Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

Trilobites Everywhere!


©AMNH\\D. Finnin

Just a few short steps off Central Park West you have the means of traveling back through time to explore the diversity of life in ways you may not consider. Before humans, before dinosaurs, before fish even, there was another life form that achieved dominance. Something that we would likely overlook today, but once flourished with with great success. I'm talking, of course, about trilobites, and the opportunity to step back in time through a temporary exhibit at the American Museum of History to the age of the trilobites.

Trilobites represent some of the earliest forms of complex life. They had a solid 300 million year run, which allowed them to develop into some very diverse forms. Scientists have identified over 20,000 species that swam, crawled, and burrowed in the oceans at some point between the Cambrian (542 mya) and Permian (251 mya) periods before succumbing to a final mass extinction. The fossil record shows that their numbers dwindled a few times during this time frame, but they were able to rebound to varying degrees of success.

We've been able to learn a great deal about these creatures because they're arthropods and have exoskeletons, and when you combine this with a marine environment we have the optimal conditions for detailed fossils. Exhibit curator Dr. Neil Landman finds them fascinating. "They're exquisitely preserved," he said."Some have eyes on stalks some have spines. And all this information tells us how the animals lived on the ocean floor."

The display is meant to capture the diversity and complexity of life through a different lens. Trilobites themselves seem like creatures from another planet—it's a great reminder that life can be successful in many different ways.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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