September 8, 2004 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Why are Trilobite fossils so incredibly numerous? Downright ubiquitous? Is it just because there were so many of them (15,000 species so far!) and they lived in the sea? I'm studying up a bit on the fascinating li'l (sometimes BIG) bugs (okay, Arthropods), and also listening to cassettes of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (listening to it again and again, actually, as it's brilliant and fascinating), and Bryson notes some incredible statistic (very roughly) like only one bone out of a million (probably much more) humans becomes a fossil. So, you see where I'm coming from...
posted by Shane to Science & Nature (16 answers total)
They were in a good position to take advantage of the Cambrian explosion, they had fairly hard bodyparts and lived in seas with sedimentary bottoms, the latter two are conditions that lend to fossilization. Compare with shark, a species for which the conditions do not favor good fossilization. For the specifics, I recommend Trilobyte! and also Aquagenisis.
posted by milovoo at 1:18 PM on September 8, 2004

Oops, Trilobite! not Trilobyte!. (I'm going to be away from the computer for a while ... I think the machine is starting to take over my brain)
posted by milovoo at 1:24 PM on September 8, 2004

One key factor: molting. The trilobite fossils are not bones; they are the remains of the exoskeletons of the arthropod, which would molt several times in its lifetime. Each organism could potentially leave a number of fossils. For more information and links, see this page on trilobites.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 1:31 PM on September 8, 2004

Shane, as a fellow Ohio-an, you may be interested to know that our state fossil is the mighty Isotelus.
posted by Hypharse at 1:43 PM on September 8, 2004

Keep in mind that trilobites were around for around 300 million years. I don't know the population densities of trilobites during that time, but that's a huge span of time for a creature to have been so common.
posted by onhazier at 1:56 PM on September 8, 2004

Thanks, milovoo and monju! I WILL read those books you recommend, and that site, monju.

Wow, Hypharse! I am officially proud of Ohio! Doesn't happen often, LOL!

Trilobites are just too (inexplicably) cool. I swear, I'd almost like one tattooed on my arm (like a fossil embedded in my skin) like MeFite stet.

I just found out something else about Trilobites that I might save for a MeFi post, but maybe I'll e-mail it to you fellow freaks Trilobite-fans (if you don't mind), as I'm bursting with the info. But you probably already know.

Off-topic: Non-fiction rocks, it's my new passion, what with Short History and Secret Life of Dust and Honey, Mud and Maggots and Stiff (which is nightmarishly depressing and frightening, as it provides the documented answers to a former AskMe question about head-transplants and the animal experiments involving them; fair warning).

There are at least a couple of excellent books Bryson recommends too. I'll post them here later, on the odd chance you or anyone else is interested.
posted by Shane at 1:57 PM on September 8, 2004

Ours is the eurypterid, kind of a sea scorpion, that could reach sizes up to six feet!!
Yup, NY has it's charms. (And if you squint a little it looks kinda like my abstract lizard/bird tattoo.)

Also, pretty much all of Stephen Jay Gould is good, specifically Wonderful Life, which covers all the weirdness of the Burgess shale.
posted by milovoo at 2:08 PM on September 8, 2004

Thanks, onhazier!

BTW, I spammed you folks with that e-mail. Forgive me, but I'm just a little too exuberant about Trilobites today.
posted by Shane at 2:30 PM on September 8, 2004

If trilobites get you excited, you should read about beetles...
posted by five fresh fish at 3:49 PM on September 8, 2004

The Burgess Shale beds are within four hours of my home. I've never been there; I'd love to hike Fossil Mtn, just because it looks so damn rugged, but haven't got around to it yet (it'll just be Yet Another Mountain, really.)

Unfortunately -- or perhaps it is fortunate -- you're not allowed to take any fossils home. In fact, you're not even allowed to move the rocks around. All sorts of Very Bad Things are promised should one be caught doing anything to disturb the sites.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:51 PM on September 8, 2004

Shane, I'm touched you remembered my tattoo. Do you think robocop is bleeding ever got the LCSH tattoo?
*apologizes for chatfilter*
posted by stet at 4:42 PM on September 8, 2004

This thread has alternately reminded me of The Trouble With Tribbles, and then Real Ultimate Power (where Ninjas are cool, and by cool, I mean totally sweet).

Here are some yummy trilobite cookies for you to make, Shane. The trouble with trilobite cookies is that they're totally sweet.
posted by iconomy at 6:04 PM on September 8, 2004

If I ever get a Trilobite tattoo, stet, I'll e-mail you a picture. Just because, um ... it must be done. I dunno. People with Trilobite tatts need to stick together. Yeah. I dunno about robocop's tatt. He's kinda cool. The question begs for some excuse for a follow-up thread. I often wish I were a librarian. How's that for chat?

iconomy, I almost posted that link along with a few others to MeFi :-) Woulda been a double, though, I see now. Oddly though, Google says only two posts reference Trilobites. Wow.

fff, you're blessed with them thar Burgess Shale Beds !

Hmm, I had no choice but to do a search for bands that have written a song called "Trilobite":

Robyn Hitchcock
The Torquays

Probably others... There's a band called "Trilobite" too.

Okay, I'll stop.
posted by Shane at 6:40 PM on September 8, 2004

Oops, I forgot: here's one of the books Bryson mentions; it's supposedly quite accessible to the layman.
posted by Shane at 6:45 PM on September 8, 2004

Please answer this: Is it pronounced "trill'-oh-bite" or "try'-lo-bite?" I asked an expert once at the Carnegie Museum, and he just gave me a blank look. Please, don't give me a blank look.
posted by Faze at 1:45 PM on September 9, 2004

Faze, I've always thought "trill" but said "try", because most people (in my experience) seem to say "try." But, I really don't know. Funny, eh? Then again, the Tri in Trilobite refers to their three body segments, and tri is usually pronounced 'try', as in 'tricycle'.

Just to round this out, the other book Bryson mentioned that sounds great to me is Life: An Unauthorized Biography by Richard Fortey, who was inspired to become a paleontologist when, as a boy in Wales, he found a Trilobite fossil.

Also, here are the statistics from Bryson's Short History:

*It is thought that one bone out of one billion creatures becomes a fossil...
*All of the humans (with 200+ bones apiece) alive in America today will leave only about 50 fossilized bones...
*Only about one species out of every 10,000 has left any fossil record...

I think I'll do a MeFi post, as there is an incredible amount of interesting Trilo-stuff out there, but here's one more tidbit:

At Arcy-sur-Cure in France, a 15,000-year- old human settlement, one of the artifacts found by archeologists was a trilobite that had been drilled to be worn as an amulet.
posted by Shane at 2:23 PM on September 9, 2004

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