Category Archives: About Fossils

Elrathia Kingii

10 Trilobite Facts for The Fossil Lover in All of Us

Trilobite of Wheeler Shale

Across the vastness of our ocean floors, Trilobites, recognized by their distinctive 3-lobed, 3-segmented form, roamed for nearly 300 million years.

These ancient marine animals made their debut on earth around the beginning of the Cambrian Period (some 542 million years ago). During that time they dominated the seas, surviving and thriving beneath the waves. In the succeeding geologic periods we would see their numbers decline, although some were able to persist well into the Permian Period (ending around 251 million years ago).

Today, these now-extinct marine animals are highly sought out by collectors, as fossilized creatures from the deep.

Trilobite Facts

1. More than 20,000 Unique Species of Trilobites Have Been Discovered

Found on every continent, to date we have discovered no less than 20,000 species of this marine animal, ranging in size from 28 inches long (Isotelus rex) to those less than a millimeter in length. Notable features include rounded shells (some smooth some with defensive spines), with many deep-sea species being blind.

2. Making Their Debut: 540 million years ago

Our best estimations from carbon dating place the Trilobite appearing at the start of the Cambrian Period. Noted for explosive diversity and the emergence of new creatures, this period included a wide range of arthropods, mollusks, and some species that are hard to classify. Taking full advantage of conditions at that time, Trilobites quickly expanded to become one of the most common and diverse animals at the time.

3. Unique Defensive Mechanism

At the first sign of danger, these creatures would ball up similar to modern-day pill bugs. Flexing their posterior end under their head, this defensive position effectively utilized their hard outer shell/exoskeleton to provide superior protection against predators.

4. Confusion Amongst the Scientific Community

These little sea creatures gave the scientific community a bit of a head-scratcher at first. Naturalist and linguist Edward lhuyd (1679) first misidentified it as “the skeleton of some Flat-fish”. Later, in 1750, Bishop Charles Lyttleton wrote to London’s Royal Society describing what he believed to be a “petrified Insect”.

5. Not Actually a Fossil in the Traditional Sense

The majority of Trilobite fossils are the remnants of molted exoskeletons. Similar to a hermit crab, these creatures would periodically outgrow their own shells. When this happened, a molting process would ensue and the discarded ‘husks’ would often become preserved. In fact, most ‘fossils’ of trilobites are not the creature itself (which are comparatively rare), but rather the discarded shell.

6. Not One, but THREE States in the USA Have Made the Trilobite It’s Official Fossil

In 1985, Ohio marked the first state to adopt the entire Isotelus genus as its state fossil, with Wisconsin opting to choose Calymene celebra as theirs. Three short years later, in 1988, Pennsylvania adopted Phacops rana as its official state fossil, in large part thanks to the lobbying of an elementary school class.

7. Diverse Food Sources

It is thought that early trilobites were hunters, seeking out aquatic worms that were eaten live. However, some theorize that other species may have evolved to survive on algae and plankton, utilizing a filter-feeding system for nourishment. Many researchers believe that there were trilobite species that occupied every possible feeding niche, hunters, plant eaters, scavengers, and filter feeders.

8. A Victim of Mass Extinction

Over 250 million years ago, a mass extinction event occurred. Sometimes referred to as the “Great Dying”, this catastrophic event resulted in some 90% of all species on earth perishing.

Possible causes range from exploding supernovas, to increased volcanic activity. Regardless of the catalyst, the event, known by the scientific community as the “Permian Extinction” resulted in trilobites meeting their ultimate demise.

9. An Unlikely Use: Native American Amulets

A lesser-known tribe from what is now defined as the state of Utah once collected these Cambrian trilobites for an unlikely use. The Pahyant Ute people believed that the fossils had supernatural powers, leading them to make amulets and protective charms from the fossils. Interestingly, the tribe called them “Timpe-Konitza-Pachuee”, roughly translated to “little water bug living in a house of stone”.

