Jump to content

First Mazon Creek Fossil Hunt


Calico Jack

Recommended Posts

This weekend I made my first trip out to Mazon Creek! Sorry this is such a scroller, I'm going to try and have this post be informational since there is definitely some stuff I wished I'd known about in advance and some stuff I did that really aided my success. There are pictures at the bottom.

 

The most important thing I did before my trip was print off a topographic map of the area that I pulled from ArcGIS online. It really came in handy. It was also necessary to have a permit to collect there, something I only discovered the night before. Here is a link to a PDF of the permit.

 

I drove down with a fellow UChicago student. We parked at the first lot off of WN5000 road from the Kankakee road side. Our plan was to use the topo map to find the steepest erosional surfaces to collect on. Initially this strategy seemed like a bust. In our first forty minutes we only found three concretions between us. I think that was because the area near the parking lot and WN5000 road was just really picked over. As we moved deeper into the brush, our finding rate increased. At some points we literally found piles of concretions, this was usually because they had landed in the roots of trees or come up against some other impediment. Our best finds were usually midway and above on the hills. Finds near the bottom of the hills tended to be weathered more extensively and were often fragmented.

 

The concretions themselves were reddish and mostly about the size of half dollars, but larger and smaller ones were also abundant. Concretions found in sunny areas tended to have oxidized to a rusty orange color. We found fragments of some very large concretions, so those are out there, but the largest intact ones we found were about the size of a tea saucer. Many were also pre-split from weathering. We collected a fair number of these since they were covered in mud and it was hard to tell whether there might be a fossil or not. By the end of the afternoon we each had about 1/3rd of a 5 gallon bucket filled with concretions. We could easily have filled the buckets with an additional hour or two of effort, but we were pretty tired and satisfied with our success, so we called it a day.

 

In terms of the environment, the terrain was very rugged and filled with dense brush. Open spaces were filled with burr plants to the point of absurdity. By the end of the day we looked like we had ghillie suits from the sheer quantity of vegetable matter clinging to our clothing (picture below). I recommend wearing long sleeves and pants to protect the skin, and selecting fabrics that burrs will not easily cling to. Additionally, there were lots of biting insects, but a quick spray of DEET solved that problem.

 

I'm prepping the concretions by throwing them in the freezer. However, I'd appreciate it if somebody could link me to a post on the proper treatment, or enlighten me below- both for my own knowledge and for other readers.

 

Photo of two of my pre split finds- the rest are in the freezer right now. (I think a polychaete worm on the bottom, and I have absolutely no clue what the thing on the top is)

IMG_0070.thumb.png.d9be8ffd929cacdc84132c883f8471c1.png

 

Our overall route (roughly)

5d74642ea472c_ScreenShot2019-09-07at8_59_10PM.thumb.jpg.a2b2f48a6793659e434c25ec8fbdc28b.jpg

 

Concretions/concretion fragments in situ

IMG_0062.png.c9a3d192cc829ab167644e7d13b71b36.png

 

Me covered in burrs and looking like a dork

IMG_0068.png.5ef63cf46b95845a1479c536d2fbfdb2.png

  • I found this Informative 12
Link to post
Share on other sites

Make sure you triple check yourself for ticks, especially since you were in short sleeves. I was out there a few times in July/August and was in long sleeves, pants, tall socks, and gloves the whole time. I can take the heat, but not ticks. My friend wore a t-shirt and found 4 ticks on himself when he got home.

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Nice to check that off your bucket list!! Nice post 

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Nice! Thanks for the information on the area. It’s definitely on my “must visit” list. 

 

8 hours ago, Calico Jack said:

I'm prepping the concretions by throwing them in the freezer. However, I'd appreciate it if somebody could link me to a post on the proper treatment, or enlighten me below- both for my own knowledge and for other readers.

 

There are a lot of threads here regarding Mazon Creek, nodule/concretion splitting, etc., but here are a couple I found informative at some point or another. You may do a search and find more to your liking.

