Sharp Blue: Trilobite!


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When I was a child, my parents would sometimes take me to Lyme Regis, a small town on the south coast of England famed for the fossils found in the rocks of its clay cliffs. My father and I would sit for hours on what passed for a beach, happily breaking open rocks in the hope of finding such fossils. The first time, I remember starting out full of enthusiasm, which slowly faded as hammer blow after hammer blow exposed only dull, dark grey rock. Then, finally, the rock cleaved and there was a piece of shell, shining in the summer sunshine for the first time in hundreds of millions of years. It was, perhaps, an unimpressive thing to look at, but my young self was amazed (as I still am) that the vissicitudes of fate had brought the protective casing of a Jurassic animal across such an unimaginably vast gulf of time and into the hands of a young boy.

Cover of Trilobite!For a long time, I drifted away from the allure of fossils, becoming entranced instead by the more theoretical end of evolution. The next time fossils stirred my sense of wonder on such a scale was a little over a decade ago when I read Stephen Jay Gould’s beautiful and fascinating Wonderful Life, an account of the discovery and interpretation of the Burgess Shale (a time-capsule from the early Cambrian). And now I’ve experienced exactly the same thing with the book I’ve just finished reading: Trilobite! by Richard Fortey. Like Gould’s book, Fortey’s views the largest patterns in the tapestry of life through the eyes of the humblest bugs. Also like the other book, he not only tells the story of ancient life but also that of the palaeontologists who first understood some of its mysteries. Both books are full of wondrous things, of whose very existence I had previously been entirely ignorant.

Trilobites were a class of arachnomorph arthropods related to the modern horseshoe “crab”, Limulus. They first appear in the fossil record in the Cambrian, 540 million years ago, thrived in the Ordovician, and survived as late as the Permian, 250 million years ago - a period that dwarfs even the era of the dinosaurs, let alone the span of humankind. The first part of the book is concerned with describing the basic facts about trilobites and also how the immediate mysteries of the fossils were unravelled. There are chapters on the discovery of trilobite fossils, the anatomy of their hard shells, the soft and seldom preserved legs which they used for scuttling and swimming, and their fascinating crystalline eyes.

In the second half, Fortey changes focus to concern himself with what trilobites tell us about the big issues in evolutionary biology and geology. He outlines the controversy of the “Cambrian Explosion” (the subject of Wonderful Life), the insights into speciation provided by trilobite lineages, the use of trilobite fossils in the mapping of ancient continents and seas, and finally outlines the whole symphony of trilobite evolution. Equally fascinating are the many beautiful illustrations - the trilobites were a riot of evolutionary invention, living in a wide range of ecological niches and thus requiring many morphological variations. It’s almost worth the price of the book just to look at these photographs! I recommend Trilobite! very highly - I think it would be impossible to read it and not have some of Fortey’s enthusiasm for trilobites rub off.

I still have my fossils, carefully packed away in cardboard boxes in the bottom of a wardrobe. When I bought a new suite of bedroom furniture a few months ago and had to unpack and repack everything, I took them out to have a good look at them. There’s a trilobite amongst them, and it’s really beautiful when you look at it in the right way (unfortunately, I had to cheat and buy that one in a shop - the Jurassic and Cretaceous seas preserved in Lyme Regis thronged with ammonites but were too young to host trilobites).

trilobites rock my socks! I'm doing a report on them for school, and I find this site helpful.

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