'Illinois Jones' with a Boston accent

News-DemocratJanuary 5, 2014 

Jim Collins first became interested in archeology and paleontology at the age of five, when he first saw the original "King Kong" movie. His love of those studies has continued to the present, despite him changing job fields along the way. But on almost any weekend, you'll find him fossil hunting in Illinois or Missouri.

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Jim Collins has big plans for 2014.

He retires in April and will have more time for his favorite hobby -- fossil hunting.

Jim, 61, who lives in Collinsville with his wife Francie, a schoolteacher, first became interested in archeology and paleontology when he saw the original "King Kong" movie at age 5. His father told him that while the giant ape King Kong wasn't real, the dinosaurs shown in the movie had actually once walked the earth, millions of years ago.

Jim was hooked.

He fell in love with dinosaurs, and the related studies of paleontology and archeology. He grew up around Boston, but the rock structure of the region -- composed mostly of hard, igneous granite -- didn't hide many fossils. He studied archeology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and went on his first organized fossil hunt while a student there. His class took a bus trip to the Catskill Mountains in eastern New York where fossils were more abundant.

In the 1970s and into the early '80's, Jim worked as an archeologist. But in 1982, with a growing family (Jim has four children and nine grandchildren)and a waning economy, he changed careers.

Since 1992, he has worked for ROHO, a Belleville business that manufactures wheelchair, motorcycle, and truck seat cushions, plus medical mattresses. He's the compliance director, or "regulatory guy" as he refers to himself. His job entails compliance with contracts and standards.

In 2010, Jim reignited his love of archeology and paleontology when he joined the Eastern Missouri Society for Paleontology and started collecting fossils in earnest.

Jim makes clear the distinction between his two loves: archeology and paleontology: "Archeologists search for artifacts, and palentologists search for fossils," Jim said. "Both include field work and both give a sense of discovery of something long lost. These feed my inner child."

One of his favorite Illinois spots to hunt is the Columbia Road Cut at the intersection of Illinois 3 and 158. He can look up and down the exposed rock formations and pick out various species from the outcropping which is about 345 million years old. Looking from top to bottom along one section of the outcropping is like watching the formation through a time machine monitor. Newer fossils are toward the surface, and the oldest fossils are farther down, sometimes separated by many thousands of years.

He finds marine invertebrates there because this part of the continent was part of an ocean 345 million years ago. The main fossils he finds are Speriferid Brachiopods, which somewhat resemble small clams. He also finds fossils of coral and crinoids, more creatures from an ancient ocean.

One other site not far from Columbia is the Waterloo-Dupo Anticline (an anticline is a convex folding of the earth).

Over the years, Jim has amassed over 150 boxes of fossils, weighing thousands of pounds, primarily from the Cambrian Period (from about 500 million years ago) and the Pleistocene Period (from about 15,000 years ago).

His growing collection of fossils in his basement irks his wife, who keeps asking him "when he's getting those damn rocks out of our basement." Partly to keep her happy, he brings home "pretty rocks" and geodes (hollow, spherical-shaped rocks lined with crystal formations) for her rock garden.

Jim's fossil-finding tips

What to take:

Rock hammer (to break bigger rocks into workable sizes) and hammer holster

Cold chisel.

Backpack

Five-gallon buckets to hold fossil finds

Newspaper to wrap fossils

Safety goggles

Steel-toed boots

Hard hat

Safety vestso motorists see you on side of road

Hat and sunscreen

Bug spray

Water

Main hazards you can encounter:

Traffic

Rock slides

Snake bites

Insect bites, chiggers and ticks

Best locations to go fossil hunting:

Road cuts

Streams and creeks

Quarries can be very good fossil sites, but many companies require safety gear and only allow organized trips of recognized professional groups. Others forbid access altogether, citing liability and safety concerns, or company policies.

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