 

This is an ongoing thread about cracking open concretions. Sometimes you just need to take a hammer and whack it! :hammer01:

 

This is a more recent post asking about nodules/concretions in general. I think @Mark Kmiecik had some sound advice.

 

 

Hope this helps! 

 

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Nice, looks like a fun time. I agree with @connorp, always check for ticks after a long day of collecting, they can wind up in the most obscure places (maybe that's just my luck). Thanks for the report.

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites
11 hours ago, Calico Jack said:

I'm prepping the concretions by throwing them in the freezer. However, I'd appreciate it if somebody could link me to a post on the proper treatment, or enlighten me below- both for my own knowledge and for other readers.

Here's a tip for the freeze/thaw process of splitting Mazon Creek concretions:

 

Fossil hunters have learned to use the power of freezing water to split these concretions by trying to imitate what nature has been doing to these concretions quite successfully (as you've seen from all the naturally split concretions while you were hunting for them). The trick is to try to get water into the concretion by soaking them. I'm not sure how porous sideride is so I suspect most of the water that makes its way into the concretion does so through tiny cracks or other gaps. Water (as we know) has the novel property of expanding when it freezes and that force is what we are trying to harness to open these concretions along the fossil plane. Assuming the concretions you've just collected were reasonably dry when you found them, there may not be enough water in the concretions to show much action in the freezer.

 

I usually give my concretions a good long soak in a bucket of water before tossing them in the freezer. Once they have been in the chill chest for about a day (two max) any water in the concretions should have frozen by then. Leaving them in the freezer for longer will have no additional effect and will just delay the freeze/thaw cycling. I usually warm the concretions up by dropping the container used to hold them in the freezer back into a bucket of water for a bit. It is common for outer layers to be shed (like peeling a 300 myo egg ;)) before getting down to the inner core of the concretion. I usually tap the concretions lightly around the edge with my rock hammer to loosen layers or coax a concretion to open. Many will pop open with a few light taps but most won't and it's back in the bucket for more soak time before another turn on the freezer shelf.

 

When I've had a 5-gallon bucket mostly full of unopened concretions, I used a two-bucket system similar to the old in-box/out-box arrangement used in offices. The concretions would soak for several weeks before I bothered clearing a shelf in the freezer. I'd scoop up some from the first bucket into a plastic container (inexpensive clear plastic shoeboxes work well for large quantities) and toss them in the freezer for a day (often longer as I'd forget they were in there). Once that load was thawed in some warm water and given a chance to open with some hammer taps, they stubborn concretions would get rinsed off (they do get messy) and popped into the second bucket also filled with water. I'd progress through the entire load of concretions till all of the unopened ones were in the second bucket and the first was empty. Then I'd switch the position of the buckets and repeat the process. Keeping organized is important or you may forget which is the in-bucket and the out-bucket when you are halfway through and have equal amounts in both buckets.

 

 

Mazon Creek concretions can be devilishly difficult to identify and well-lit clear photos are essential. Side lighting can help to bring out the faint texture that often is all that is left. Luckily, the sun provides a good strong directional light and can make for reasonable photos.

 

Hope this information helps. It's always a good day at Mazonia-Braidwood when you come back with more concretions than ticks. :P

 

 

Cheers.

 

-Ken

  • I found this Informative 6
Link to post
Share on other sites

Yup -- what digit said. You should pull them out of the freezer, thaw them and let them soak in water for a week before freezing them again. The water must permeate the concretion in order to split it from the inside out as it freezes. Not all concretions are of the same porosity, so some may still be dry in the middle after a week. My experience is that those from the area where you collected are less porous than average and I would soak them for a week and a half to two weeks before the first freeze. If the water permeates only partially then the freezing will begin splitting off outer layers and do nothing to expose the fossil, if there is one inside.

