Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution | Richard Fortey

Reading notes from Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution:

  • The first few pages are an exceptionally accessible and interesting portrayal of geological processes and deep time. Really fantastic descriptions of strata folding and mineral deposition on the Cornish coast.
  • Apparently botanists are forced to describe new species in Latin for them to be recognised (may have ceased since publication). (pg 26)
  • Love the name Paradoxides paradoxissimus; translates to "the most paradoxical of paradoxes", a Cambrian trilobite species. (pg 30)
  • Incredible specimens from New York with pyrite infill to limbs and antennae, finally allowing us to get an idea of how they moved. However, it was initially very hard to explain why these fossils have such good preservation; all of a particular species that seemed to live in large groups without any other creatures. Then we discovered deep-sea clams that had developed a symbiotic relationship with sulphur eating bacteria, growing the bacteria on their shells and eating it to survive. The bacteria naturally creates pyrite/iron as a waste. That's what these deep-sea trilobites appear to have done, living off bacterial farms in their own legs and on the seafloor. (pg 66)
  • Trilobite eyes use perfect calcite crystals as the lens; unique in evolution and quite bizarre as a result. (pg 88)
  • A great description of how vision is imbued into our language: "This shared history of vision is far from trivial. In our visually-dominated world sight is almost synonymous with understanding. We acknowledge light dawning by saying: 'I see!' The metaphor of vision suffuses our attempts to convey comprehension: we bring issues into focus, we clarify our views, we sight our objectives, we look into things. We accept the evidence of our own eyes. The conjurer turns the veracity of sight head over heels: now you see it – now you don't. (pg 88)
  • The whole of chapter five is interesting in its dissection of Gould's Cambrian explosion theory. It cleanly argues (with the help of the author's own research) that cladistic analysis of the Burgess shale is able to group its denizens into clear genealogies. Far from being an explosion of forms and "endless failed evolutionary experiments", these animals show easily recognisable evolutionary affinities.
    Included in that argument are small tidbits, such as the trails found in Cambrian rocks classically attributed to trilobites (cruziana) may not be them at all, as many early arthropods had similar limb setups; also that further study of Hallucinogenia has shown it to be a velvet worm!
    (That said the last few pages are a weird summary of palaeontological gossip and bickering between Morris and Gould, with Dawkins at the edge, which doesn't really mean anything in the context of the wider book) (pg 114 onwards)
  • NHM London's fossil collection likely spans an area larger than a football pitch and has four floors. That's a huge area! (pg 144)
  • "It is genuinely difficult to catch the appearance of new species in the act of creation. [Much like] in a burglary, it is rare to come upon the scene with the miscreant standing there, caught red handed and carrying the swag: the subsequent mayhem is what people usually come home to." (pg 152-153)
  • The sad tale of Prof Kaufmann is depressing but fascinating. He discovered a clear example of punctuated equilibrium (and understood what it was showing) a good 40 years before it's mainstream acceptance/discussion, but his ideas were lost because he published in Germany, as a Jew, days before Hitler first took power. He lost his job almost immediately, so could no longer work, and spent most of the war on the run trying to get back to his girlfriend in Sweden. In fact, we only know the tale of his life from the letters he sent that girl, and yet despite spending the entire war trying to reach her, he was ultimately caught and killed in 1940 😢 (pg 162-164)
  • I've always assumed that the ancient microcontinent of Avalonia was named for it mainly being modern England and Wales (i.e. Avalon of Arthurian legend). Actually, it was named for the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland, which was the main piece of strata that linked the various locations all together! It's just a weird coincidence that it would be connected to England. Better yet, the continent's exact position during the Ordovician was proven by a species of trilobite: Merlinia! (pg 196)
  • Quite bizarrely, it would appear that tardigrades are closely related to (or in fact are) stem arthropods. (pg 246)

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