Confined to a tiny case in the “canoe” rotunda at the American Museum of Natural History, some extinct species from more than 400 million years ago are putting on quite a show, thanks to two trilobite lovers from the heavy-metal music and vert paleo worlds.
Andy Secher and Martin Shugar went through their massive trilobite collections (Andy has 4,000 in his Manhattan apartment and Martin turned over 200,000 fossils and shells to AMNH) and picked out fifteen “best of the best” from each of the six geologic periods that hosted these little waterway critters – from the Cambrian to the Permian (521 to 240 million years ago). It’s quite something, considering there are over 20,000 recognized species lingering in 281 million years of rocks around the world!
The tiny show, which is in an open-ended run, is a “wow” due to the spectacular preservation and preparation of each of these little snubs of rock containing fossilized “casts” of animals whose exoskeletons disintegrated soon after they expired millions of years ago. The state of preservation of even the most delicate features is pretty remarkable.
Consider Asaphus kowalewskii from Ordivician rocks near St. Petersburg (490-440 mya), whose long eye stalks are truly a wonder of nature, evolution, and behind-the-scenes prep that make this character’s eyes pop. Trilobites invented complex, multi-lens eyes, and this Asaphus provocatively suggests the ability to check things out above the sediments where they burrowed, sort of like a horseshoe crab equipped with a modern submarine periscope.
The little Olenoides on display hails from British Columbia’s famous Burgess Shale and has long antenna curving back along its sides. He’s also found in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Utah, and other places in Cambrian rocks 450-490 million years old. For all those AMNH visitors asking where they can see the Burgess Shale, here’s your chance to commune with a critter and some rock from the same formation that so inspired uber-naturalist Stephen Jay Gould.
Walliserops has a full trident sprouting out of his head –a unique apparatus that adapted him for who-knows-what in Devonian life in what-is-now Morocco. Is this where Neptune got the idea of what works best down under the sea?
The hometown favorite is Arctinurus boltoni, first found in upstate New York in the early 1800s during the construction of the Erie Canal. The AMNH has an entire website showcasing these upstate wonders from the Rochester Shale. See them all and take a peek behind the scenes into the AMNH collection drawers on the image gallery.
Andy and Martin’s enthusiasm for trilobites puts them in good company. Tom Jefferson and Ben Franklin are said to have collected them. Trilobite fossils were hawked on 15th century European streets and several trilobite websites say that 25,000-year-old European burials were found with these fossils, too.
Although AMNH has terrific trilobite blog and a page with “Twenty Trilobite Fast Facts,” why not go for the slick YouTube video tour? Watch as AMNH’s Neil Landman, Andy, and Martin talk about their passion and show the cabinet-sized exhibit in close-up. You really need to come, meet the trilobites, and journey back to a time on Earth before animals had even colonized land.