Fossil Hunter for the State
Vertebrate paleontologist Richard Leary
February 3, 1978
In Illinois’s capital city, the people who do things are usually reckoned to be the ones who are important. I always believed that the important people are the ones who know things. Quite a few of them work for the Illinois State Museum, including its then-Curator of Geology, the subject of this profile.
However it is that a curator is supposed to look, Richard Leary doesn't. Leary, forty-one, has been Curator of Geology at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield for sixteen years. He has unruly brown hair, a wispy mustache, is slightly built, and has an amiably rumpled look about him. He looks less a scientist than a student, which in a sense he still is.
Physically, Leary's domain on the third floor of the museum building at Spring and Edwards streets is small, just an office and an adjoining laboratory piled high with the oddments—mastodon tusks, dinosaur models, old microscopes—that geologists accumulate the way the rest of us accumulate broken lamps or old magazines. However, the place is measured in millennia. Leary's business is the past—collecting it, reading it, reconstructing its story from the scattered bits and pieces of it that survive in the form of rocks and fossils and from which the geologist can learn about changing climates, the rise and fall of plants and animals, the wanderings of continents. He is a fortune teller in reverse.
Leary has other duties, too, besides his strictly scientific ones; that's what makes him a curator and not just another geologist. One afternoon recently he sat in his office and talked about his work. On a cabinet above his head there is a portrait of Amos H. Worthen, founder of the museum. Worthen was a geologist.
"There's no clear-cut definition of what a curator does around here. As far as I'm concerned, as long as the taxpayers pay my salary, I'm here as a public service." Leary's job. like that of the museum's other curators, consists of many parts. He gives lectures and tours, for example, to area school children. He's cut back on that a little recently, since the education department now does much of it for him, but he did it long enough and well enough to have developed a following among area teachers, who still seek him out.
Leary also answers questions from a curious public, rock hounds wanting to know where the best places are in Illinois, school kids calling and wanting to know what the funny rock was they found in the backyard. He answers them all.
Leary also occasionally works with the rest of the museum's staff on the design of new exhibits—the part of the museum that is seen by some 300,000 people each year. Leary's interest in exhibits is not merely geological but artistic. On the wall next to his desk is a yard-square portrait of a triceratops, a plant-eating dinosaur dead some 65 million years, done in a bold hand in black on white and signed, in tiny capitals, "Leary." Another portrait, this one of a mastodon, hangs on another wall beside a filing cabinet.
There have been informal discussions among the museum staff about redesigning some of the displays in the downstairs exhibit halls; some of them were set up temporarily when the building was opened in 1962 and have survived the intervening sixteen years unchanged. Some are out-dated—one features half a mastodon skull, for instance, which was rendered superfluous when a full-size mastodon skeleton was recently assembled a few steps down the hall—and others just old-fashioned. "We might go to big, splashy graphics," Leary muses. "To try to jazz the place up. Things change, even in museums."
* * *
Roughly every other week last summer, a total of eight times altogether, Leary piled a collection of sledge hammers, picks, chisels, newspapers and cardboard boxes into the back of his Rambler station wagon and headed north toward Rock Island, 160 miles away. There he spent the weekend scrambling around the Allied Stone Co.'s limestone quarry on Vandruff Island in the Rock River. In that hole in the ground he found fossil plants—leaves, seeds and other plant parts, some of the best preserved of their type known—imprisoned between layers of a cruddy gray shale that lay atop the limestone deposits. They dated from the Basal or Lower Pennsylvanian period of the Carboniferous Age roughly 300 million years ago, before the continents assumed their familiar shape, before birds flew, before even the great dinosaurs walked. This was the coal age, when North America's vast coal deposits were transmogrified out of ferns and swamp trees that sank into the muddy bottoms of the swamps that covered much of what is now the inland reaches of the continent. Thus interred, the normal processes of decay halted by their protective mantle of mud, the plants and a few of the crude animal forms that infested them were preserved. In time the layers of mud were pressed into rock with the plant remains inside, a sort of geologic book into which nature randomly pressed her souvenirs. More than 300 million years later, shifts in the earth's crust and the quarrymen's dynamite opened a few pages of that book near Rock Island.
