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Natural History

 

Natural History

Imagine yourself sitting by a large tropical ocean. Marine invertebrates swim through coral reefs, warm breezes caress you, and the pungent smell of salt fills your nostrils. Welcome to northern Illinois, 400 million years ago. What is now Illinois was once 20 degrees south of the equator. The limestone (dolomite) bedrock underlying most of northeastern Illinois contains the remains of extinct trilobites and squid-like animals. One can still find fossils in these rocks throughout the corridor.

 

Fossils are also common near Morris; in fact this is one of the most famous fossil localities in the world. 300,000 million years ago, large, swampy forests harbored a variety of life here. The Mazon Creek fossil beds contain the remains of sharks, ferns, cockroaches, dragonflies, and spiders. Also found here is Illinois's state fossil, the bizarre Tully Monster, a worm-like creature which has never been found anywhere else.

 

More recently, about 2 million years ago, a series of glaciers, moving down from the north, ushered in the Ice Age. Despite the harsh conditions, many huge animals lived here. Giant beavers, some weighing as much as 300 pounds, cavorted near rivers, and mastodons and mammoths roamed the plains and forests. Although they are all now extinct, their bones can still be found. The last of the glaciers retreated about 12,000 years ago, a mere blink of an eye to geologists. Lake Michigan, the prairies, our rivers, all were created by the movement of these glaciers.

 

The Illinois River Valley, which makes up much of the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor, has long been a haven for wildlife. The valley is also an important flyway for many species of birds. Many species have disappeared from the region, including bison, bears, and elk, but one can still find an abundance of wildlife, from the state-endangered black-crowned night-herons to bald eagles and coyotes.

 

The prairies that once covered almost half of Illinois are largely gone, but you can explore remnants of the original prairie landscape at several places in the Canal Corridor. The Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area in Morris, the Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve, and the Santa Fe Prairie in Hodgkins are just three of the places to see these magnificent tall grass prairies.

 

Just as significant are the many wetlands that dot the area. Many have been drained for agriculture and other development, but the few that remain provide spectacular glimpses of wildlife. Lake Renwick in Plainfield, once a quarry, is home to huge colonies of black-crowned night-herons, cormorants, and other large water birds. The Heidecke State Fish and Wildlife Area near Morris attracts fishermen and other nature lovers from all over the state.

 

One of the more spectacular efforts in prairie restoration is taking place right now in Joliet. During World War II, the Joliet Army Arsenal manufactured 5.5- million tons of TNT each week, making it the largest TNT plant in the world. Today, the site, named Midewin, is being transformed into a spectacular 19,000- acre preserve. Midewin comes from the Algonquian Indian word "Midewiwin"which refers to a Grand Medicine Lodge or healing society. Indian burial mounds on the site indicate that the area has been used by man for thousands of years. At least sixteen state-endangered animals and plants are found here, making it an important natural refuge in an increasingly crowded metropolitan area. There are plans to reintroduce bison (buffalo), the symbol of the prairie. Just an hour from downtown Chicago, Midewin will attract visitors from all over the world.

 

The many state parks in the corridor afford ample opportunities to see forests, prairies, wetlands, and other habitats. Starved Rock State Park is perhaps the best known park in Illinois. Each year millions of people climb the stairs to the top of Le Rocher, as the French called Starved Rock. For many, this site connects us to our Native American past as no other place can. The canyons, forests, and trails are beautiful year-round, and fishermen can try their luck in the Illinois River. Just opposite the park is the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center, a terrific place to watch modern boats going through a lock.

 

The canal corridor has a number of trails for hiking, biking, or strolling. The longest is the I&M Canal State Trail, which runs 61.5 miles from Rockdale to La Salle. There are also the 2.25 mile Gaylord Donnelley trail in Lockport, the 4 mile Lemont Canal Trail and the 11 mile I&M Canal Bicycle Trail loop in Willow Springs.

Buttons Galore!

 

The Midwest is home to many species of freshwater clams. Known for their variety and the extreme hardness of their shells, these mussels spend most of their lives partially or completely buried in the bottom of a body of water. They prefer rivers and streams with a good current. These animals have experienced dramatic declines in both actual numbers and species due to pollution, and several are on the state endangered species list.

 

Another reason for the decline in these stems from human use of their shells, in fact, a booming industry once centered around them. From about 1890 to 1950 most buttons for clothing in the U. S. came from clams, many harvested in Illinois. 40,000-60,000 tons of shells a year were used to make buttons in various sizes. Waste parts were also used, some as chicken feed and others for road fill. The clam-shell button industry declined after 1950, when plastics came to dominate the market.

 

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