 

Also, staying organized is helpful so that you can become familiar with concretion variation and how each type reacts to freezing and hammer tapping. You tap the concretion around the "edge" and not on the flats. You'll learn the types that will most likely yield nothing and those which may contain truly awesome material. This helps you to not mess up the good ones and it's good to know how many times they have been cycled. Again, in my experience, those from the area you collected take more freeze/thaw cycles than the average, especially the relatively "round" ones, which are likely to contain the rarer fauna. The larger the area of the specimen in relation to the cross-section of the plane in which it lies, the more readily the concretion will split, because the area the freezing water pushes against is a greater percentage of the total.

  • I found this Informative 6
Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks everyone for the advice! esp. @digit and @Mark Kmiecik. I've got the concretions soaking in a bucket and I'll start freezing them next week. Thus far I've been focused on cleaning up the half concretions I found. As of today, I think I've identified a couple of jellyfish specimens in addition to the fossils in my original post.


IMG_0074.thumb.jpeg.b58a2960ccd9cde8164b661ebf66368c.jpeg

  • I found this Informative 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

Nice Essexella ascherae  jellyfish. I recommend not cleaning Mazon Creek fossils beyond a light brushing under running water. Vinegar or other mild acids can be used to remove some of the calcite, but the acids will also attack the iron siderite which degrades the fossil itself. Some mechanical picking at heavy calcite deposits won't do as much damage as the acid and you'll never get it all removed anyway. I cleaned a few with acid in the first year that I collected and that was the last time. Since then a light scrub with a stiff hog bristle brush is the most I'll do. It's pretty much the same as coin collecting -- the more you clean it the less it's worth both scientifically and monetarily. 

 

And keep track of the number of freeze/thaw cycles. Once you get up around 25 you'll want to know exactly how many have happened and at that point you probably won't be able to remember and will wish you had written it down. It won't kill you if you don't know but it sure comes in handy.

  • I found this Informative 3
Link to post
Share on other sites

Awesome first trip, Calico Jack! You did really well for a first time there. That worm is a really good one! I think it is a polychaete although I would like to look in my Mazon Creek fauna book at home to be sure. I have a flora and a fauna book, both by Jack Wittry, that are really helpful in identification. People on this forum are also really great at helping out.

 

I have never collected that area you went to, but would like to sometime. I have driven further down the road and parked in another lot, to walk south of the area you were in. I usually walk all the way down the path to the area just north of the bottom of the "L" of Monster Lake. But I think you can find awesome fossils anywhere you go. Nimravis has some good posts that show other nearby areas.

 

Mark Kmiecik used a phrase once that I won't forget, and it perfectly sums up that picture of you, and how I usually feel after a hard day out collecting - "Bruised and abused and grinning ear to ear." Welcome to the Mazon Creek club!  Chris

  • I found this Informative 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

I checked in the book and I think that worm looks like a polychaete:  Fossundecima konecniorum, also called the Simple Jaw Worm. Shape and size look about right. If the picture was a little clearer the jaws would perhaps be visible, if they are present. With it having been pre--split, I suppose it could also be worn away. Nice find - I'm jealous!

 

I'm not sure about the other one - possibly a trail of some sort?

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

You look like SwampThing!:P Congratulations on a nice hunt!

Link to post
Share on other sites

I've always wanted to go in there hunting, but I always have kids in tow. I can tell you by the picture they would not be down lol. There is an esconi hunt this weekend if you join. I have to work and unfortunately will be missing it.

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Indeed. If you have little ones in tow, heading out into the uneven, sloping scratchy underbrush swarming with skeeters and crawling with ticks (I make it sound so much fun :P) is probably not how you want to encourage your family to go out with you on fossil hunts. If you have older kids who realize there is another world beyond the edges of their devices and are up for a good "Easter egg hunt", then a trip to Mazonia-Braidwood during the spring just after the season opens and the ground is relatively bare would be a good option.

 

The ESCONI trips to the big mine tailings pile would provide the best (and easiest) experience to try to make a memorable collecting trip for the family. The trips never seem to coordinate with my visits to Chicago but one of these days the stars may align and we'll join ESCONI if only to experience a collecting trip with a bunch of like-minded souls to a place that is normally verboten.

 

 

Cheers.

