Rare fossil discovered at Big Springs Nature Park

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A rare Dasycladacian Green Algae fossil was discovered at Big Springs Nature Park by day hikers Scott and Ayla Boylen. Above, Phil Burgess of Prairie du Chien, Wis., a self-taught paleontologist/geologist, identified the 450 million year old fossil. (Press photo by Caroline Rosacker)

By Caroline Rosacker

A father-daughter hiking expedition at Big Springs Nature Park, located along the Great River Road just north of Guttenberg, has revealed a rare fossil find. "Big Springs,” as the locals prefer to call it, is a quiet, hidden natural treasure used by outdoor enthusiasts for day-hiking, picnicking, bird watching or peaceful meditation. 

Guttenberg Rotary members maintain the area, and take the natural beauty of the park into careful consideration while maintaining its pristine appearance. 

The Big Springs coldwater stream that originates on the property cascades down a series of limestone bedrock features, creating a natural stair step effect. The water’s total vertical drop within the 11-acre parcel is over 100 feet. 

The stream is surrounded by woods and features two walking trails maintained on each side. An additional, more challenging, hiking trail can be found to the right of the picnic shelter as you enter the park.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has identified the spring and stream as a unique aquatic ecosystem that provides a potential educational opportunity area for fish habitat, water quality and interpretation. 

Scott and Ayla Boylen

Scott Boylen, Highland Community Middle School teacher, outdoor photographer/enthusiast and Driftless Area Wetland Centre Board of Directors member, and his daughter, Ayla, an art major at Mount Mercy University, Cedar Rapids, discovered a fossil Dasycladacean Green Algae Ischadites species while hiking at Big Spring Nature park. Scott told The Press, "Ayla and I came to Big Springs to do some hiking. She had never been here before, so she was pretty excited. I have hiked the area many times before." 

Scott's passion for outdoor photography regularly takes him on hiking excursions in the driftless area. "My kids grew up hiking and enjoying the outdoors. This is what we do. We are always looking for fossils and living creatures. Ayla saw the unique fossil first. We didn't know what it was, but knew it was something we had never seen before!" he said.

Phillip Burgess

The Boylens snapped a picture of the fossil and sent the photo to Scott's friend, Philip Burgess. 

Burgess, of Prairie du Chien, Wis., is a self-taught paleontologist/geologist. He shared, "I used to climb around on the hills of Prairie du Chien. I had a shoebox full of stuff I had collected as a child. I attended college at the University of Platteville, Wis., for a couple of years and studied geology." 

Steady employment at 3M eventually drew Burgess away from college, but not away from his devotion to the driftless area. In 2007 Burgess' interest in rocks, fossils and minerals presented him with an opportunity to work with researchers at the Smithsonian. The researcher has also done extension public speaking in area schools, and at the Driftless Area Wetland Centre where he houses some of his expansive collection.    

Scott commented, "I have known Phil for 20 years. His reply was pretty enthusiastic, so I knew we had found something special." 

Dasycladacean Green Algae Ischadites species

Dasycladacean Green Algae is a biscuit-like algal ball with an internal calcareous supporting structure that grew in a carpet-like layer on the bottom of the ancient Iapetus Ocean that once covered the tri-states. It is from the Dunleith Formation, Upper Ordovician age, making it 450 million years old. The fossils are preserved in a large piece of limestone. Dasycladacean algae still survive today in modern oceans. 

In addition to the larger piece, Scott also found a beautiful, dinner plate-sized specimen of the dasycladacean green algae Receptaculites oweni (aka Fisherites reticulatus) —a close but much larger "relative" of the Ischadites) — lying loose in the creek bed.

Burgess and Boylen have determined that torrential rains over the past few years loosened the fossil and aided in its descent down the falls. They commented, "What makes this fossil so rare is its size, age and the number of fossils." 

Safe removal

Kevin Hanson, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IA-DNR) state fisheries technician, organized a group of DNR employees to remove the extraordinary fossil from its Big Springs location. "We wrapped the fossil, layering it in two blankets, and put it on a moving cart with rubberized wheels, which made a big difference.  It took five of us just about an hour to get the fossil down the falls and safely back to our office." He reported, "The fossil is approximately three feet tall, two feet wide and about five inches thick. The estimated weight is about 150 pounds." 

Burgess will take possession of the fossil and clean it for display. Burgess explained. "Cleaning techniques used to clean fossils are similar to cleaning cement stonework. First you dab a bleach and water solution on it with a paintbrush and let it set for a minute. Then you work the bleach solution around with the paintbrush, and then hit it real good with a garden hose. The process will help bring out the fine details of the fossil." 

Burgess contacted Mayor Bill Frommelt to see if he could purchase the fossil from the City of Guttenberg.  Frommelt commented, "We are excited to have such a unique fossil found within our city limits. The general consensus is to display the fossil in Guttenberg. However, at this time we don't have a place for an exhibit or display. What I would like to do is allow us to loan it out for one year to possibly the Driftless Area Wetlands Center near Marquette where Phil Burgess holds seminars, but bring it back to Guttenberg for permanent display next year."

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