus of the research and collecting trips. Click here to view fossil invertebrates collected by Riggs in South America.

In 1906 the Geology Department hired their first Curator of Fossil Invertebrates, Arthur W. Slocom. He and Farrington conducted what may have been the first fossil invertebrate expedition for the Field Museum. They went to the construction site of the Chicago Drainage Canal (Sanitary Canal) and collected local Silurian fossils from the spoil heaps. Slocom also conducted fieldwork in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and New York. On one trip to New York he collected over 11,000 fossils for the Field Museum. In these large collections there were many new species that Slocom described in five Field Museum publications. In 1913 Slocom left the Field Columbian Museum and joined the staff at the Walker Museum at the University of Chicago.

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Field Museum of Natural History

In 1922 the Field Museum moved to its current location at the Museum Campus on Lake Shore Drive. Collections and exhibits were set up in the Ernest R. Graham Hall (Hall 38). In 1925, twelve years since Slocom left for the Walker Museum, the next Curator of Fossil Invertebrates, Sharat K. Roy, was hired. Roy, a native of India, studied in India, London, and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Shortly after he started at the Field Museum he joined the 1927-1928 Rawson-Macmillan Expedition to Baffin Island (in Arctic Canada, Nunavut Territory) and Labrador.  This 15-month expedition began in June of 1927.

1927-1928 Rawson-Macmillan Expedition

The expedition sailed to Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island where Roy collected many Ordovician fossils from Silliman’s Mount. At the time very few fossils had been collected from this area and there was confusion about the age of these fossils. Thirteen years after returning from this trip and three years after touring museums in the eastern United States to examine their Ordovician fossil collections he published a large monograph. It described 116 fossil species he collected from Baffin Island including 41 new species (FMNH Geology Memoirs, Volume 2, September 30, 1941). Many of the new species he named after scientists at the museums he visited and members of the expedition and its sponsors including a new species of sunflower “coral” (a calcareous algae) that he named Receptaculites fieldi in honor of Stanley Field. His monograph also established the age of this formation as Late Ordovician.

The expedition then visited the Countess of Warwick Island (known as Kodlunarn Island to the indigenous people) to investigate the nearly 350 year old ruins of Sir Martin Frobisher’s mining camp. Frobisher visited the island several times during three expeditions starting in 1576. The first expedition’s goal was to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean. Unsuccessful, Frobisher and the crew returned to England. Rumors started spreading that some dark “sea cole colour” rocks collected as souvenirs on the voyage contained gold. A group of businessmen and an assayer apparently committed fraud on Frobisher and a group of investors by falsely claiming there was gold in these rocks. A company was quickly formed and investors financed two more expeditions. A total of 1,500 tons of “ore” was returned to England. After the second trip it was discovered that the “ore” was worthless. The company declared bankruptcy and the guarantor went to prison, but the Queen absolved Frobisher and gave him command of another vessel.

His monograph not only describes the fossils and geology but also the expedition itself. In an article for Field Museum members he recalls how he spent Christmas day during the expedition on a fishing schooner sailing through rough white-capped seas from the Straits of Belle Isle to Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland. Christmas dinner served on this small vessel was fish with brewis, a specialty of the local fisherman that was described as “hardtack soaked in pork grease overnight and fried with salt cod”.

Roy and the expedition examined this old mining camp and found remnants of Frobisher’s house including chips of brick, mortar, tile and coal. He also found piles of rock collected and apparently left there by Frobisher. Roy published a paper on Frobisher's expeditions, the gold fraud, and on his own examinations of the rocks, concluding that bronze-colored flakes of mica in the black-colored amphibolite rock may have been the source for the initial rumors of gold. Roy searched the island for the source of this rock but could not locate it and it may be this rock was collected elsewhere and transported to the island by Frobisher.

1930's Fossil Invertebrate Exhibit Renovation

After this expedition, from 1929 to 1933, Roy worked on a re-design of the fossil invertebrate displays in Frederick J. V. Skiff Hall. Roy conducted fieldwork and collected fossils for the new displays including trips to collect Pennsylvanian fossils in Nebraska, Cambrian fossils in Pennsylvania, and a two and a half month collecting trip to New York for Devonian fossils. New exhibits were set up to show how life on Earth evolved over the last 500 million years. The renovated hall contained 75 display cases with 36 of them displaying fossil invertebrates and plants. The exact number of fossil invertebrates in this exhibit is unknown, but estimates indicate that some individual display cases contain over 1,000 specimens. While basic facts about each fossil were supplied by the traditional museum labels, the highlight for the new displays was 29 giant color murals painted by Charles R. Knight depicting scenes of ancient life over the last 500 million years. These murals provided interpretation and brought the fossils to life for museum visitors. Many of these murals are still displayed in our current paleontology exhibit, Evolving Planet.