 

-Ken

Link to post
Share on other sites

Thanks for the report, I always appreciate hearing from brave souls who venture out into the Mazonia brush when it's in full growth. Nice worm and jellyfish too!

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Darktooth beat me to it but yeah,, Swamp Thing.   A movie that came out in the 70's with the monster being half animal half plant.  

 

RB

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

@bigred97 @Mark Kmiecik thanks for the IDs! I can see where the jaws should be but they arent visible. Once, I've cracked a few concretions and have a little more material, I'm going to borrow some camera gear and take high contrast photos. I'll throw some astrophotography software at those, and maybe I'll be able to pick up traces of the jaws and other fine details.

 

@Darktooth @RJB lol I can definitely see the resemblance! 

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

@Calico Jack Astrophotography software? What is that? I'm always trying to improve my photos but I just have an iPhone. I recently bought a macro lens that seems to help but I'm interested in other ideas!

Link to post
Share on other sites

@bigred97 one of my other hobbies is astrophotography. Most of the work for it involves extracting extremely faint detail from digital images of galaxies, nebulae, etc. To that end, a lot of really powerful software has been developed. I'm hoping to apply the same techniques here. If I have any success, I'll try and replicate it in more affordable/user friendly platforms like photoshop. That way it will be more broadly useful.

 

Unfortunately, it'll almost certainly require DSLR camera or better to make this work (these algorithms usually require data in raw image format), but I'm going to experiment with my cell phone camera as well. I'll be sure to post a sort of "lab report" on TFF once I've finished!

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

With astrophotography you are generally stacking multiple images because there are so few photos making it halfway across the galaxy to the image sensor that they need really long images to show faint details. If you have an expensive telescope that can track the motion of your target, you can take hour long images but most folks have to take dozens of shorter duration photographs and use the software to align these (to remove the effects of motion) and then add up the faint images to produce a nice visible image that mimics a really long exposure.

 

I'd be really interested to hear if the astrophotography software manages to produce enhanced images of the often faint Mazon Creek fossils. In this case, there are no shortage of photons (assuming you are not photographing your concretions in a closet). ;) It is really the faint contrast that is trying to be emphasized. Because these concretions often record the trace of the fossil subject as much with relief as pigment/color, some have managed to get more visible images with the use of strong side lighting (something you may wish to experiment with). This could be accomplished with photos outdoors or a goose-neck desk lamp which might be able to be adjusted to good effect.

 

I'm not surprised that most image post-processing software prefers to use RAW files instead of JPG images. RAW images actually contain more information which is lost by (even lossless) jpeg compression. For those who think little of the hundreds of photos you now take and post daily :P, here's a brief explanation of what is going on inside digital cameras. There is an image sensor (which replaces the light-sensitive celluloid film of bygone days). This sensor is actually an array of incredibly tiny photocells (not entirely like solar cells that are ever more common). Each of these photo sensors represents a pixel (= "picture elements") and its function is to turn photons into a small voltage change--the more photons the bigger the voltage produced. This voltage is then "read" by other circuitry which includes what is call a ADC (analog to digital converter). This converts the voltage level into a binary number to be stored as the intensity (brightness) of that pixel. There are more details about color masks that allow these photo sensors to register red, green, and blue to make up a color image via an obscure process called de-mosaicing which is another difference in RAW files but beyond the immediate point here.

 

The real power of RAW files (and why I now shoot nothing but), lies in the analog to digital conversion. As the resultant digital information is stored in binary format (the basis of digital computers). The number of bits (binary digits) available for storage the more information (permutations) may be stored. JPG images can store no more than 8 bits of color in each of the 3 color channels (red/green/blue) for any pixel. This means the distinct shades of red (or green or blue) available are 28 = 256 (values 0-255). When you combine these 3 color channels you get 256 X 256 X 256 = 16,777,217 and over 16 million different colors are more than adequate (and more than our eyes can even distinguish). You might be surprised to learn that most image sensors in cameras have an ADC that can convert the analog voltage to a digital value with more than 8 bits. My Canon EOS camera contains an ADC that outputs pixel values with 14 bits meaning that each color channel how has the finer granularity to store 214 = 16,384 (0-16,383) values. This is results in 242 = 4,398,046,511,104 and who really needs 4 trillion color combinations? Generally, no human being--but lots of post-processing software.

