And now for something completely different: trilobites

by Matthew Cobb

While Jerry’s away hiking, here’s an excellent 60 min lecture by the marvellous Richard Fortey, speaking about my second favourite extinct organisms: trilobites.


  1. Posted January 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I guess we should already know, but what’s your favourite?

    Trilobites are mine (and I finally have a fossil, from Meteor Crater.)


  2. Posted January 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Of course, you will need to know how to identify your local trilobites.

    • Matthew Cobb
      Posted January 9, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      🙂 I should have remembered that!

  3. Michael D
    Posted January 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Hehe I just gave my mom a trilobite and his book for xmas.

  4. Posted January 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Fortey’s anecdote about the lab at Imperial College brings back memories of being a post-graduate student there. We had a technician duo and one guy had been there for yoinks and his assistant was a young Italian who spoke no English. Years later I thought that Basil Faulty and Emanual had been modeled on these chaps. Old guy was always complaining about the Italian and said the most awful things about him. Treated him like an idiot.

    On my penultimate day at Imperial, Enzo, his name was, came up to me and said, “New doctor, it has been a pleasure working with you these years. I hope you have good fortune wherever you go.”

    I said, “Enzo, you speak English!”

    And Enzo placed his finger against his nose, looked around and whispered to me, “Our secret, yes?”

    Well, Enzo, yes, our secret … until today!

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted January 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Memory has failed me, so perhaps you or others can tell me whether or not Richard Fortey is the trilobite expert who appeared with Sir David Attenborough on one of the latter’s TV shows which alluded to “evolutionary progress.”

      I wrote the expert an email asking if he truly thought that trilobites had “advanced” (I don’t recall whether or not I also used the term “progressed”) over time. The gentleman quickly responded that he believed that they had.

      I wrote another email asking if he thought that meant that organisms advance or progress over time, and if that applied to humans, implying an evolutionary march through time to better and better humans.

      The gentleman did not respond.

      In any case, I would be interested in the thoughts of others on this forum with respect to this question.

      • steve oberski
        Posted January 9, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

        The concept of progress or advancement (in so far as it presupposes direction or intention) in evolution is teleological masturbation.

        • Posted January 10, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

          Most of the treatments I have seen on evolutionary trends indicate that there are very few or no permanent trends. Perhaps there has been, since the Cambrian, an increase in biodviersity overall. There have been many shorter term trends however, most notably for us the increase in human brain size from the time of the Australopithecines to the appearance of Homo sapiens. I am not sure what trends might be said to characterize trilobite evolution however. My guess is that Fortey might know.

      • Achrachno
        Posted January 9, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

        “whether or not Richard Fortey is the trilobite expert who appeared with Sir David Attenborough on one of the latter’s TV shows”

        Yes, he mentioned working with Sir David in the lecture — toward the end.

      • Aidan Karley
        Posted January 10, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Fortey and Attenborough have certainly worked together in the past, both on TV and more behind the scenes. Given Attenborough’s abundant work in public access to biodiversity (his portfolio is wide ; hard to describe concisely) it would be inconceivable for him to not have come into repeated contact with the Director/ Head/ Boss of the nation’s largest museum of Natural History.
        Knowing people who’ve studied under Fortey, it’s no surprise that he took the time to answer an initial request for information. However, it’s equally no surprise that he didn’t bother to answer further when you started veering into well exercised blind alleys. You probably weren’t the only person he ignored that half-day. He’s got paid-work to do, students who have done their homework to teach, and paperwork to do.
        Q. Are humans changing today? A. Probably.
        Q. What are they going to change into?
        A. Something, or more likely several somethingS, else.
        Q. Can you be more precise?
        A. Not really.
        Q. What, not at all?
        A. Well, if we had a full understanding of human genetics, epigenetics, the proteosome, our internal ecology of trillions of interacting organisms and our external ecology of trillions of interacting organisms ; and if we had the computing resources to completely understand the interactions between all the above, then we might be able to figure it out.
        Q. How long would it take?
        A. Being optimistic – a half dozen generations. Have your grandchildren come back and we’d be better able to give you an ETA for an answer. Oh, you wanted an answer today? Sorry, not possible.

  5. Barge Arse
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    Devonian trilobites from Morocco are fab!

    • Keith Bonham
      Posted January 10, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink


      I’ve wanted one ever since I saw them on the Attenborough show mentioned.

      Anyone happen to know a reputable online place to buy one? I understand fakes are rather common.

      • Achrachno
        Posted January 10, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        Even a good fake would look nice on the mantlepiece.

  6. Griff
    Posted January 10, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Bugger Dinosaurs, Trilobites are FTW.

    • TJR
      Posted January 10, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Given that Dinosaurs had just the one orifice, the cloaca, does the term “bugger” even apply?

  7. Posted January 11, 2012 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Shame they didn’t include the Q & A about the trident at the end. I would have guessed either a sense organ, like the head of a hammerhead shark; some kind of plow, depending on sediment or plants growing in it; or somehow involved in reproduction, for either fertilization or competing for mates.

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