An old fossil's family- The Tullys of Tully monster fame

Saturday, June 24, 2006

HOMER GLEN, Ill. -- Dan Tully directs visitors to his Homer Glen home with some simple instructions; it's the one with three tractors on the front lawn. The retired Lockport cop collects everything from farm implements to the belt buckles he digs up on his frequent metal-detector forays.

But Tully will be the first to admit that none of his prospecting treasures has quite the stature of his father's discovery: a 300-million-year-old fossilized creature so strange it was dubbed "Tully monster."

Dan's father, Francis X. Tully, found the fossil now on display at the Field Museum as part of a new exhibit on evolution when the two were on one of their weekend fishing and fossil-hunting trips around 1958 near Braidwood.

"He done most of the fossil huntin', and I done most of the fishin'," Tully joked recently, sitting behind a small black-and-white photo of his father, who died in 1987 at 75, holding up a model of the squid-like creature.

"He had no idea what it was," Tully, 61, said of the fossil. "It wasn't unusual that he'd find something that he wasn't sure of."

Francis, who was a pipe fitter at Lockport's now-shuttered Texaco plant, took his find to the Field Museum hoping that Eugene Robinson, then the curator of invertebrate fossils, would identify it.

Robinson couldn't.

"They'd never seen anything like it," Tully said. "My dad would check in once in a while to see if they'd got anything on it. It got to be kind of a joke around the museum, and they got to calling it Tully's monster. Then they made it official Latin."

In 1969, Robinson published a paper on the strange fossil. He gave it the scientific name Tullimonstrum gregarium or "Tully's abundant monster."

"I think it was one of the most important amateur fossil discoveries" in the country," said Wendy Taylor, curriculum specialist and program developer at the Field Museum.

Unclassifiable

To this day, scientists are unsure how to classify it, placing it in a group of unknowns called Problematica.

Tully monster, which could grow more than a foot long, had an eel-like body with an oar-shaped fin on one end.

On the other end was an anteater-like snout with a claw attached that may have been used to bring food into the creature's mouth.

Two small stalks protruding from either side of Tully monster's body are thought to be some kind of visual organs, Taylor said.

Tully monster was once abundant, Taylor said, but only in the Mazon Creek area of Illinois were the conditions right for the soft-bodied creature's preservation and eventual discovery.

It has only been found in four Illinois counties and nowhere else in the world, she said.

Two years after Francis Tully died, the Illinois Legislature made his discovery the official state fossil.

And for awhile, there was talk of renaming an exit off Interstate 55 near Braidwood Tully Monster Road, but the plan was dropped after residents complained.

What Dan Tully treasures most are the glowing memories of fossil-hunting trips to the Badlands or Arizona with his dad.

"When we'd come home from rock huntin' on a trip like that the springs (on the car) would be sagging," he said.

Before he died, Tully's father, Francis, asked him to scatter his ashes in the hills where he found his best-known fossil.

"I scattered around some of the big rocks that him and I used to sit on and break fossils open," Tully said. "Then I threw him to the wind, cryin' and cussin' him out."

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