Amateur Spotlight: John Catalani

John Catalani

Editor’s Note: This issue we feature former high school teacher John Catalani. John is a member of several fossil and mineral clubs including Mid-America Paleontology Society (MAPS), Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois (ESCONI), Dry Dredgers, and Cedar Valley Rocks and Minerals Society (CVRMS).

How did you first discover your passion for fossil collecting?

Seventh grade and a book on fossils caught my eye. Fortunately, the bedrock of my hometown (Rockford, Illinois) is Ordovician with many fossils available.

How long have you been collecting fossils (when did you begin)?

Since age 12 when I had my father take me, begrudgingly, to area quarries.

I understand that you are an expert on nautiloids. How did you come to be especially interested in this particular type of fossil?

The Ordovician rocks (Platteville Formation) are chockablock with molluscs and I noticed that certain forms, the nautiloids,  were more complex morphologically than the others and so I began to study those. Serious collecting and study began in college.

In one of your articles, I read that you collected from quarries.  Can you talk a little about how you made that happen? Do you continue to collect and, if so, do you travel to collect or return to the same locality?

When I first began to collect heavily back in the day, access to quarries was much easier. I often began a relationship with the owners by taking the time to talk to them and explain what my purpose was. Most of the time they appreciated my taking the time to do this and provided me with access and in several instances, I was the only one able to gain access. Living in Woodridge, Illinois, now, I need to travel to central Illinois or to south-central Wisconsin to collect and, yes, I have collected the same quarries for some 30-40 years. Problem now is that most are flooded, not actively working, or unavailable but I still collect those still available. Fortunately, I was able to amass a large collection of Ordovician nautiloids and associated fossils early in my career.

To what do you attribute your considerable success as an amateur paleontologist?

As with most amateur (avocational) paleontologists, I have an intense desire to get outside and collect. Fortunately, I had a knack for Ordovician nautiloids in Platteville rocks of IL and WI. Hard to describe but you either have the desire or you don’t. When I got interested in fossils I knew I wanted to be in the field COLLECTING the fossils first hand.

Based on articles you and others have written, I know that you have a respected private collection. How do you identify/organize/store your fossils? Have you donated any of your fossils to museums?

I do have a substantial collection of fossils, and not just nautiloids. To identify the fossils collected you need the primary literature either by purchase or library. Again, I was lucky that, back in the day, those publications were often available from the source or in used bookstores. I pretty much have all primary papers and books dealing with Ordovician nautiloids, but it took time. I usually organize non-nautiloids in labelled boxes by site. Nautiloids are grouped by taxa and mostly individually marked by locality. I have donated to Rock Valley Community College and Burpee Museum in Rockford and PRI/Museum of the Earth in Ithaca and to several individual professionals.

In one article, you emphasized the importance of documenting your finds in order that they can be of greatest value to science. How did you come to appreciate the value of documentation? What advice can you give other fossil collectors, especially those just starting out?

For me, documentation was logical and practiced right from the beginning. The topographic maps I often used to find sites allowed me to designate township & range coordinates. I had a book (now expanded to two volumes) in which I listed each productive site by time period and state with directions, township-range, and dates visited. As I have said before, without locality documentation, fossils are nothing more than curious artifacts and this is the advice I would give.

You have allowed scientists to study specimens in your collection and collaborated with others on papers. How did your relationships with scientists develop? Do you have any recommendations or tips for others who are trying to improve their level of collaboration with professionals?

I was very fortunate. When I first started seriously identifying published forms and discovering that some were not identifiable, I wrote to the Illinois State Geological Survey. The person that was given my letter was new to the Survey and had just finished his PhD–Dr. Dennis Kolata, now emeritus at the Survey. As I explained in the essay I sent, he patiently allowed me to explain the nautiloid specimens even though his dissertation was on echinoderms and his first love is trilobites. That began a 40-year friendship during which Dennis always encouraged me to continue collecting. Rousseau Flower, top nautiloid specialist, also welcomed me and we were planning a paper when he passed away. Other encouraging professionals I have encountered: Robert Sloan, the late John Pojeta, Warren Allmon, and Bob Frey, whom I am now working with on publishing. As I said, I was lucky and the only advice I have is to seek out professionals that are willing to work with you. But you need to show them that you are serious about paleontology.

You have been a long-standing member of the Mid-America Paleontology Society (MAPS) and have played a number of different roles (e.g., newsletter editor, officer) over the years. Do you belong to any other fossil-related organizations? What do you see as the benefits of belonging to an organization such as MAPS?

You hear about these clubs from other collectors and you need to check them out to see what they are about. Other clubs I belong to: Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois (ESCONI), Dry Dredgers, Cedar Valley Rocks and Minerals Society (CVRMS). Obviously, the camaraderie but also Clubs can often get insurance that quarry or site owners want before they allow you to collect.

Do you have a favorite fossil?

This is hard to answer. I have a favorite in each taxonomic group. Probably my true favorites are the unpublished nautiloids that I have discovered.

John with with Plectoceras occidentale
Gonioceras occidentale
Endoceras annulatum
Actinoceras beloitense


I believe your annual Fossil Expo is coming up! What should folks be looking forward to this year?

This year our theme is the Permian/Triassic and our keynote speaker is Dr. Margaret Fraiser of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

To learn more:

Catalani, J. A. (2014). Contributions by amateur paleontologists in 21st century paleontology. Palaeontologia Electronica17, 1-4.

John’s May, 2000 column “An Amateur’s Perspective” published in American Paleontologist provides more detail on John’s personal history: AP May, 2000. His Summer 2008 column describes three “explosions of biodiversity,” including the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event: AP 2008 Summer. The Fall 2008 column explores cephalopod intelligence: AP 2008 Fall. Many thanks to the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) for allowing us to share these articles!

Find the details about the Mid-America Paleontology Society’s 40th National Fossil Exhibition to be held April 6 – 8 on the MAPS website or the FOSSIL event calendar

Read about the Mid-America Paleontology Society in this newsletter article.


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