Because of the nature of the coal age fossil deposits most of the plant inventory from the period consists of plants that lived in the low, swampy ground. The plants Leary found at Rock Island, however, were of a different breed. "These plants grew on the uplands, outside the swamps. We really don't know much about them. We're dealing with an entirely different ecological group." The plants occupied a different biological niche than their marshland cousins, a fact which makes them not merely interesting but important. Leary offers an analogy. "If the only modern plants you knew about were the ones that grow in swamps and you knew nothing about the ones that grow on the surrounding dry areas, you wouldn't know much about the vegetation of North America."
Leary has the fossils he's brought back from Rock Island stored in drawers in his lab, each one meticulously numbered and cataloged. One drawer, for example, contains samples of the leaves of Megalopteris dawsoni ("Loosley translated, it means, large-leafed' " explains Leary.) They are shaped like long, slender spear points, the largest perhaps a foot long. The fossil imprint itself is a sooty black, the rock on which it sits—a coarse shale, with the layers of the mud of its previous incarnation still evident—is a much lighter gray. One can make out the intricate vein pattern on the leaves.
There are seeds among Leary's finds, though he's not sure to which set of leaves or stem parts they belong. Some of the leaves are etched with exquisite elegance, like ice crystals on a frozen window pane. Others, like the fern-like Sphenopteris, are reminders that beauty is a game at which man is a poor second to nature. "These are beautifully preserved. Apparently these plants grew along a channel beside some water; as they died they fell in and were covered over immediately." Some fossil specimens had been washed downstream before being sealed into their muddy tombs, and thus were broken and scattered. Though there are more than a dozen sites on the continent at which plants like these have been found (including Brown County in western Illinois) few can match these in quality.
It is one of the frustrations of Leary's job that he doesn't know as much about these plants as he might. The museum budget is traditionally one of the last increased and the first cut in state government, and little money is left over for research. Leary, for example, is the geology department; his only help is an occasional part-time student working off a course requirement or a special employee paid for out of federal job funds. He's been trying for two years to get a National Science Foundation grant to pay for a couple of people to help him collect at the Rock Island site. There is cause for hurry; the fossil formation lie atop the limestone, and what isn't destroyed by blasting literally melts away when exposed to rain.
When in college, Leary wrote a letter to George Gaylord Simpson, asking him whether there was a future for a bright young man in vertebrate paleontology, which is the branch of geology devoted to the study of prehistoric life forms through animal fossils, in this particular case those of vertebrates or animals with backbones. Simpson, one of the giants in the field and author of The Meaning of Evolution, among other influential works, was not encouraging. "He said that if I wanted to get into vert paleo"—Leary uses the shorthand version, for obvious reasons—"I'd have to wait for the people who held the few jobs in the field to either die or retire. He recommended I get into petroleum geology and continue to follow vert paleo as a hobby.
"At first I had no intention of getting into museum work. I'd spent two years working at the archeological museum at Ann Arbor. I had no job lined up, so when the Newark (New Jersey) Museum revitalized its apprentice program, I got a scholarship and spent nine months there." Leary came to Springfield from Newark and has been here ever since.
One of the questions Leary is most asked by school kids touring his cluttered kingdom is what it's like to be a geologist. "I tell them it's a very interesting, enjoyable job. But there's no money in it. Basically, it's a sacrifice financially." Leary moonlights as an instructor at Springfield's Sangamon State University, where he teaches environmental geology at night.
Much of that extra money pays for Leary's occasional forays abroad. As one result of his scientific work, Leary has journeyed to Germany, Russia, and Belgium to international conferences like the 7th International Congress on Stratigraphy and Geology of the Carboniferous Period, held in 1971 at Krefeld, Germany, where he submitted a paper ("Sedimentilogical and Floral Characteristics of the Basal Pennsylvania Strata in West Central Illinois") presenting some of his work in the Brown County area. The 9th International Congress of Carboniferous Stratigraphy and Geology will be held next year in—here Leary doesn't even try to hide his disappointment—exotic Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. "After that we'll get to go to Spain," he says, with obvious anticipation.
