Tom Whiteley, an accomplished amateur paleontologist, has taken the lead in compiling a much-needed popular account of the trilobites of New York. Sumptuously illustrated with generous photographs of complete specimens of New York trilobites, this book is more than a regional field guide. It also testifies to Gerry Kloc's expertise in preparation and Carlton Brett's keen insight about the rocks and complex facies of the state. In essence, the book reprises the work of Charles Walcott, another accomplished amateur paleontologist of a century and a quarter ago.

The technical literature on trilobites is vast. It is dispersed through numerous paleontological journals, in specialized books, and as century-old monographs. Even a dedicated trilobite paleontologist with access to a university library would have difficulty retrieving all of it. The popular literature on trilobites is a lot easier to access, if only because there is so little of it. Few professional paleontologists have considered it important to write field guides to fossils along the lines of the popular regional guides to flowers, mushrooms, trees, insects, and birds that are available in every bookstore across America. Fewer still have written books exploring the natural history of fossils.

Trilobites of New York is a lavishly illustrated bestiary of New York trilobites in which one can sense the spirit of Samuel Latham Mitchill's monograph, The Fishes ofNew York, published in 1815. Both books are basically encyclopedic and scientific in their approach, but each includes snippets of practical information. Mitchill advised fishermen that the blackfish will run in the spring when the dogwood blossoms open. Whiteley suggests that a 35-mm TIFF color image of a trilobite is about 25 megabytes in size and should be stored on a CD-ROM. Times change!

Here is a summation of nearly two centuries of discovery and study of New York trilobites by a succession of paleontologists and as an exposition of the natural history of these fascinating fossils. The book will be welcomed especially by American paleontologists, professional as well as amateur, and by anyone who delights in the exquisite beauty of these ancient fossils.

Professional paleontologists working on New York fossils have always been greatly outnumbered by amateur paleontologists and avocational fossil collectors. Although often (and mistakenly) dismissed as dilettantes, amateurs (the root is the Latin amator, for

"lover") are those who pursue an activity out of interest instead of financial gain. Amateurs, like professionals, tend to specialize. In New York, as in Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Utah — regions that have a lot of fossiliferous Lower Paleozoic outcrop — many amateurs and fossil collectors concentrate their efforts on trilobites. They have collected and prepared trilobite specimens that, in quality and completeness, rival those described by academic paleontologists. The extent of popular interest in trilobites is exemplified by hundreds of websites on the Internet, almost all of them hosted by amateurs.

The photographs in this publication reveal why trilobites have long been considered to be among the most desirable and curious of fossils. A late Paleolithic hunter in what-is-now central France carried one around his neck as a pendant suspended from a leather thong. Ancient Chinese philosophers called them "stone silkworms" and "batstones." The Pahvant Ute tribe of western Utah knew them as timpe khanitza pachavee, meaning "little water bug like stone house." Strung as amulets, they were thought to possess magical powers. In 1698, Edward Lhwyd, curator of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, included in the pages of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society a plate with a finely lined oval fossil from the shales exposed near Llandeilo in southern Wales. He thought it was a "flat fish." In nearby areas in Wales suffused with the legend of King Arthur, such fossils are called "stone butterflies" and are widely believed to have been entombed in rock by spells cast by the wizard Merlin.

European naturalists were fascinated by these fossils. Although they described and figured them in considerable detail, they had great difficulty in determining what they were and how they should be classified. The great naturalist Carolus Linnaeus applied the term Entomolithus paradoxus ("paradoxical stone insect") to such fossils from Sweden; others thought they were fossil crabs or possibly weird mollusks.

With their evocative and disparate names, these stony objects were corralled in 1771 when the German naturalist lohann Ernst Immanuel Walch published the third volume of Der Naturgeschichte der Versteinerungen [Natural History of Petrifactions]. In it he proposed a collective name derived from the most obvious feature—their three-lobed appearance. Eventually naturalists studying fossils (who were now beginning to be called pale-

ontoJogists) accepted that trilobites comprise a distinct group of fossil arthropods.

By the early years of the nineteenth century, trilobites of many different types had been documented from Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, and Bohemia. Then, as now, they attracted attention because of their peculiar shape, their striking ornamentation, and their great age. Among the most ancient of fossils, they were found mainly in the sectors of Earth history soon to be named the Cambrian and Silurian systems.

Trilobites are the most lifelike of fossils — many well-preserved specimens belie their great antiquity and seem almost ready to arch their bodies, peer about with their compound eyes, and crawl forward as if to continue a journey that was interrupted hundreds of millions of years ago. A trilobite is an ancient arthropod, but it is certainly not a lesser arthropod.

Trilobite discoveries in the New World followed closely on those in the Old. By 1832 so many different kinds of trilobites had been collected that Jacob Green, a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, had sufficient material to write a 93-page monograph detailing all the species then known. He might have titled it TriJobites ofNew York instead of A Monograph of the TriJobites of North America, because of the 32 species he dealt with, all but 7 came from that state.

