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The rise of trilobitology

Trilobite workers past and present and pioneers who paved the way

Since the first documented mentioning of trilobites, these ancient creatures have been fascinating natural scientists, some of which became seekers themselves, discoverers and name givers to new species. Others turned into living legends among trilobite enthusiasts around the globe, often they were both at the same time. This sub-page pays tribute to some of the most important and some of the lesser known trilobite workers. They stand for so many more individuals who undertake to carry on the flag. The story on trilobites remains incomplete without the names of those who have dedicated large parts of their lives to these arthropods from the Palaeozoic and those who have paved the way in the past: universal scholars of natural history without whom things would be so much more difficult.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Alexander von Humboldt German natural scientist and universal scholar, co-founder of biogeography as an empirical science. His expeditions throughout Europe, to the South American continent, the USA and central Asia proved fundamental to many fields of modern science. He personally conducted extensive fieldwork in the areas of physics, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, volcanology, botany, zoology, climatology, oceanography and astronomy and did not stop short of economic geography, ethnology and demography. A universal genius and perhaps the most prominent German scientist and world-renowned scholar of all time. He paved the way for Charles Darwin who admired him and laid the proper groundwork for a whole range of disciplines that still concern today’s scientists. His five-volume work, Kosmos (1845), attempted to unify the various branches of scientific knowledge but was subtitled in such a way that Humboldt – despite of all his merits – gave clear indication of how far he still felt himself to be from discovering the last truths.

Joachim Barrande (1799-1883)

Joachim Barrande French naturalist and palaeontologist, a pioneer in exploring the fossilized remains of ancient life forms. An engineer by profession, he was supervising a construction site between Prague and Pilsen when, close to the village of Skryje, he stumbled upon the fossilized remains of trilobites. They appeared to him to be far better preserved than the ones he had seen from other countries like England. Barrande became fascinated with those fossils and decided to commit himself to the exploration of the fossilized faunas of Bohemia. He published 22 fantastic volumes on the Silurian, describing a countless number of trilobites, ammonites, brachiopods and molluscs. By the day he died he had managed to identify and name more than 3500 yet unidentified species. His fossil collection residing with the Prague Museum of Natural History is visited by palaeontologists from around the world still today and his achievement to correlate the appearance of index fossils to the age of the rock they are embedded in is universally recognized.

Alfred R. Wallace (1823-1913)

Alfred R. Wallace British natural scientist and zoologist. Wallace did extensive fieldwork, first in the Amazon River basin between 1848 and 1852 and then in the Malay Archipelago, where he identified the Wallace Line between Bali and Lombok that divides Indonesia into two distinct parts, one in which animals closely related to those of Australia are common, and one in which the species are largely of Asian origin. Russell is widely considered as the co-founder of the Theory of Evolution but unjustly did not receive the high profile publicity that is attached to Charles Darwin although his thinking at some point seems to have extended way beyond that of Darwin as far as evolution was concerned. Russell appears to have been a warm-hearted person and jealousy was not his cup of tea. His undisputed achievements in the field of biogeography and his co-discovery of natural selection do earn him a chapter on this web site, regardless of the fact that he never concerned himself very much with fossils.

Charles D. Walcott (1850-1927)

Charles D. Walcott American invertebrate palaeontologist. Despite the fact that Walcott did never own any scientific degree he was appointed not only director of the “U.S. Geological Survey” but went on to become Secretary of the “Smithsonian Institution” and president of the “American Association for the Advancement of Science”. An enthusiastic collector of trilobites he described dozens of new species to serve as index fossils for Cambrian rocks throughout the entire North American continent. Walcott is renowned for his 1909 discovery of what has become to be known as the Burgess Shale, a fossil-laden area of Cambrian strata in the Canadian Rocky Mountains where soft-tissue preservation allows valuable insights into the outer morphology of some of the earliest complex life forms known. Walcott identified important localities between Mount Wapta and Mount Field, now known as the Walcott Quarry. He published several accounts of his work in the Burgess Shale in the decades to come and contributed greatly to the understanding of the Cambrian fauna.