Leary, like most scientists, also keeps up a correspondence with authorities in his field all over the world. He's traded letters with geologists in Siberia (a Dr. Arnold Yusvitsky, whom he met while on a field trip to Siberia), France, Germany, even Peking. It comes as no surprise to laymen that geologists capable of writing papers (as Leary did a few years back) bearing titles like, "Lacoea, An Unusual Lower Pennsylvania Fructification of Noeg-gerathialian Affinity from Brown County," would have to search the continents to find someone to talk with. It should also be noted, however, that international scientific discourse is not unrelievedly single-minded; one letter that Leary recently got from a Russian colleague included a request for the American postage stamp commemorating the Soyuz-Apollo joint space mission.
* * *
Leary makes a standing offer to the students who occasionally accompany him on trips to the Rock Island quarry site, that anyone who finds an animal fossil contemporaneous with the coal age plants will be treated to a steak dinner. The odds of Leary having to pay off are slim. Because their body parts decompose too readily to easily survive, fossil animals—prototypal insects, scorpions, other crude forms—are rare in strata as ancient as the Pennsylvanian. Since 1973, for example Leary and friends have accumulated some 2,000 specimens from Vandruff Island; only two of them are animal forms.
One of those is a fish scale. The other is something much more interesting. In October of 1977, while on a collecting trip with some students from Harper Community College in Palatine, Leary unearthed the fossilized remains of a 300-million-year-old arachnid from the gray shale. To a layman the news would barely stir a yawn; to a paleontologist, it was like hitting a million-dollar lottery number on his birthday.
Arachnids are an eight-legged class of invertebrates whose modern membership includes spiders, scorpions, mites and ticks. They are among the very oldest forms of land animals; primitive scorpions are thought to have been among the first creatures to make the transition from water to land, during the Silurian period, some 395 million years ago. "I didn't know what I had until sometime between Christmas and New Year's," he recalls, "when I finally got around to unpacking all the stuff we'd brought back." The realization that he'd stumbled across a fossil Basal Lower Pennsylvanian arachnid, he says with a grin, ended his year on a cheerful note.
Leary keeps his prize in a small black-and-white cardboard box. Inside is a doughnut-sized chunk of gray shale. One edge is stained by a rust-red blotch barely a centimeter across. Under a microscope, however, the blotch takes on a more recognizable form. It is clearly an eight-legged, spider-like creature. Its hard, chitinized outer skeleton has been crushed and flattened, but the leg segments are still discernible, as is a tiny triangular head. Only the rear portion—the part roughly corresponding to the abdomen of modern insects—is missing.
"That's a pretty fresh-look bug, considering he's 300 million years old," observes Leary, smiling. The body is still brightly colored, though Leary says it might be nothing more than stain, caused by dissolved iron seeping into and coloring the remains. The job of exposing fossils like this one is a delicate and, considering their scientific value, a crucial one. With the specimen under a microscope, Leary peels away its cocoon of stone, thousands of years at a time, with a razor-sharp knife, a dissecting needle and a bent brass pipe with a wooden mouthpiece that he uses to gently blow away debris. It's close work; under a microscope, the sharpest knife looks like (in Leary's words) a bulldozer scraping off a field.
Having taken a good look at it, Leary proceeded to make a drawing of it and to take photos of it—this partly to have pictures to circulate among other scholars, partly to have a record in case the original specimen is lost, damaged or destroyed. He's also begun searching the scientific literature to see if anything like it had ever been described by other researchers. So far he's found nothing resembling his bug, and though it's pretty obviously of the class Arachnidae, he's refrained from trying to assign it to a genus or even an order until he knows more about it. Patience is as much a virtue in a scientist as imagination or intellect.
Between fossils like Leary's red bug and us is a gap in understanding 300 million years wide. It is Leary's job to bridge that gap, or most of it. Herodotus, it is said, thought that fossilized plankton he saw in the limestone used to build the great Egyptian pyramids were petrified lentils, dropped by the workers to whom they were fed. Those who are uncertain of their grasp of the subject can take comfort in the Greek's errors. Those who want to know a little more might ask Dr. Leary. As he says, that's one of the things he's paid to do. ●