New York was home to the first American school of geology. In 1824 Stephen Van Rensselaer provided the funding that allowed Amos Eaton to start the Rensselaer School in the town of Troy. This school left a solid mark on early American geology and paleontology. It graduated a remarkable contingent of geologists — one that effectively dominated American geological surveys—along with a few paleontologists who ensured that New York remained the paleontological heartland of North America for the rest of the nineteenth century. One of the Rensselaer graduates was sure that he had found a living trilobite.

As a member of the United States "Exploring Expedition of 1830," James Eights of Albany was the first American scientist to study the marine animals, landforms, and geology of Antarctica and its surrounding islands. Among his discoveries from the shallow seas around the bleak South Shetland Islands was a peculiar creature that he named Brongniartia triJobitoides and illustrated alongside its presumed relative, Brongniartia boJtoni. B. boJtoni was a large fossil trilobite that had been described from ancient Silurian shales scooped up by tarriers digging the Erie Canal near Rochester. And if B. boJtoni was a stony extinct trilobite, then surely the lively trilobitoides must be living members of that ancient clan. The Antarctic animal, however, turned out to be a crustacean—an isopod of the genus SeroJis. But even today SeroJis triJobitoides (Eights) is cited as a textbook example of the convergent evolution of isopods and trilobites.

New York paleontology entered a new state-sanctioned phase in the early 1840s when James Hall, the state paleontologist and the best-known graduate of the Rensselaer School, received support from the state legislature to prepare a single volume on the fossils of the state. Hall had greater ambitions, and entirely due to his stubborn determination and ability to browbeat legislators, this volume became the first of no fewer than 13 quarto volumes of the monograph series PaJaeontoJogy of New York. The series comprised thousands of pages and many hundreds of plates published over the next half century. To pursue his work, Hall amassed huge fossil collections at his laboratory along the Beaverkill in Albany. Of Hall it can truly be said that he never met a fossil he didn't covet. He hired a succession of assistants to collect, prepare, describe, and draw the specimens. Hall himself described many trilobites from the state in his PaJaeontoJogy, but independently one of his assistants made the class Trilobita his own.

Charles Doolittle Walcott was a young man of 26 when he started to work for Hall in 1876. Born at New York Mills in the Mohawk Valley, he had little formal education but a wealth of practical knowledge about fossils. A few years previously he had sold a collection of trilobites he had compiled from Trenton Falls on West Canada Creek to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University for $5000. At night, after he had finished his work for Professor Hall, Walcott polished sections of tightly enrolled specimens of the trilobite Ceraurus in an attempt to determine the structure of its infolded limbs. This was enormously difficult — akin to attempting the restoration of an orchid by slicing serially through a rolled-up flower—and, not surprisingly, resulted in inaccurately reconstructed trilobite limbs. Walcott also collected from localities in New York where few trilo-bites had been known before. He made large collections from deformed Lower Cambrian rocks of the Taconic Mountains and from Upper Cambrian limestones near Saratoga Springs. However, Walcott chafed at the treatment he received from the mercurial Hall, who after a few years dumped him for a younger and more compliant assistant. Walcott benefited by gaining a position in the newly formed U.S. Geological Survey, then became director of the survey, and rose to become the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Walch might have named it, but it was Walcott who conceived the trilobite taxon. He was the first to suggest that the class Trilobita (or, as some paleontologists now favor, phylum Trilobita) was a group of arthropods quite distinct from crustaceans.

New York had to relinquish its primacy in matters trilobitic in the early years of the twentieth century as the research focus shifted to other parts of the continent—to the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah, to Newfoundland, to Virginia, to the Upper Mississippi Valley, and to the southern Canadian Rockies. In the 1960s a new crop of paleontologists applying modern paleonto-logical ideas sparked renewed interest in the New York trilobites that had been described a century earlier. Among these scientists were Franco Rasetti, the paleontologist/nuclear physicist from Johns Hopkins University who focused on Cambrian trilobites from the tortured rock of the Taconic region; Harry Whittington, the Woodwardian professor of geology at Cambridge University, who restored the anatomy of pyritized Triarthrus from Upper Ordovician shales near Rome; and Niles Eldredge, the paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, whose work ensured the centrality of Middle Devonian Phacops (now EJdrcdgeops) in the new evolutionary model of punctuated equilibria.

So the authors of this book are to be congratulated for bring ing us full circle as they update and enhance the story of the trilo-bites of New York, bringing new visions and fresh perspective to these wonderful creatures.


Denman Institute for Research on Trilobites

Denman Island, British Columbia, Canada

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  • Tobold
    How are trilobytes conceived and born?
    6 years ago

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