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Book Review: Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey


Richard Fortey’s Trilobite! isn’t just about trilobites. It’s about evolution, geography, time, and the people who do science. Above all, it’s a true reflection of Fortey’s absolute passion for trilobites, where his adoration and expertise shines through from every page. Trilobite! is a personal love letter to Fortey’s cherished trilobites, and an effort to share with each reader a fraction of his reverence for this arthropod of the ancient seas.


Trilobites are extinct, marine animals that first appear in the fossil record in the Early Cambrian and grew to dominate the ancient seas until their decline nearly 300 million years later, at the end of the Permian. Although at first they may not look as spectacular as the dinosaurs, Fortey reveals a whole world of trilobites that might otherwise have been missed to the reader. Their diversity is spectacular; with around 20,000 known species, they cover sizes ranging from a meagre few millimetres to 70cm, with some free swimming, others burrowing, and every mode of life in between.


Trilobite! doesn’t follow a particularly set narrative; each chapter is a contained section focusing on a different topic, from anatomy, diversity, the evolution of eyes, palaeogeography and life cycles. But throughout the book, Fortey makes sure to tell the stories around the science. If one section seems bogged down in detail, persist and the next page will tell an engaging tale of discovery or Fortey’s own career. There’s so much charm in Fortey’s retellings of his discussions on the train to work, trying to explain how he gets paid to study ancient sea creatures and what they can reveal about the position of ancient continents to fellow commuters. There is a friendly and endearing quality in the writing throughout the book as Fortey introduces you to his two worlds: his modern one with the stories of commutes, colleagues, and fieldwork in the Arctic cold of Spitsbergen in Norway, and his prehistoric ocean, as seen through the eyes of the trilobite. A personal favourite quote concerns his time endlessly bashing open rocks searching for trilobites in Spitsbergen, where Fortey remarks, "hardened criminals used to be required to do the same thing before it was banned as inhumane. I loved it."

Photo by Mia Wroe

Of particular note was the chapter on trilobite eyes. Fortey is persistent throughout the book in his refusal to reduce the detail with which he discusses complex systems and theories, but instead always opts to take the time to explain everything to the level of a casual reader. While this is perhaps part what makes Fortey one of the great science writers, it can at times become intimidating to any reader without the years of expertise that he has. It is easy, when reading about c crystallographic axes and rhombic calcite, to be put off and want to perhaps skip what initially appears to be an overwhelming volume of physics. But persistence pays off and it is immensely rewarding to understand the workings of an eye so different and ancient, yet no less impressive than our own. Anatomy and physics is explained alongside stories about long nights in the lab counting individual calcite lenses, the time Fortey accidentally flooded an entire lab room of Imperial College London, Shakespeare plays and how one man took a photo of an FBI building adjacent to his office through the lens of a trilobite. (Also, only geology undergraduates may know the excitement of reading about a use for stereonets outside of those scribbled sloppily in field notebooks in the rain or plotted for essays about rock deformation!).


Fortey’s work is collected here alongside that of many important names in a history of the study of trilobites. Explanations of vital evolutionary theories, like punctuated equilibrium, are told through the life and work of Niles Eldredge and Rudolf Kaufmann, creating a real example of how science works; through small discoveries compiled together into a bigger picture. In the same vein, Fortey is always careful to show how the study of something some consider perhaps too niche to be of consequence, can lead to massive contributions in other fields of science. For example, fossil trilobite distributions can be used alongside palaeomagnetic data to map the continents as they were 500 million years ago. As Fortey himself says, “map the trilobites and you map the continent.” These small arthropods can move the surface of the Earth.

Photo by Mia Wroe

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