The remains of Great Lakes coral and marine life say a lot about its past and future – Great Lakes Now


The Great Lakes region was not always the domain of the freshwater we know today: a few centuries ago it was actually covered with tropical seawater. This is why many of the fossils found in the area today are portions of coral reefs and ancient sea creatures.

“When you think of Michigan or Illinois, you imagine cold and snow, but it wasn’t always that way. It was once again like the Bahamas or Brazil, nice and tropical. No mageddeons or polar vortices, ”said Paul Mayer, head of fossil invertebrate collections at the Field Museum.

Silurian Fossil (Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum)

The reason for this drastic climate change is the former location of the Great Lakes region, which around 400 million years ago was on the equator.

“The area was very tropical and full of coral. When all of these corals finally died and were buried in the sediment, they turned into fossils. That’s what we’re finding out now, ”said Crystal Czarniecki, associate curator of the Earth Science Museum at the University of Waterloo.

However, for museum and fossil experts like Mayer and Czarniecki, knowing that the background is only one piece of the puzzle. There are various other factors that they analyze to get a full picture of the historical context behind these fossils.

“I think what’s really important about these fossils in the context of both time and today is that we can basically create an ancient environment. By taking into account the rock they come from, what kind of animals there are, what kind of animals they are related to, and other information, we can determine the environment they came from and learn a bit more about the history of the place, ”said Jenifer Bauer, collection manager for the research museum at the University of Michigan Paleontology Museum.

While the entire Great Lakes region underwent these changes, there were still major differences in how individual states developed and changed.

“During the Silurian period, there were still elevation changes, so Michigan was a bit in a basin and the water was deeper there. And, as you headed west towards Wisconsin, the land has started to curve in. We call it the Wisconsin Arch and Michigan Basin, ”said Patricia Coorough Burke, manegold curator of the geological collections at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Map of the Midwest during the Silurian Period, 440-420 Mya (Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum)

Beyond telling us the history of the region, the presence of these fossils also allows us to obtain today many of our natural resources – such as salts, oils and natural gas.

“All the things that we mined in the Michigan and Great Lakes region are only here because of the sedimentary rock and how it formed,” Czarniecki said.

Therefore, the preservation of this region and its environment is not only essential for these museum experts, but also for society as a whole.

“Collecting fossils is a great way to both learn a little bit more about where you live in the history of the earth in the landscape, but also to have fun,” said Bauer.

For anyone interested in learning more about coral and other forms of marine life specific to the history of the Great Lakes and Great Lakes, check out Great Lakes Now’s list of various museums in the area that display works of art. Great Lakes fossils.

Fossil Reef Exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum (Image courtesy Milwaukee Public Museum)

Check out some cool fossils at these museums


Champ Museum

See Mazon Creek’s largest collection of fossils at this museum. With over 40,000 specimens, this museum displays a wide variety of creatures. You can explore their fossil invertebrates from Mazon Creek on their website.


University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

One type of fossil this museum collects are brachiopods, which are clam-like creatures with two shells. Of particular interest are some of their brachiopods, as they actually contain a collection of smaller organisms that live on top of them. You can explore the museum collection further on its website.


Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science

There are several more modern fossils from the Great Lakes region here. Specifically, they are home to many specimens from the Silurian and Devonian periods and contain a variety of Ice Age mammals.

Cleveland Natural History Museum

Visitors can view the museum’s incredible collection of fossils from the Devonian period. This museum is known for its fascinating collection of armored fish, so be sure to visit it if you are in the area.


University of Waterloo Earth Sciences Museum

One specific fossil cataloged here is called a “hash fossil,” meaning it is made up of various types of fossils. This specific sample consists of many brachiopods and bryozoans, which makes it quite large.

Washington DC:

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

This museum houses a large collection of fossils from Waukesha, Wisconsin. They even have unique jellyfish prints here, as well as sand that has arthropod prints in it.


Milwaukee Public Museum

Home to some of the very first dimensional diagrams or living habitats, the Milwaukee Public Museum contains several interactive features. Their muskrat exhibits allow visitors to look underwater to see firsthand how muskrats enter their habitat.

To learn more about the Great Lakes now:

Sturgeon restoration: a study of current flourishing populations in Michigan and Wisconsin

Fossil finds: fleshy quarry fossils shed light on Wisconsin’s aquatic past

Featured Image: Silurian Fossil (Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum)


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