The Eyes Have It! - Trilobite Eyes

It's been a while since we've had a noteworthy new trilobite book but Richard Fortey has recently authored one called Trilobite!, Eyewitness to Evolution. Trilobite! was published in 2000 by Knopf, retailing at $26.00. The 284 page book was originally released in Great Britain by Harper Collins.

Richard Fortey is a noted trilobite expert and senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. Amongst his other books are Fossils: Key to the Past and Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth.

As most of my readers know, I judge a book's merits primarily on what can be learned from it - can I learn anything new that I didn't know before? Trilobite! has met my criteria quite handily. I found a number of new facts that have come from recent work by trilobite professionals. As a matter of fact, our friend Nigel Hughes was mentioned within these pages and the work on trilobite hunting burrows, documented by Brandt, Meyer, and Lask, also popped up.

Fortey begins Trilobite! in a somewhat literary style that initially put me off a bit - I wanted to get to the meat of it! It didn't take long though and I was caught up in the story of trilobites. As in most of the books along these lines, Fortey gives the reader a trilobite history lesson wherein he discusses the historical discovery of trilobites followed by the story of his own discovery and how he became hooked.

An entire chapter is devoted to the carapace, another to the legs, and yet a third to the eyes. That may initially sound extreme but I can assure you that each of these chapters is full of discoveries. Each chapter is a developmental work anchored in the chronology of the scientific discoveries as they build to our present level of knowledge. One of those "new" facts that I learned was that each of the facets in the trilobite's compound eyes is a single crystal of optical calcite. Perhaps that should be obvious but I certainly hadn't thought much about it before.

In his chapter entitled "Exploding Trilobites," Fortey works his way through the vitriolic muck of the Cambrian Explosion. Herein he looks at evolution and politely maneuvers through the nastiness of the Gould / Conway-Morris contest. Fortey is very professional and polite in his disagreement with Stephen Jay Gould's interpretation of the Cambrian Explosion as presented in Gould's Wonderful Life. He is just as nice in his support of Simon Conway-Morris' interpretation while politely chastising him for his unprofessional treatment of Gould. Conway-Morris not only attacked Gould's viewpoint on this issue but made personal attacks as well - something just not done in professional circles. Fortey does not make a big deal of this but uses it to forward the latest views on evolution as seen in trilobites.

Another interesting evolutionary twist involves the Eldredge/Gould theory of Punctuated Equilibria as a proposed mechanism for evolution. Fortey reminds us that this theory was based initially on Eldredge's study of Phacopid trilobites. This theory not only explained the evolutionary path of these trilobites but it neatly explained away the "gaps" in the fossil record and apparent lack of smooth transitional forms in other creatures. The twist comes from the work of a European trilobite worker, Peter Sheldon. He has found gradual transitions between the various species of the Ordovician trilobite Ogygiocarella. So, the debate continues.

Fortey has studied Ordovician trilobites from all over the world during his career. He has been able to use these studies to reconstruct the continental positions during this geological time. Plate tectonics and continental drift are not viewed as stand alone interesting facts however. These processes are seen as drivers of evolution as they produce isolated populations, local climate changes, and global climate changes. Fortey's treatment is engaging as he presents descriptions of the Ordovician world and where specific kinds of trilobites fit in their own environment.

The reader will be intrigued by the interpretations of trilobite anatomy and how the physical remains explain the lifestyle of the creature. We have swimmers, crawlers, and burrowers. Then there's scavengers, hunters, and filter feeders (see if you can figure out which local Cincinnatian trilobite fills this position). Where do you think trilobites kept their eggs for incubation? - perhaps under the thorax as modern lobsters do? - or under the head shield like the modern horseshoe crab Limulus?

There is much more to Trilobite! than I can begin to tell you here. There are sufficient photographs and illustrations of wild looking trilobites to keep you busy. I wish that they had been better keyed to the text to minimize that awful page flipping though. And speaking of flipping, the pages of Trilobite! have deckled edges that, for my money anyway, are somewhat of a pain. This is supposed to make a book look more classy but it prevents any form of thumbing through the pages.

If you're a trilobite nut, you will want to add this book to your library. It is not only well written but also contains the latest in scientific knowledge concerning everyone's favorite rolly-polly.

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