 

Normally, the conversion from RAW to JPG (usually done by software in the camera before the image is stored) generally simply involves dropping of the least significant bits. So in my camera, the JPG conversion simply drops the last 6 bits and just stores the first 8. It's like calculating an interest payment at a bank for $123.456789 and rounding it to $123.46 (who does get to keep that fractional penny anyway?) ;) Those extra 6 bits can come in quite handy sometimes though. Let's say you are out shooting photos of birds in flight (I do this reasonably regularly) but it is a bit of an overcast day and the light is just not great. To not get a blurry photo of a bird moving its wings (they do this a lot while flying) you select a very short shutter speed (say 1/1000 second). This results in an acceptably sharp image but one that is underexposed say a stop or two. To "brighten" a digital image is nothing more than simple math--something like multiplying all the pixel values by 2 to double the brightness of the image (a bit of a simplification but good enough for this). To double a binary number is as simple as multiplying a decimal number by 10--you simply add a 0 to the end:

 

01100101 (101 in decimal)

11001010 (202 in decimal--really too many Dalmations at this point) :P

 

The crux of the issue is that when you multiply numbers by 2 you only get even numbers (odds are not possible)--you are missing some granularity at this point. Now lets take a really underexposed image where you need to multiply the values by 4 to get the image properly exposed. Instead of having the possibility of the initial values of 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7...254, 255, you are now restricted to the values 0, 4, 8, 12, 16, 20,24...248, 252. This lack of possible values shows up visually as image processing "artifacts" which may show up as noise or something called color banding where there just aren't enough possible colors to make a smooth transition in something like a clear blue sky.

 

How do RAW images help in cases like this? It's actually pretty simple. We got in trouble above trying to change brightness in a JPG image because we lost those least significant bits. By keeping all 14 bits per color channel available in the RAW file (and not truncating to 8 bits as required by JPG), we have that extra information to use. When we multiply by 4 (worst case from above) we no longer have to insert two zeros on the right but we can use the values of those "extra" bits that the ADC was nice enough to measure and the RAW format was nice enough store. By having this extra information, image post-processing software can make use of it to allow the photographer to correct for improper exposures or (more usually) compress a higher dynamic range (the range from the darkest to lightest areas on an image) to make it more pleasing to the eye. When I don't wish to explain in detail (though, as you see, I'm quite easily provoked), I usually just tell folks that JPG images are "brittle" and will "break" (look ugly) if you push them too much in post-processing software. RAW images on the other hand are very malleable and can hold up to quite a bit of "digital darkroom" work with software and (if done correctly) not look like it's had any work done at all.

 

 

Again, I'm eager to see what astrophotography software might help to reveal in Mazon Creek concretions. An increase in contrast is likely what will be needed to attempt to bring out the maddeningly subtle Rorschach-test fossils within Mazon Creek concretions. That is not difficult to do in standard post-processing software (Photoshop and similar) with some nice RAW images as input. I wonder of astrophotography software might have some additional tools to aid in the cause.

 

 

Cheers.

 

-Ken

 

  • I found this Informative 2
Link to post
Share on other sites

@Calico Jack and @digit Thanks so much for the info! Really quite fascinating. It would be amazing if some of the techniques employed to photograph distant galaxies would be useful in photographing Mazon Creek fossils!

 

I have an app on my iPhone called Camera+ 2. It has a macro mode which I was experimenting with to take close up photos. But I noticed it also has a RAW mode and I didn't realize what that was. I think I'll have to give that a try with my new Xenvo macro lens. I never thought I would be learning so much about photography when I picked up this new hobby, but Mazon Creek never ceases to amaze!  :D

  • I found this Informative 1
Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...