Beachcombing on the Ancient Sea Floor

sea glass and fossil shells from great lakes

Tarah Nicole Hoffmann is a beachcomber from Lindenhurst, Illinois, right on the border of Wisconsin, about halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago, and a short drive from Lake Michigan. She hunts daily in both southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

Tarah began collecting when she was a small child, exploring with her mother, collecting stones that she would later assemble into zen arrangements. From a very early age, Tarah was fascinated with the different kinds of rocks and the varying materials that they seemed to be made of. Her fascination sparked an interest to research the rocks she found on the shores of Lake Michigan. This interest evolved into a passion to research fossils, rocks, glass, marbles, bottles, slag glass, and anything that gave insight into local history and the history of our planet. As she beachcombs, Tarah learns more about the world around her and about herself.

blue beach glass and fossil from great lakes

“I love the beaches of Michigan. They are pure, beautiful, and provide endless magic.” Though she tries to go beachcombing every day, Tarah says that “wacky midwest weather” often allows only one day a week during the colder months...if she’s lucky. She normally beachcombs alone, but says she likes to bring along her husband and daughter when she needs lucky charms. “They are troopers and put up with the crazy adventures, because they know it makes me smile.”

collecting beach glass with husky

On some days, especially in the colder months, she takes her husky, Angmar, along with her. Tarah recounts a time in April of 2019 when a strange overnight shift of the lake revealed massive boulders at a location that she had been visiting for years. “I went over by them to check out this cool mossy algae growing on top of them, which made the rocks look like they had hair. It was hilarious to me, so I went to take a closer look,” says Tarah. Upon checking out the rock, she noticed what appeared to be a fossil. She took some pictures with her phone to show her husband. He was intrigued, and told her to go back and see if they rocks we’re still there and if she could get more details.

ammonite fossil great lakes

“When I went back, the boulders were covered in sand except the one side I found the fossils on,” she continues. “I looked at the shore as the waves washed back into the lake and boom, there it was. I have never gotten a confirmation on what it actually is. It’s gorgeous, fragile, and sparkles in the dimmest light! I’d love to learn more about it!”

Tarah says that if you stand on the shore of Lake Michigan, multitudes of fossils will wash up to your feet. These fossils tell a story of a time when the lake was an expansive sea, filled with all kinds of strange creatures.

lake michigan brachiopod fossils

“Brachiopods are one of my favorite things to find along the lakeshore,” Tarah says. When she found her first one, she didn’t know what it was, so she went home and did some research. “I found out it was a winged brachiopod species dating back to when Lake Michigan was a part of the Silurian Sea, millions of years ago!”

Brachiopods are considered a living fossil, as there are a few species still alive of these lophotrochozoan animals today. Millions of years ago they were one of the most diverse species in the sea. Geologists have traced brachiopods back to the first recorded rocks in the pre-Cambrian period, dating some as old as 500 million years old.

“Most of the brachiopods found around Lake Michigan were from the same Paleozoic era, just a few million years newer in the Sulrian era, making most we find here about 400 million years old,” explains Tarah. “To put that into perspective a bit, dinosaurs were extinct only 65 million years ago during the end of the Cretaceous period...that means that the brachiopod fossils are over 335 million years older than the dinosaurs! This blows my mind and makes me even more curious to see what else I am able to learn while I keep exploring the beauty of our Great Lake Michigan.”

snail fossil on lake michigan beach

Tarah loves the area she lives in, stating that it’s hard to beat—a beautiful lake, great food, art, entertainment, people, two wonderful cities, and best of all, four seasons. But, as a passionate fossil fan, Tarah would love some day to beachcomb along the Jurassic Coast in England.

Tarah is a mother to a sweet and caring daughter, and she and her husband own Dinosaur Studio Tattoo and Gallery in Waukegan. The city’s rich history has reignited her lifelong passion for local history and sea glass collecting. She has a background teaching self defense and loves MMA, plus she’s currently writing a cooking and baking book. She enjoys spending time in nature with her family biking, exploring, laughing, and creating fond memories.

Learn more about beach fossils:

beach fossil identification locations history

Learn more about fossils found on modern and ancient shores around the world. Articles ›

Fossils can be found on beaches all around the world

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2020 issue.

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