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Pink foam insulation made the body of the model.
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The teeth are polyester resin and the eye surrounds are modeling clay - seen here clamped while hardening.
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Robert Johnson stands with "Opie," a 13-foot model of an Ichthyosaur, an air-breathing reptile-type creature that lived some 150 million years ago during the Jurasic era. "Opie" is close to being completed, then he will be installed in Westerns Museum of Geology, where Johnson is the curator.
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March 24 "Illinois Stories" Tells Jurassic-Era Reptile Tale Coming to WIU Geology Museum

March 22, 2010

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MACOMB, IL - - The 13-foot reptilian model, which looks part dolphin and part shark, is sitting on its custom-made sawhorses in a well-used workshop deep in the belly of Tillman Hall. Its creator, Robert Johnson, has been working on reconstructing the Jurassic-era Ichthyosaur (ick thee uh sawr) on a part-time basis over the past three years. Now he is within a few short months of mounting the 150 million-year-old reptilian creature in its permanent home in the Western Illinois University Museum of Geology.

Johnson said the Ichthyosaur is an example of "convergent evolution," because of two attributes – the head resembled an air-breathing dolphin while the remainder of the body resembled a shark.

Interested individuals in western and central Illinois can get a sneak peek at the model and the work that has gone in to it on Wednesday, March 24, thanks to Network Knowledge public television and the Emmy Award-winning show "Illinois Stories," produced and hosted by Mark McDonald. The 30-minute segment – which will air at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday on WMEC (cable channel 8) in Macomb, WQEC in Quincy and WSEC in Springfield – takes a look at the creativity and artistry that has gone in to the creation of the prehistoric reptile.

Network Television's website includes a "Find our cable channel in your town" link at Select "About" on the toolbar, then select "Find our cable…" on the left menu. This includes city and channel listings in their Illinois and Missouri coverage area.

Johnson is curator of Western's Museum of Geology, which is housed on the first floor of Tillman Hall along with the geology department. He said he had thought about doing something along these lines for a long time, and he thought "an Ichthyosaur might be neat." Johnson researched literature on the Ichthyosaur, then he made computerized drawings to scale. When it came time to "build" the air-breathing reptile, Johnson's artistic knowhow and creativity took over, since he had to be certain the creature stayed light enough to suspend it from the museum's ceiling.

Johnson, who is a WIU graduate with a bachelor's degree in art (1978), has had four students assist him throughout the model building process; the current student being Randal Gustafson (McHenry, IL), a senior geology major.

The Ichthyosaur's body is made out of pink foam insulation, laid in sections. Its teeth are cast polyester resin; and its eyes are a clear polyurethane, made by using a large beach ball, the cutoff bottom of an ice cream jug and a poured rubber mold. The backside of the eyes were painted with a copper and brown acrylic, then mounted to the model with epoxy and covered to protect them until the reptile model is competed and painted.

The process of building the Ichthyosaur model put Johnson's artistic and innovative skills to the test. But he loves a challenge to figure new ways to make something work. "We were making it up as we go," he quipped.

A little more smoothing and sanding, then painting, and the 70-pound model should be ready for its home in the Museum of Geology, 118 Tillman Hall, in Fall 2010, according to Johnson.

And after that? Johnson said he has been thinking about making models of a school of squid, which would also hang in the museum in front of the Ichthyosaur, the squid's predator.

For more information on the Ichthyosaur or on the Museum of Geology, contact Johnson at (309) 298-1368 or e-mail

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