Sewell L. Avery Physical Geology Expedition

Roy had other interests besides fossil invertebrates and in 1937 – 1938 he was appointed leader of the Sewell L. Avery Physical Geology Expedition. The goal of this expedition was to collect physical and structural geology specimens for a new exhibit on the origins of mountains and earthquakes. The expedition lasted three months and specimens were collected from western United States including Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. One specimen collected near Boulder, Colorado on this expedition is a Pennsylvanian sandstone with preserved raindrops and possibly the first known sample to display "fossil" impressions of hailstones.

Roy and the expedition then traveled east and made additional collections in Virginia, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. At Cape Cod, just as the expedition was nearing its end, The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 struck the east coast. Roy and the other expedition members all escaped with no injuries or damage to the collections.

World War II

In 1941 the fossil invertebrate section was making plans for a new and larger display but with the start of World War II these plans were postponed. Roy entered the U.S. Army and served as a captain in the India-Burma Theatre of war. He was able to take a month long leave and collect fossils (including a large collection of Permian brachiopods) and other geologic specimens from the Salt Range near the India – Pakistan border, in Punjab, India.

During World War II an assistant volunteer for fossil invertebrates, Donald H. Eldredge was reported missing in action in Europe. Based in England, Eldredge was a co-pilot on a B-17 bomber. On November 18th, 1942 his plane (nick named "Floozy") was hit with anti-aircraft artillery and the crew was forced to ditch their plane in the English Channel off the coast of Brest, France. One of the ten crew members died and the remaining nine were captured by the Germans.  Eldredge was taken to Stalag Luft 3 and held as a prisoner of war until April 29th, 1945 when allied forces liberated the camp.

Chicago Natural History Museum

In 1943 the Museum officials decided to change the Museum’s name from the Field Museum of Natural History to the Chicago Natural History Museum to better reflect the Museum’s local mission. (In 1966 they decided to change it back to the Field Museum of Natural History.) After the war Roy was made Chief Curator of the Geology Department and expanded his areas of interest and began studying meteorites. In 1946 the Field Museum hired a new Curator of Fossil Invertebrates, Eugene S. Richardson.

1951 Fossil Invertebrate Exhibit Renovation

Richardson worked at the Field Museum for 36 years studying fossil invertebrates. One of his first projects was preparing a new exhibit of fossil invertebrates and plants for the Frederick J. V. Skiff Hall (Hall 37). Richardson traveled over 6,000 miles across the eastern United States collecting fossils and spent numerous hours identifying and verifying fossil specimens for this exhibit.

In total, 53 cases went into this exhibit displaying 1,339 fossil specimens. This was dramatically fewer fossils than previously displayed, but there was more of an attempt to explain the meaning and importance of the fossils. Fossil specimens were arranged in two different ways. On the south side of the exhibit fossils were arranged stratigraphically by geologic period, showcasing different fossils through time. On the north side of the exhibit fossils were displayed in a systematic arrangement, showcasing how fossil forms are related to each other. Oil paintings, line drawings, diagrams, maps, and models were also displayed alongside the fossils to provide interpretation and explain the importance of the fossils on display. For the first time color backgrounds and text were used. However, the highlight for this exhibit was 10 “life habitats” or dioramas. These dioramas showed 3-D reconstructed models of ancient animals in their reconstructed ecosystems. They were based upon the best scientific evidence and investigations, but a little bit of imagination was used to make the dioramas come to life. This exhibit was one of the most comprehensive museum exhibits of fossil invertebrates and was on display at the Field Museum for over 40 years.

Mecca Quarry and Logan Quarry Black Shales Project

Rainer Zangerl, Curator of Fossil Fish and Richardson conducted a large and very detailed paleoecology study of Logan Quarry and Mecca Quarry Pennsylvanian black shale of eastern Indiana. Over 180 square feet of this shale was collected, transported 200 miles, and reassembled in the Field Museum. Detailed examination of this ancient sea floor was conducted and centimeter-scale maps of the distribution of fossils were made. The shale was x-rayed to discover hidden fossils. The results from these studies were a detailed reconstruction of a marine transgression into a swampy forest and its paleoecological consequences. Their 352 page scientific article (*The paleoecological history of two Pennsylvanian black shales,*Fieldiana: Geology Memoirs, Volume 4) was published April 30th, 1963 and is considered a classic paleoecological study.

