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The Mesozoic Mailbag

An Ode to the Trilobite

My love for paleontology is a unique and complex tale, one that started with the humble trilobite.

I have never quite been a “normal” child. I am confident my friends both in high school and middle school can attest to this. While my friends always complained about school and how much they hated it, I enjoyed going to school. While they played video games (I do too, just so we’re clear), I typically had my mind on other things. These other things are where the true difference came into play; I had a fascination on dinosaurs, and not like one experienced by the average child. I took to researching and collecting anything I could about dinosaurs.

I don’t really remember my first dinosaur experience. I don’t remember a single moment where my obsession truly manifested itself in my brain, but I can typically limit it to a few fateful expeditions to a place that is far from the expectations of where dinosaurs can be found: the Humber River.

For non-Torontonians, the Humber River is a pretty big river, one that goes through west-end Toronto. It’s notable for a few things: just how shallow it is, at some points being only two feet deep, the salmon migration every few years, and a rocks visible on the shore. These rocks are, at first glance, a true disaster. The vast majority of rocks seem to be completely barren of anything resembling a fossil, and there are plenty of destroyed concrete mixed with said rocks. But looks can be deceiving. These rocks, despite looking empty, are from the perfect time and place to find prehistoric life. Just so there is no confusion, I don’t mean dinosaurs; the rocks formed at the Humber were formed anywhere from 120-300 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared in the world. But in these rocks, there is a very different cast of weird and wonderful animals.

Long before the dinosaurs, the world was dominated by the relatives of crocodiles. Long before that, the world was dominated by giant insects, which in a way reflects the worlds-angsting teenage years. Long before that, the world was full of ocean life. All life started in the seas, and during the time period known as the Paleozoic, early life was thriving. The most well documented case of this abundance is in the Burgess shale, which is in modern day British Columbia, Canada. The shale, which was once an ocean floor likely at the bottom of a ravine, was buried in mud, and with it, all the ocean life present at the time. So far, over 150 different species have been documented from the shale, with over 200,000 (!!) specimens discovered. The shale is a clear indicator that life in the Paleozoic was thriving.

At the same time that the animals at the burgess shale were being buried, similar things were happening in Ontario; animals were being buried, and as the rocks were being formed around them, they became fossilized. This leads us back to the Humber River. The rocks formed in the Paleozoic are the ones found in the Humber, and as such, so are the fossilized remains of those animals that happened to buried there, all those years ago.

My grandparents live directly on the Humber. When I was really young, they would always take me on walks along the river, and they would always point out the rocks. To this day, I still don’t know if they knew what was in the rocks of the river, but that didn’t matter to me. They said I could go and look for dinosaurs, and I couldn’t be more excited to do that.

TrilobiteWhen I was younger, most rocks I happened upon in the Humber, I believed to be dinosaurs. I realize now that not only are these fossils not dinosaurs, but instead are mostly trilobites and Orthocones, but also that most of them aren’t fossils at all. I became very trigger-happy in what I deemed to be a fossil. Any little mark I could find was a fossil in my book. You could call it desperation, but I would call it ambition.

Looking at my fossil collection, I have two really good fossils. One is held at the location of discovery (my grandparents’ house) and the other is currently missing. The fossil which I can still observe is that of multiple trilobites, all preserved on a piece of limestone. Trilobites are some of the earliest arthropods, and are recognizable by their exoskeletons, which are primitive bases for the crustaceans of today. The marks are faint, but are very clear upon looking closely. The fossil itself isn’t the largest; the largest specimen is around 4 centimeters long. My second fossil is that of an Orthocone, which is a relative of the squid.

While the trilobite fossil I discovered is not the biggest, or most well preserved, it holds a special place in my heart. I think it shows something miraculous; that all life on earth started from something small. Like the trilobite, we start out small, and primitive, but through time, we adapt, improve, and become better than ever before. While we all started out at the same place, we can all grow in our own ways. The fossil can be reflective of my own journey as well; my knowledge of fossils started out primitive in a way; I only knew the actual species of dinosaurs and what they looked like. But as time went on, my knowledge increased into what it is today. While I used to just look at the pictures, now I take the time to acknowledge everything there is about dinosaurs; how they lived, how they died, how in a lot of ways they were some of the most successful animals of all time, but at the same time were forced into extinction by the most catastrophic event in earth’s history. Maybe it’s just me, but the very concept of a dinosaur is one of the most amazing things we can comprehend; that we are not alone. Not in an alien kind of way; instead we have shared this planet with other life that is no longer around today. It doesn’t matter how old I am, or whether or not it’s considered cool, but dinosaurs will always be something special to me.

In a lot of ways, I have my trilobite to thank for that.