Trilobites Found...
After 54-Years of Looking

What were you doing 54-years ago? I was at Muskingum College as a freshman. One of the required classes that all students had to take was a 10-hour science class. However, science and I have not been very friendly intellectual bedfellows while in high school, and I feared what a college science class could be worse. Therefore, I selected a geology, since it seemed something semi-relevant to me. Okay, the term, semi-relevant, is a relative term to how relevant a physics class would be to a philosophy major.

Therefore, I signed up for geology, which the curriculum catalogue called earth sciences. Aside from not enjoying the sciences in general, getting my mind around something that was 10,000 years old was difficult. However, grasping 10-million years let alone 10-billion years was problematic. Nonetheless, I worked hard at getting a C each semester. In addition to doubling down academically, my professor, Dr. Myers, was so old that he looked like he was born during the late Devonian period.

Nonetheless, when Dr. Myers threw out a teaser regarding getting an A for the semester, I was all ears. In an attempt to excite the class about geology, he promised an A for any student finding a trilobite on our upcoming dig. I was excited about a possibility of getting an A in a science class, which would have been an all-time first in my entire educational journey. I actually went to the library and looked up trilobites. Back in the early 60s, computers were not available. Therefore, I spent several hours researching trilobites at Muskingum's library. I discovered that during the Ordovician age, which was about 4.4 million years ago, there were about 20,000 different species crawling around Ohio where Muskingum is located.

What I did not think to look up was the geologic time period of the place where we were going for our dig. As it turned out, the location of the dig dated back to the very end of the Paleozoic Era. Trilobites died out toward the end of that era. Therefore, finding a trilobite would have been quite remote.

Nonetheless, I had delusions of grandeur floating around in my head and believed that I could find a trilobite, which meant an A. I knew that the largest trilobite was over two feet long. Even a class full of novice diggers could discover a fossilized trilobite that large. However, after a day at the dig, none of us unearthed a two-foot trilobite or even a very small one. Sadly, for the past 54-years, I lived without finding a trilobite, but I did know a lot about them.

You will be interested in knowing that Ohio's state fossil is the trilobite along with Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Ohio's trilobite is from the genus grouping called Isotelus.

This Isotelus trilobite was found at the Hoffman Dam located near Dayton, Ohio.

This Isotelus trilobite was found at the Hoffman Dam located near Dayton, Ohio.

While this particular fossil from the Hoffman Dam is not a great example of these marine arthropods, the next photo clearly shows three segments of trilobite running the length of the trilobites. Trilobite means three lobes.



What is interesting to me, even with my limited scientific prowess, is that the trilobite is also divided into three sections laterally: the top part with the eyes and mouth, the center section, and the back part or tail section.

In addition, the trilobites emerged during the Early Cambrian period, which was 521 million years ago and did not become extinct until near the end of the Paleozoic Era 250 million years ago. Therefore, they were around for about 270 million years. Interestingly, the mighty dinosaurs lasted only for 165 million years, which means that the trilobites lasted about 40% longer than the dinosaurs. In addition, we have been around for only 200,000 years. The extinction of the trilobite occurred due to the lowering of the sea levels coupled with the lessening of trilobite diversity. Something else that I learned was that the trilobites molt or cast off their exoskeleton or outer shell.

The more recent history of the trilobite is also interesting. There is a letter from the Rev. Edward Lhwyd, which is found in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of 1698 in which he made several etchings one of which was a trilobite. He called it, "...the skeleton of some flat Fish," since no one had created the name trilobite by the 17th century.

In America prior to the Civil War, the Ute Native Americans living in present day Utah wore trilobites as amulets, which they called little water bugs. They thought that wearing trilobites was a means to avoid death due to disease or a bullet.

Most recently, I have a friend by the name of Margaret Ann who I have known for years. I was telling her the story of my geology dig, my hope to find a trilobite, and to get an A in geology. Several weeks later, I received from Sarah, her daughter, a large padded envelop that contained a couple trilobites, a dozen other fossilized treasures of the distant past including the dung of a dinosaur, and a book related to fossils. I am truly fortunate. I can say with some confidence that I am the only person that has explored Timbuktu and Kathmandu and possesses two trilobites and dinosaur dung.

For those of you that read my essays on a regular basis, you will know that these treasures would be included in Jack and Owen's The Arts and Sciences course. Each Wednesday, Jack and Owen take this class while I am in Indy to help babysit for them.

The Arts and Sciences

What follows is their recent class, which deals only with trilobites, a shark's tooth, and dinosaur dung. In subsequent weeks, we will discuss a couple turritella, a sea urchin, a piece of horn coral, a dinosaur bone, an ammonite, a brachiopod, a gastropod, fossilized wood, a crinoid, and some fossilized algae.

Jack and Owen will have a lot to cover before they take their final at the end of the semester. By that time, Jack will be five and Owen will be three years old. I am not worried about them doing well on the final. However, their 12-page term paper might be a bite of a stretch for them. I have not spent anytime going over either the APA or MLA writing formats with them. However, time will tell.

Jack and Owen

I have explained what trilobites are and why the name to the boys. Owen has already picked up the dinosaur dung, because it looked pretty.

Jack using a magnifying glass

After explaining the derivation of the name, trilobite, Jack uses his magnifying glass to examine more closely the three lobes.

Owen using a magnifying glass

Owen uses Jack's magnifying glass to look at the two trilobites and the shiny fossil of dinosaur dung. I had not yet told them about that large fossilized dung.

Jack looking at a fossil

Jack wanted to know what Owen liked so much, so Owen gave it to him. He looked but did not see any skeleton embedded in the fossilized rock. Somewhat concerned, he asked what it was. I told him it was a fossilized dinosaur dung. Owen said quietly "dinosaur dung," which is his habit as he is processing new ideas. Jack's responded, "What's dinosaur dung?" If he does not understand something, he will ask until he understands it. Since dung is not an integral part of his vocabulary, he wanted more information. I explained in terms that they could both understand. I told him that dung was what their dog does in the backyard that smells. Owen then said, "Dog poop."

Owen examining a fossil

Owen wanted his treasure back from his brother to smell the fossilized poop. Jack explains that it is dried dinosaur poop...hence there is no smell.

Jack looking at the Arts and Sciences book

Jack explains to Owen the three lobes to Owen. Once he understands something, he wants to make sure that his younger brother also understands. It is interesting to sit back and watch the learning possess of both children. Owen will quietly repeat the learning. This time he said, "Trilobite."

Owen looking at the Arts and Sciences

In their course notebook, I ran off several photos of some very large trilobites.

The boys looking at the Arts and Sciences

While Owen looks back to earlier classes about dragonflies, he seems to understand fossilization at least for someone nearing three years old. He is attempting to explain something to Jack. However, their dog is bored with the entire class.

Owen looking at the fossilized dung

Owen decided that the class was over and started putting the trilobite and poop away for another week.

Al looking at a fossil

The shark's tooth is circled above in red. Since they have already looked at the shark's jaw during a previous class, they were well aware of shark teeth. Then Jack said the strangest thing. "It is like the snowman on the window." It was obvious to him that I did not understand his assertion. Therefore, he took me to the window in the dining room, which contained an array of rubbery snowmen stuck to the glass. He took one of the snowman's arms, which was made to look like a tree branch and compared it to the shark tooth. He was correct; it looked just like the shark tooth.

Al looking at a fossil

While Jack and Owen enjoyed learning about trilobites, dinosaur dung, and shark teeth, Jack insisted that he took a picture of me examining the trilobite. What I learned again is that toddlers want to learn everything not just what we think is important for them to learn. Taking pictures was exciting for him. He reminded me of that truth.