Cottonwood Canyon Fieldwork

R. S. Dennison and Richardson conducted field work in Montana and made important collections of fossil fish, arthropods, and soft-bodied animals from the Mississippian Bear Gulch beds. Richardson also collected specimens in northern Arkansas from the Mississippian black shales of the Fayetteville Formation.

Collections from The University of Chicago Walker's Museum

The University of Chicago Walker's Museum donated their entire geology collection to the Field Museum. The 720,000 specimen fossil invertebrate collection arrived in 1965, doubling the size of the Field Museum's collection. Large parts of the collection had to be sorted and placed into the collection by Richardson. The museum needed additional storage area for this collection and accomplished this by renovating the northwest lightwell. The six lightwells in the original building design were open space between exhibit halls that allowed sunlight to enter the galleries. The northwest lightwell was the first lightwell to be renovated; eventually all the lightwells would be renovated in a similar manner.

The new space resulting from renovating the lightwell was divided into 3 floors, and the lowest became the new fossil invertebrate collection storage area. The middle floor is used for fossil vertebrate storage and the upper floor is used for library stacks and offices. Matthew H. Nitecki worked as a Curator of Fossil Invertebrates at the Walker Museum. He and a group of students took on the task of packing up the huge shipment of fossils and placing them into Field Museum's standard specimen trays and drawers that would fit our cabinets. After the move Nitecki was hired by the Field Museum as a Curator of Fossil Invertebrates.

The Field Museum and Mazon Creek Fossils

Mazon Creek fossils are exceptionally well-preserved remains of Middle Pennsylvanian (~300 million years old) animals and plants that lived along a subtropical swampy coastline. The fossils are preserved in sideritic concretions (round to elliptical ironstone nodules) found in the Francis Creek Shale Member of the Carbondale Formation. This type of preservation preserved soft-bodied animals and plants not normally preserved in the fossil record. The Mazon Creek fauna and flora are known for their diversity. This diversity of fossils is partially due to the large number of specimens that have been collected.

The history of study of the Mazon Creek can be divided up into four overlapping phases. The initial discoveries of plants and associated arthropods and amphibians were made in the mid-nineteenth century (Dana, 1864; Cope, 1865; Lesquereux, 1866; and Meek, 1867). Until about 1928 most collections were small and gathered from the classic exposures along Mazon Creek itself. The Field Museum collection grew gradually over this time. However, collecting activities and the number of accessible localities increased dramatically with the era of strip-mining in this part of Illinois from 1928 to 1974.

The work of Langford, Richardson, his colleagues, and many local collectors from 1945 to 1980 broadly constitutes the second phase of study. During this period, large numbers of taxa were discovered and described, and hypotheses were developed to begin to resolve the paleoenvironments represented by different parts of the Francis Creek Shale Member. Intensive collecting by Richardson, Johnson, and his students, and associated local collectors at Pit 11, west of Essex, Illinois, led to the description of a marine -influenced faunal assemblage that sharpened scientific interest in the Mazon Creek Biota as a whole (Johnson and Richardson, 1966; Richardson and Johnson, 1971). The Field Museum consequently became the center of Mazon Creek study (Langford, 1958, 1963; Richardson et al. 1945-1983; Nitecki, 1979; and many others). During this time the growth rate of the collection grew dramatically.

In the late seventies and early eighties these studies expanded into the third phase, through the research of Gordon C. Baird and his colleagues (Baird, 1979; Baird et al., 1985a,b, 1986). The Field Museum hired Baird in 1976 as a Curator of Fossil Invertebrates and he began a large, detailed Mazon Creek census program. Baird and his group of collectors were the perfect collecting machine. They collected at 350 strip mine, deep mine, and surface outcrop localities over a 200-square kilometer region in the northeastern Illinois Basin. Collecting trip after collecting trip, the group filled up burlap sacks with Mazon Creek nodules transporting them back to the Museum in Baird's heavily overloaded car. At the Museum Baird put his nodules in plastic buckets filled with water and set them on the Museum roof over winter. The freezing and thawing of the water all winter long split the nodules, revealing any fossils. This method was far superior and more efficient then the traditional splitting of nodules with a rock hammer. Baird's collections were so large that the heavy buckets of rocks and water caused structural damage to the Field Museum's roof! Baird's collecting had to be scaled back a bit. In total Baird and his group collected over 285,000 Mazon Creek nodules.

