Everybody’s favorite stone creature from the Lower Paleozoic gets tender, revelatory treatment from British paleontologist Fortey (Life, 1998).
Trilobites live quietly in their sooty slate, telling us more than something encased in rock ought to be able. Fortey listens closely and retells their story with paleontological flair: “Every tiny ruckle in the wall of Pentargon Bay is the legacy of suffering under a rule of tectonics so mighty that no mere rock could stand against the imperative of crustal stress.” Through trilobites’ eyes he describes their world, revealing aspects of evolutionary theory, the origins of species, the movement of tectonic plates. In a lively voice that glints with humor (darned impressive when the subject is a crustacean-like animal with “a spiny pygidium and a knobbly glabella”), the author covers the history of trilobite hunting, trilobite anatomy, his own days as a trilobite fanatic, and the disconcerting fact that the trilobite’s eyes are made of calcite (like the white cliffs of Dover). The study of trilobites neatly and accessibly puts on display the creative part of the scientific endeavor—for instance, the animals lived so long that you can minutely see evolution at work by tracking the changes from the Lower Cambrian through the Devonian. Fortey takes equal delight in the curios of trilobite history (such as the Chinese habit of grinding them up and drinking them in potions), and he is endearingly crushed by dead ends in trilobite research: “Sadly, we do not know as much as we would like to know about the sex lives of trilobites.” There are even strange, dreadful tales of trilobite hunters, including one who disappeared from the trilobite firmament after being arrested by the Nazis (for “sexual congress with an Aryan woman”) and shot in Lithuania.
Fortey’s “unabashedly trilobito-centric view of the world” is a wonderful, mind-boggling treat, disclosing an evolution of life and landscape as seen through a stone that is more compelling that most living creatures. (40 illustrations & 16 pp. photographs, not seen)