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Book Review Of: Richardson's Guide To The Fossil Fauna Of Mazon Creek

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a book review of:


"Richardson's Guide to the Fossil Fauna of Mazon Creek" by Charles W. Shabica and Andrew A. Hay (editors). 1997. Northeastern Illinois University. 308 pages. Original suggested retail price: $70?


One tributary of the Illinois River has become an important landmark in the world of paleontology. Fossils are found along and within many waterways but they are almost always isolated shells, teeth, and bones and even these more durable elements are often worn down to unrecognizability. The miracle of this tributary, Mazon Creek, is that the remains became encased within hardening sedimentary structures, nodules, approximately 305 to 310 million years ago. Some of these nodules contain those usual isolated hard parts but the conditions of the environment also allowed a percentage of them to preserve impressions of soft tissues and even whole soft-bodied organisms - a level of preservation rarely allowed by the elements across time. Though these nodules are found at other localities in the same general region from the same rock layer, the Francis Creek Shale, "Mazon Creek" stuck as the nickname for all the nodule-bearing sites and their fossils.


"Richardson's Guide to the Fossil Fauna of Mazon Creek" was the first attempt to comprehensively review the known animal fossils from the Late Carboniferous deposit. The Mazon Creek plants had been similarly documented already. This book was born from a project started by Dr. Eugene S. Richardson Jr., a curator at the Field Museum of Natural History still fondly remembered as a leading Mazon Creek researcher and amateur-friendly museum representative. His untimely passing in 1983 left his work unfinished but also inspired a rare collaboration.


Dr. Charles W. Shabica and Andrew A. Hay, acted as the book's editors overseeing 33 chapters written or co-written by several authors including themselves. Shabica was a graduate student of Richardson. and at the time of the book's publication. was a Professor of Earth Science at Northeastern Illinois University. He was the one who set out to complete Richardson's project. Andrew A. Hay is a retired geologist and book editor who continued to maintain a relationship between private collectors and scientists in the wake of Richardson's passing.


An apparent all-star cast of experts compose the other chapter authors. I have to confess ignorance of many of them but I knew Rainier Zangerl's name because he wrote the Paleozoic Elasmobranchii volume (Chondrichthyes 1) of the Handbook of Paleoichthyology series and Frank M Carpenter, who wrote Chapter 13A but died three years before this book was published, was one of the foremost authorities on insects.


Following a preface partly written by Richardson, the first chapter offers a general overview of what it was like collecting fossils at Pit 11, an area of an Illinois coal mine known to produce some rare Mazon Creek forms. Before a series of chapters reviewing the fossils (sometimes by scientific group; sometimes by convenient grouping), several others cover a number of connected topics: local history of coal mining; geology of the area; distribution of fossils; relative abundance of organisms; preservation of specimens; reconstruction of the living environment and significance of the deposit.


Three appendices offer the most efficient techniques of splitting the nodules, a faunal list with additional notes, and a list of taxa named after collectors, professional and private. There are also pages providing a brief background on each of the authors and a list acknowledging the chapter reviewers.


The writing drifts from casual to technical in the early chapters, but even in the taxon descriptions, I think the intermediate-level enthusiast can follow along. By the mid-1990's, Mazon Creek collectors had been waiting for a book like this for decades. While it is true that much of the information already existed in the professional literature, those articles were often published in less-accessible journals out of even the virtual reach of most university libraries.


Some of the chapters (e.g. Bivalvia) open with a generous amount of background information (basic anatomy, chronologic range, etc.) which gives the novice a good level of grounding before having to tackle the description and interpretation of sometimes rather indistinct impressions. Other chapters (e.g. cartilaginous fishes) dive right into the taxon descriptions. I think the editors should have pushed for more introductory information to be inserted in those less-prefaced chapters, but for a book with multiple authors, it all seemed to fit together well enough.


I liked the chapters that discussed how the Mazon Creek fauna fit into the larger Late Carboniferous world - similarities to faunas known from Oklahoma, Indiana, and western Europe. The reader learns that the fauna was unusual even its own time, previewing a trend of the distant future. In Chapter 5A the reader sees a paleogeographic map of that time showing the major landmasses almost clustered together with the last pieces of the Pangaean puzzle near assembly.


Chapter 14B adds further analysis. It looks into the origin of flight in insects with notes on the origin of metamorphosis as well - transitions not often addressed in mainstream publications. Wing development occurred perhaps 20-50 million years before the time of the Mazon Creek fauna but some of the rare insect specimens offer clues to which anatomical structures evolved into wings - evidence largely absent elsewhere in the fossil record. The discussion adds another claim to fame for the deposit beyond its astounding level of preservation, great diversity of forms, and first (or only) appearances of various groups.


The illustrations, other than the front cover, are in black-and-white. I have been told that some specimens show some startling color but the vast majority seem somewhat lighter or darker than the reddish-brown nodules that contain them. Some of the contrast is often best perceived in the texture of the fossil impression. Therefore, the lack of color photography or figures does not subtract from the value of the book.


The photography is excellent, well-lit and angled to capture the depth of a faint imprint. Many fossils are paired with handrawn reconstructions of equal quality. In the drawing the reader sees the what the researcher knows or has deduced from several specimens, some showing a certain anatomical feature better than others.


One thing the novice learns from this book is that each nodule is less like a box of Cracker Jacks and more like a lottery ticket. We see so many nicely-articulated specimens at shows and in books (including the spider on the cover of this one), that it can come as a surprise that almost two-thirds of the hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of nodules that have been collected turned out to be "duds" - nothing inside. Sometimes, just a whitish haze or disconnected hash of fragments is all that's left of whatever was encased.


"Richardson's Guide to the Fossil Fauna of Mazon Creek" is one of the most complete reviews of any deposit I have read. It was well-conceived, structured to address a spectrum of related topics, and well-executed, assembling all the relevant details efficiently. It brings an understanding of arguably the most remarkable fauna in the fossil record from a time when life, fanning out on land and establishing complex ecosystems, would have seemed unstoppable.


Jess

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