This project resulted in more-rigorous quantitative analysis of the paleoecological hypothesis first developed by Richardson and Johnson. Baird's results indicate that the Mazon Creek biota contains three major fossil associations representing three different paleoenvironments: (1) a euryhaline estuarine fauna inhabiting river distributary-influenced coastal marine waters (Essex assemblage), (2) a freshwater association comprising a low-diversity autochthonous fauna, and (3) a terrestrial biota including allochthonous plants and animals from swamp, levee, and floodplain environments. The terrestrial and freshwater associations together (2 and 3) constitute the Braidwood assemblage as recognized by Richardson and Johnson. The census sampling conducted by Baird has revealed in detail the distribution and correlation of different biotic and lithic paleoenvironments within the Francis Creek Shale Member. These models have aided the interpretation of comparable nodule biotas in North America and Europe (Baird et al., 1985, 1986).

The 285,000 specimens collected by Baird and his fellow collectors represent the peak in the growth of the FMNH Mazon Creek collection. During this time major collections were also donated to the FMNH by local collectors including: Fagan, George, Greene, Herdina, Klocek, Lietz, Roubik, Sobolik, and Wolff.

The last phase is the gradual decline in collecting due to the end of strip mining and the loss of many collecting localities. The few remaining areas available to collectors today are generally over-collected and overgrown with plants. After the untimely death of Richardson in 1983, the department needed to deal with the large backlog of specimens that the former intense period of collecting had generated. Scott H. Lidgard was hired as a Curator of Fossil Invertebrates in 1984. He and collection manager Mary Carman, and Mazon Creek Coordinator Bret Beall took on the task of transforming a series of private collections, research collections, and Baird's census collection, plus just large piles of unidentified Mazon Creek nodules into a single, well-curated, systematic collection of Mazon Creek fossils fully available to the research community. This involved sorting, identifying, and organizing tens of thousands of specimens, then cataloging and labeling them, and entering the data into a computer database. The results are that today The Field Museum's collection of Mazon Creek fossils is the definitive resource for researchers studying the Mazon Creek.

The golden age of Mazon Creek fossil collecting may be over, but there are still new, important finds being made and research about these fossils continues today. There are three fields for which Mazon Creek fossils have special research significance: diagenesis and taphonomy, systematics, and paleoecology.

Francis Tully and his monster

Recent Exhibits

In 1992 Hall 37 closed and the fossil invertebrate exhibit received its first major makeover in over 40 years. The Museum decided to move all the geology displays to the east side of the building. This new exhibit was called Life Over Time. It was designed to be highly interactive and provide museum visitors with more interpretation than previous exhibits. There were far fewer fossil invertebrate specimens on display and fewer fossil invertebrate dioramas. Touch specimens and interactive displays were the highlight of the exhibit. The classic Carboniferous forest diorama that was first put on public display in 1931 was dismantled and a new diorama was created. A new Silurian diorama was also created. This exhibit suffered more abuse then expected from the hands-on displays and in 2003 it was closed and a new geology exhibit was assembled.

Evolving Planet replaced Life Over Time in 2004. There are only 268 fossil invertebrate specimens displayed in Evolving Planet, but there are many interpretative displays. The five major extinction events are highlighted and many of the Charles R. Knight murals are back on display. The highlight of this new exhibit is the computer-animated, reconstruction of the Cambrian Burgess Shale fauna and ecosystem. Displays below the computer animations allow Museum visitors to observe the actual fossils and compare them to the computer-animated reconstructions created from the scientific investigations of paleontologists and artists and, still a little bit, from their imaginations.

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FMNH Fossil Invertebrate Staff

Curators of Fossil Invertebrates

  • A.W. Slocom  1906 - 1913
  • S. K. Roy 1925 - 1946
  • E. S. Richardson  1946 – 1982
  • M. H. Nitecki 1965 –
  • Gordon Baird 1976 - 1981
  • Scott Lidgard 1984 - present
  • Peter Wagner 1996 – 2007

Collections Manager Fossil Invertebrates

  • Kristine L. Bradof 1979 - 1980
  • Kurt P. Wise 1980 - 1981
  • Laurel Johnson 1981 - 1982
  • Martha S. Bryant 1983 - 1984
  • Mary Carman 1985 - 1988
  • Catherine A. Forster 1989 - 1990
  • Gregory Buckley 1991 - 1999
  • Wendy Taylor 2000 – 2002
  • Charlene Fricker 2003 - 2007
  • Paul Mayer 2008 - present

Other Fossil Invertebrates Staff

  • Katherine Krueger, Assistant in Paleontology 1968 - 1973
  • Judy Gail Ziegler, Custodian of Collections, Paleontology 1976 - 1978
  • Robert B. Witrock, Custodian of Fossil Invertebrate Collections 1977
  • Kristine L. Bradof, Custodian of Fossil Invertebrate Collections 1977 - 1979
  • Bret S. Beall, Curatorial Coordinator of Mazon Creek Paleontology