10. A Connection to the Star Wars Trilogy!!!

Samuel Turvey, a paleontologist, discovered several unique species of trilobites during his explorations in China. One such species he opted to name “Han”. Conveniently enough, “Han” also represents China’s largest ethnic group. Given the opportunity, Turvey couldn’t resist naming one particular species “Han solo”.

Sandbox fossil dig

The Excitement of Discovery in the Sandbox

 

 

When we had our school in Colorado, our students loved the boulder-rimmed sandbox.  The giant rocks were great for little bodies to begin their first bouldering escapades, there was a deep indentation that felt like a cave for pretending so many historical scenarios, and then there were the fossils. 

You see, about four times a year, my husband and I, both teachers at the school, would bring in a giant bucket of sandbox fossils and scatter them throughout the area, burying them in layers all around the giant sand area. We’d take the elementary students out to the sandbox at various times and pretend we’d taken a trip to the sand dunes in southern Colorado, or the Burgess Shale in Alberta, Canada where so many of the same early fossils had been discovered: crinoids, brachiopods, orthoceras, clams, gastropods, and even the occasional trilobite. As the students grew more sophisticated in their understanding of what it took to dig fossils, we’d sometimes layout a grid and practice the excavation in the style of the true paleontologist. 

Once the fossils were found, we had a number of activities to choose from: making plaster casts, re-burying in a sawdust/plaster mixture to be dug out and discovered by another student, and testing with acid to see if there was any organic material remaining. 

At times we made mini-digs with a material we lovingly called Fossil Pie. These were put together around the time of our big annual fundraiser Pie-a-Palooza. Most of the pies sold here were sweet and delicious, but the fossil pie often brought the highest bid at our auction because it was filled with fossils, gems, teeth, and other earthly treasures that spanned the millennia. With up to 100 specimens to be found in the space of a pie tin, these Fossil Pies, were popular among the younger set who’d searched for hours in the school sandbox to find a few treasures.  

There are so many things you can do with Sandbox Fossils to help your children experience the joy of discovery that leads to learning. This lesson plan  will connect your child to ancient sea beds and demonstrate how long-ago animals turned to modern-day stone fossils. And if you’ve got a hankerin’ for Fossil Pie, there’s a version of it for sale here: https://www.fossilicious.com/fossil-pie-12-specimen-fossil-hunt.html

Sandbox fossils- Just add water!

Sandbox fossils- Just add water!

graptolites

Enter The Graptolites!

Miraculously, life appeared on earth nearly 3.5 billion years ago in the form of microbes.  By the time of the Cambrian explosion, life forms were highly developed.

graptolites

graptolites

Consider the trilobite. (If you’ve been following my blog you know it’s one of my personal favorites!) It has a chitinous covering that was made of dozens of armor-like plates that allowed it to curl into a ball when stimulated and in need of protection. Trilobites had many legs, the three lobes that inspired its name, and a clear head, thorax and “tail” known as the pygidium. Its most highly developed organ was its eye, seen here on one of our favorite giant models. Yet, on the timeline of life, it’s one of the earliest noted species, living from approximately 520 mya until they died out at the great Permian mass extinction around 250 mya.

It is generally known that the most important remnants of the Cambrian animal explosion are found in the Burgess Shale, discovered in 1909 by Charles Wolcott of the Smithsonian Institution in the Canadian province of Alberta. Here, with the presence of more than 150 species, is the evidence of the Cambrian explosion of life. The Burgess Shale is notable not only for the number of species but also for the fossil remains that include rarely fossilized soft body parts. 

But I’ve often wondered about the simplest animal forms? What did they look like? How did they relate to the Cambrian fossils of the Burgess Shale? 

Enter the graptolite! When we first encountered this early colonial species, they didn’t visually impress. But the more we learned the more we thought our personal collection would be remiss without at least a few specimens of this animal group. For amateurs like ourselves, it took a while before we stumbled upon a place where the graptolites were plentiful enough that soon they will become part of our student collections! In the meantime, we are learning all we can about this early species and I’ll share bits and pieces of this learning over the next few blog posts.

