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Gail Neu

       Westville, Illinois

(~299 - 325 million years ago): A Rain Forest

 

Imagine looking out your window and seeing your backyard looking like this:

 

~300 million years ago, when Illinois was near the equator, Westville was covered in lush, peat-forming swamps and green vegetation.  It was the age of insects, with 6-foot-long millipedes and dragonflies with yard-long wingspans (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History).  

            It is common knowledge that there is an abundance of coal underground in the Midwest formed from fossilized plants buried in swamp ecosystems.  It is not unusual to find fossils in any of our coal mines.  What is unusual is to discover a huge geographic area of preserved trees and ferns from 300 million years ago, providing scientists with an ecological view of "what plant species were present and how they were distributed across the landscape" (Illinois State Geological Survey).

            Scientists DiMichele, Falcon-Lang, Nelson, Elrick and Ames recently discovered plant fossils in local mine ceilings that show a rain forest existed on top of a Herrin (No. 6) coal seam (Geology Science World).

According to ISGS (Illinois State Geological Survey), the Geological Society of America journal published a paper showing that paleobotanists discovered a spectacular four square miles prehistoric plant-life fossil area on the roof of two local adjacent underground Riolaand Vermilion coal mines, just southwest of Danville, Illinois.  A schematic rendition of this report was published in a Milwaukee newspaper (Arbanas):  It was the age of insects, with 6-foot-long millipedes and dragonflies with yard-long wingspans (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History).

<-- click to view newspaper article--> 

            It is common knowledge that there is an abundance of coal underground in the Midwest formed from fossilized plants buried in swamp ecosystems.  It is not unusual to find fossils in any of our coal mines.  What is unusual is to discover a huge geographic area of preserved trees and ferns from 300 million years ago, providing scientists with an ecological view of "what plant species were present and how they were distributed across the landscape" (Illinois State Geological Survey).

            Scientists DiMichele, Falcon-Lang, Nelson, Elrick and Ames recently discovered plant fossils in local mine ceilings that show a rain forest existed on top of a Herrin (No. 6) coal seam (Geology Science World).

Although the specific mine names are not stated, date information from these articles suggest that the mine(s) the scientists might be exploring are the Catlin Coal Company [mine name RIOLA, operated 1996-1999] and/or the Black Beauty Coal Company [mine name Riola Complex-Riola Portal, operated 1999-present] (Directory of Coal Mines in Illinois).  The mines presently are not open for public viewing.  However, you can visit the coal mining exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago to see a fossil covered slab of gray roof shale from the Riola mine on display (Illinois State Geological Survey). (Contact the Village Clerk for a list of works cited and websites for those organizations.)

Works Cited

Arbanas, David.  "Mines yield remnants of rain forest."  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 4 June 2007:  6G.

Directory of Coal Mines in Illinois - Vermilion County.

Geology Science World.  "Ecological gradients within a Pennsylvanian mire forest."

Illinois State Geological Survey.  "A 300 Million Year Old Pennsylvanian Age Mire Forest."

Parrish, Mary. "Four Square Miles of Carboniferous Forest."

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  Department of Paleobiology.  Science in the News.  "Four Square Miles of Carboniferous Forest Discovered."

 

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