Scientists learn more about the “Tully monster” This photo provided by The Field Museum in Chicago shows a fossil of a Tully monster. (Paul Mayer/Sean McMahon/The Field Museum via AP)
Scientists learn more about the “Tully monster”
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For decades, fossil hunters combing the soil near a creek in north-central Illinois have been rewarded with the preserved remnants of a prehistoric creature, its wide-set eyes on stalks and a long, arm-like appendage extending from below them with a pincer-like mouth.
 
There was no doubt that the Tully monster, Illinois' official state fossil, was "very, very bizarre," said Scott Lidgard, a paleontologist at Chicago's Field Museum. But no one could say exactly what the soft-bodied creature was.
 
That changed March 16 with a paper published in the journal Nature. A group of researchers, Lidgard included, concluded the Tully monster had a precursor to a backbone. It was a vertebrate, or primitive fish.
 
The origin of vertebrates is still an open question, he said. There aren't many good examples of preserved, soft-bodied fishes. It's also personally important for Lidgard, who's long been charged with the museum's collection of 1,800 Tully monster fossils, the largest in the world.
 
"I'm pretty excited because I've had to live with this guy, something I wish I knew what it was, for my 32 years here," he said. "And it's been a puzzle."
 
The fossilized remnants of the Tully monster have not been found outside Illinois, only in the Mazon Creek area. It's about 50 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. About 300 million years ago, the spot was a warm coastal marsh along a long-gone sea near the equator. This was before the dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus rex didn't come about until roughly 67 million years ago.
 
The abundant plant life eventually became coal. Eons later, strip mining dug up piles of earth and shale - and fossilized prehistoric life. Paleontologists consider the area a treasure because of plant and animal life that was, for reasons not fully known, set in stone quickly enough before decay could set in.
 
An amateur paleontologist named Francis Tully unearthed the first Tully monster in 1958. Thousands of other examples have since been found by fossil hunters combing the area. Much of the area is now set aside as Mazonia-Braidwood State Fish and Wildlife Area.
 
Mining faded in the 1970s, and, after decades of fossil hunting, the area no longer yields quite as many specimens as it used to, said Colleen Schmidt. She is an office associate at the state fish and wildlife area.
 
But those who know where to look - "they do have their (secret) spots," Schmidt said - can still find plenty. They leave with oblong nodules of rock, some of which, when broken open, contain fossils. Often it's plant life, like prehistoric ferns that are hard to imagine on Illinois' prairie.
 
The Tully monster fossils show a creature that swam the shallows of that ancient sea and ranged from a few inches long to roughly a foot. There are traces of other, more-familiar animals, Lidgard said, especially the odd mouth and its teeth, known as stylets, that share some characteristics with squids and lampreys. The eye stalks are similar to some snails.
 
But the team of researchers from the museum, Argonne National Laboratory, Yale University and elsewhere focused on some of the fossils' curious raised areas. Those areas were once believed to be remnants of the animal's guts. But that kind of soft tissue would have been pressed flat as it was fossilized, so these areas must have been something harder, more resilient, they thought.
 
"It has a cartilage skeletal system," Lidgard said the group concluded. "It runs along the midline. Beneath it is the nerve cord ... sort of a precursor to a spine."
 
Even with the discovery, the Tully monster remains in many ways an unanswered question.
 
That strange mouth, extended away from its body, may have helped it as a predator, Lidgard said.  Or maybe it scavenged for food. The wide-set eyes may have given it a greater field of vision for hunting, but no one knows for sure.
 
And Mazon Creek continues to offer more mysteries.
 
"There's an animal called the H animal," named for its odd, H-shaped body, Lidgard said. "We don't know what it is."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is the creature called a “monster?”
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (12)
  • lamontv-wes
    3/23/2016 - 02:34 p.m.

    They called it a monster because it haves sharp teeth and it can blend in to anything it's color.

  • Steve0620-yyca
    3/23/2016 - 08:46 p.m.

    I think that it is cool that a animal species have been found and is being researched. When I first saw the creature, I thought that it was a fish swimming towards the other direction. This monster has two eyes that jut out from either side of the body and it has an arm-like body with a pincer. Researchers are trying to find fossils of dead animals near many places like farms. They usually find some plants and fern but they are looking for something else. I hope that the scientists will learn a lot about this "monster" and be able to present more information about it.
    I think that this creature is called a "monster" because it is strange to people and they don't have enough information to name it.

  • tiffanyf-1-bar
    3/23/2016 - 09:29 p.m.

    The Tully Monster is called a monster because of its bizarre appearance that can not be found anywhere else. The article states,"...its wide-set eyes on stalks and a long, arm-like appendage extending from below them with a pincer-like mouth." This description describes a pair of eyes sitting on long stalks protruding from the main body and an arm-looking organ including a pincer mouth. Because most living organisms today do not appear this way, scientists refer to this animal as a monster. This article is interesting because I have never heard of an animal that was described to look this way.

  • lukem-orv
    3/24/2016 - 12:58 p.m.

    Because monsters look weird and monsters are dangerous. And monsters have other crazy, bizzare, and dangerous features like what the Tully "monster" has.

  • maggiec-3-bar
    3/24/2016 - 11:02 p.m.

    This creature is called a "monster" because of its interesting and bizarre appearance. In paragraph one the article describes the Tully Monster as a creature with "wide-set eyes on stalks and a long, arm-like appendage extending from below them with a pincer-like mouth." This is something that is very different from creatures we see today so it is quite a disturbing image. I think that this article was very interesting because I've never seen or heard about an animal looking this way. I hope that researchers find more information on creatures like the Tully Monster to help people understand more about what life was like long ago.

  • seans-2-bar
    3/24/2016 - 11:30 p.m.

    Humans naturally characterize weird looking species or odd objects as "monsters" because of our ignorance. This can be shown in ancient times with myths such as Krakens turning out to be giant squid. I mean, people called the first dinosaurs "monsters". I concede that this animal is exotic "its wide-set eyes on stalks and a long, arm-like appendage extending from below them with a pincer-like mouth". But monster is an overused term. I definitely have never heard of an animal of such that this article presents.

  • tarenr-ric
    3/31/2016 - 03:36 p.m.

    The creature is called a monster because in the text, it says "That strange mouth, extended away from its body, may have helped it as a predator, Lidgard said." The fish might have been a predator, which would mean it would be considered a monster to whatever other food/animals it might have eaten. Also, considering it was prehistoric and was alive before the dinosaurs, we possibly might not know what the tully monster ate. The text also said "its wide-set eyes on stalks and a long, arm-like appendage extending from below them with a pincer-like mouth." Not many animals today would bear that same description, so it might be called a monster because of it's unique build.

  • charliet-orv
    4/20/2016 - 12:45 p.m.

    Because it looks like a freak of nature.

  • svazq-wim4
    4/22/2016 - 12:53 p.m.

    The Tully Monster looks like it has a fish/squid like body, a hammer head sharks eyes or a snails and what it looks like a long crab claw. I think it's a very interesting find and it would be cool to see if there are more fossils in the world. It's very strange but fascinating.

  • jcruz-wim4
    4/22/2016 - 12:57 p.m.

    For decades, fossil hunters combing the soil near a creek in north-central Illinois have been rewarded with the preserved remnants of a prehistoric creature. They are called a monster because of its sharp teeth.

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