As I began my research, the graptolite got my attention when I learned that it belongs to the phylum Hemichordata. Remembering my early days with the Montessori Chinese Box of the Animal Kingdom, I was excited to now have an animal I knew as part of this phylum. Scientists place it as an extinct subclass of the class Pterobranchia, a group of worm-like animals that live in tubes on the floor of the ocean. They are filter feeders. 

So far in my studies, the most interesting fact is how they got their name. Based on Greek root words, the name literally means “written on rocks” (graptos: “written” and lithos: “rocks”), aptly chosen because the fossil remains look a lot like hieroglyphs. They were discussed, drawn and labeled by Linneaus as possibly plant fossils or crusts formed on rocks that merely resembled fossils. The new fossils we’ve found are truly beautiful “pictures” of real, simple, early animals that got their start in the middle Cambrian period. 

Stay tuned for more photos and info as I lean-in to my own learning over the next few weeks or browse our collection of graptolite fossils! (Include photo of several graptolites. )

Snail Relatives

Snail Relatives…Who knows?

It’s been a “snail-y” summer here is SoCal. I have a new appreciation for the plight faced in Big Little Farm. (If you haven’t seen it, be sure you do. It’s inspiring and hope-producing!)

I guess it was just a matter of time when we’d have one of the modern little buggers show up in a box of fossil relatives. And here it was today! My mind began to fill with questions begging for answers.

The one made of stone is from the Cretaceous Period and came to us from Morocco. That was the first question and easily answered by Doug who keeps these things in his memory better than I.

Next up: I wonder if these are related species…what species is that fossil? What species the snail? If they aren’t the same species, then are they related? Then, “Is this an analogy or homology?” You get the picture…biological questions.

Next my mind flipped to geology and history. (Big History!) Fossil snails seem pretty common, I wonder if there are any around here. If so, were Africa and North America connected at one time? How were the continents connected during the Cretaceous? How many years ago was that? How can I figure that out? And now there’s some math learning/practice potential!

In the history of biology, did any of the scientists from the early days draw pictures of these cretaceous snails? Linnaeus drew pictures of hundreds, if not thousands, of species of fossils and even things he wasn’t sure were fossils. (See my post on Graptolites.) What sort of writing did these early biologists/paleontologists do on the topic of gastropods? How did they tell the story? Maybe I could write my own story of the gastropod…

The human mind is amazing! It’s inherently human to wonder and be curious. Experiences like this drives children to form questions, seek the answers, and trust their ability to find them.

Student questions lead to a need for skill-development, which leads to learning, resulting in a hunger for more. As Dr. Maria Montessori wrote inEducation for a New World, (in response to observing a young child spelling words with the moveable alphabet in an early Montessori classroom)“There was an inner urge for more and more knowledge.”

Will you inspire that hunger in a child?

Could It Be A Trilobite’s Descendant?

Could it be? Was this “bug” walking through my living room a remnant of the trilobite species? I’d seen pill bugs before, but this bug looked to have LOBES! And three of them at that!

The child inside of me was beyond excited, thrilled…not quantifiable. I hopped onto Google (of course). There I found a TON of info and began to learn so many new things.

I started by searching with the only terms I knew: “roly-poly bug” and “pill bug”. I learned that people all over the US called them by different names. And there were a lot of different species with a wide variety of markings. It was the pale markings on my bug that made it appear to have lobes, which it really did not.

Next, my husband announced that it really couldn’t be a trilobite because all the known species were “assumed” to have lived in water. So I dug a little deeper. Lo and behold, the pillbug, roly-poly (or even sowbug) is not an insect at all…it’s a crustacean! It has gills! I will forever remember these last facts because they are unique, unexpected and the opposite of what I thought I was observing: an insect. But this guy has 7 pairs of legs…and those GILLS!

Why is this so fascinating? I believe I had a childlike moment of learning, something all us teachers hope to inspire. And brought on by a tiny little bug.

You see, this example had all the elements of what we teachers need to inspire learning:

  1. A Eureka moment in which I was driven to figure out if this could really be a unique species of trilobite.
  2. A novel learning moment in which I learned that this “bug” was no insect; rathe a crustacean with 7pairs of legs, and GILLS!
  3. Comparable/compatible information that helped me understand my curiosity: besides looking like a trilobite, they also behave like a trilobite. When they are moving, their little legs hold up the “shell” and when touched, they roll into a tight ball.

All in all, it was a perfect (personal) example of what great learning can be.

What sort of amazement will you inspire in your students today?

Elrathia Kingii

Digging Trilobites At U-Dig Fossils

How’d you like to split an ordinary-looking gray rock and find this beauty? You can at

U-Dig  Fossils near Delta, Utah in western Millard County.

The quarry is literally acres of Wheeler Shale, laid down during the Cambrian Period approximately 507 million years ago. Trilobites were prolific inhabitants of the Cambrian seas that covered the planet. This species, the Elrathia Kingii, shows up between layers of the shale.

When you arrive at the quarry, you’re handed a bucket and a hammer to help gently tap on the shale to split the layers. It’s fairly common to find pieces of incomplete trilobites. On the day we visited, several really nice whole trilobites were found…but not by us.

To be fair, we didn’t spend much time splitting rocks. We arrived at the quarry late in the morning on what was a pretty hot summer day. We recommend you keep an eye on the temperatures, because this is the desert and by late morning temperatures can be brutal.

The Crapo family runs the U-Dig Fossil Site. We met and worked with the patriarch of the family in 2005. For the next 12 years of so, Loy Crapo, whose business is called The Bug House, supplied us with a variety of Elrathia kingii fossils of various sizes and levels of completion. After Loy passed away, his widow, sons, daughters, and their families continued the Bug House business and do so until today.

The Bug House isn’t just about trilobites, in fact, their bigger business is in two beautiful crystal specimens: Septarian nodules and Dugway geodes.

We spoke with Shayne Crapo who runs the U-Dig Fossils quarry. Shayne recommends visitors:

It is adviseable to bring a pair of gloves (garden gloves are sufficient), safety glasses and a light jacket in the event there is a change of weather. Remember to bring plenty of food and water. Please bring a container to transport your fossils home. It is always good to bring a spare tire as well.

We will be open 6 days closed on Sunday, hours of operation 9 AM – 6 PM. “Closed on Sundays and 4 July, we are open on most holidays except for Sundays”. Please feel free to call to make sure what days we are open, and check the calendar just in case. If you get there early just wait for us at the gate and we will be there promptly.

Business hours are Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Please arrive at the quarry before 4 PM because the quarry will close early if no one is present at 4 p.m. Please do not attempt to enter the quarry when it is closed.

Directions– The U-DIG Fossils Quarry is located approximately 52 miles west of Delta, Utah, near Antelope Springs. It is approximately 90 miles from Provo to Delta. It is approximately 130 miles from Salt Lake City to Delta.

Once in Delta, first travel 32 miles west on Highway 6 / 50. At the Long Ridge Reservoir sign between mile markers 56-57, turn right. There is a U-DIG Fossils sign at this intersection. Then travel 20 miles down a well-maintained gravel road to reach the U-DIG Quarry. Any type of vehicle can travel this gravel road.

Costs

Elrathia kingii Trilobite

Hours-hours of operation 9 AM – 6 PM. “Closed on Sundays and 4 July, we are open on most holidays except for Sundays”. Please feel free to call to make sure what days we are open

Season-1 April – 30 Oct

 

Claudia's Ginko Fossil

What’s Your Favorite Fossil?

Inevitably, when I’m talking fossils, folks drop the name of their favorite. Do you have one? Just one?

My passion for fossils grew out of my love for playing in natural settings. I was one of those lucky kids who was NOT a “last child in the woods”.  I grew up in a place and time where the creek just down the road between my house and the abandoned farm was the best playground through all the seasons.

The creek was where I began to notice, learn, and develop a passion for my favorite leaf-shape variations:  the ones that signaled berries would arrive in a month or two and the ones to be avoided.

The creek was where I found my first rock treasures, filling my shelves with equal quantities of rocks and books. We stumbled across crazy shapes in the rocks, only to learn many years later, that these were the fossilized remains of ancient Ordovician and Silurian sea creatures. Most of our rocks contained common shapes: bryozoan, brachiopods, and crinoids. The trilobite, common during those geologic periods and which occupied my “favorite fossil’ status, but didn’t find its way into my personal collection for many years.

But then I discovered the gingko! A huge old  tree graced the entry to my first Montessori school and captured my heart for its simple and unique fan-shaped leaves and stinky fruit. When I learned it was a “living fossil” whose origins went back as far as 270 million years, I was totally smitten! The ginkgo quickly rose to the top of my “favorite fossil” list. No big surprise that this special find at last year’s gem and fossil show had to come home with me!

Is there a trilobite, a gingko, or ???? in your life?

Morocco at Last!

We were nearly drip-dried after standing in the beating rain to get onto our aircraft in London. The dry, early afternoon heat was a welcome completion to the process. Met by our Italian host for our time in Marrakech, he wove his way to the center of the old city and the oldest Medina in Morocco. He told us the huge mosque that we could see (and hear) from our Riad, was the third most important mosque to the Muslim faithful.

Our car was met by a Moroccan “bell boy” who carried our suitcases down ancient, narrow streets. We both felt a little nervous about what might lay behind the door. We needn’t have been. The Riad, which means a building with a central garden courtyard, was stunning. The walls were decorated with fossils, and our excitement for the hunting to come began to build. Our hostess served us the first of many daily teas. No matter when you sit down to a meal, or even when you just meet a friend, tea will always accompany the moment.

Our room looked out on the Riad below. Everywhere were special touches of Moroccan beauty and special effort was made to enhance the fragrance of the air with warm oils and rose petals. Our first day in Morocco was filled with sights and sounds never before experienced.

It’s Not Just a Trilobite; It’s a Flexicalymene!

Trilobites are one of the most beloved Paleozoic Era fossil specimens. They are found all around the globe because they lived during a time when most of the land was covered by ancient seas.  For more information about Trilobites and a few pictures which can be downloaded to color, take a look at our sister site:  www.fossils-facts-and-finds.com. 

Trilobites made their entrance onto the earth’s stage during the late Cambrian Period. This is the first and oldest division of the Paleozoic Era.  The rock layers belonging to this time period were first identified near Cambria or modern-day Wales. It’s easy to see how the period got its name! 

The divisions of the Paleozoic Era that follow the Cambrian are the Ordovician, the Silurian, the Devonian, and the Permian periods.  If you look up the meanings of these names, you’ll find that they, too, were named for the location associated with the layers of rock that were laid down so many million years ago. 

When you think of these periods like rock layers it can be helpful to imagine a cake with 5 layers: a cake layer on the bottom (Cambrian), an icing layer (Ordovician), cake again (Silurian), icing again (Devonian) and ending with a cake layer on top (Permian). That’s just the end of the Paleozoic Era! It is followed by the Mesozoic Era that would add three more layers, and then the Cenozoic Era with three more! That’s a lot of layers…and it’s only the layers that represent the time since there has been life on earth. To include the millions of years before that would be another entire group of layers! 

In modern times, more than 5000 different trilobite genera have been named. If you really want to get into trilobites, you should check out http://www.trilobites.info/ This site, created and monitored by Dr. Sam Gon III,  is literally hundreds of pages of information about trilobites….we think it’s the best anywhere! 

The particular genus and species pictured here is the flexicalymene ouzregui. It lived during the most recent part of the Ordovician period or about 449 million years ago. It is a species commonly found in Morocco, near the city of Erfoud, where many Paleozoic Era fossils are commonly found. 

If you love this trilobite, and would like your very own trilobite fossils, you can find one here: Flexicalymene Trilobite