Rudolf Kaufmann (1941)

Rudolf Kaufmann German trilobite worker. Proved allopatric speciation in trilobites by closely investigating Upper Cambrian alum shales in Sweden, using the genus Olenus as an example. These shales contain an almost consistent series of sedimentary, fossiliferous rocks. Rudolf Kaufmann was able to monitor the appearance and disappearance of different species within the genus Olenus over time and the associated changes in morphology. Kaufmann can be regarded as one of the forgotten heroes of trilobitology. Being a Jew he became a refugee from Nazi rule in Germany and Europe until his arrest which also kept him separated from his Swedish wife Inge who he would never see again. After his escape he managed to get to Lithuania where he hoped to be able to find a passage to what was unoccupied Sweden – a country that served as a safe haven for refugees. In 1941, two Lithuanian security officers of the then German-occupied country recognized and shot Kaufmann to death.

Rudolf Richter (1881-1957) & Emma Richter (1888-1956)

Rudolf & Emma Richter After completing high school Rudolf Richter became a student of geology and associated natural sciences at the universities of Munich and Marburg. In 1932 he became executive director of the Senckenberg Nature Research Society and the Senckenberg Natural History Museum, a position he kept until 1952. He remained head of the geological and palaeontological department until his death in 1957. Rudolf Richter is well known for his extensive work on trilobites in which he was often joined by his wife Emma. He published important accounts of his findings and described countless numbers of new species. His achievements cannot be justly honoured without mentioning the enormous contributions to his life’s work by Emma Richter, who passed away just a few weeks before her husband left this world. The significance of Richter’s work for the advancement of our understanding of trilobites cannot be overrated.

Martin Basse (1960-)

Martin Basse Martin Basse is an honorary assistant at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum and follows in the footsteps of Wolfgang Struve and the Richters with his work on the Devonian of the Eifel region of Southwest Germany. His more important publications include the now five volumes on the trilobites of this famous area. He has contributed to the restructuring of the region’s stratigraphy and the correlation of Middle Devonian strata at the Eifelian/Givetian boundary. Some time ago he started a critical revision of the Senckenberg Museum’s extensive trilobite collection and came up with interesting, albeit sometimes controversial results. It should be emphasized, though, that in doing so he continued a tradition of Senckenberg to accept the necessity of constant revision of numerous Eifel taxa in light of new knowledge and material – something that cannot be contested by any serious observer of today’s trilobitology in Germany. Image used courtesy of Martin Basse.

Stephen J. Gould (1941-2002)

Stephen J. Gould American palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science. Gould's greatest contribution to science was the theory of punctuated equilibrium which he developed with Niles Eldredge in the early seventies. The theory proposes that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the popular idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record. His works include Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, in which this theory was propagated. Despite the fact that trilobites did not play any notable role in his work, he must be marked as an important defender of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution against the attacks by creationists. He remained an important voice in literature and daily press until he finally lost his 20 year battle against cancer.

Harry B. Whittington (1916-2010)

Harry B. WhittingtonBritish palaeontologist. During his long career at Harvard and Cambridge universities he contributed to the knowledge of trilobite morphology, ecology and evolution like hardly anyone else. He was rightfully regarded as the godfather of trilobitology and lectured to such eminent personalities as Richard Fortey. Notable among his scientific achievements is his leading role in the investigation of the unique fauna of the Burgess Shale, pretty much a mirror of what became known as the “Cambrian Explosion“. Whittington published very detailed and ground-breaking accounts of his findings in the 1950s. He co-authored the first volume of the 1997 revision of the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, Part O and continued to influence modern day trilobitology as emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge.until his death in 2010.

Brian D. E. Chatterton (1943-)

Brian D. E. ChattertonCanadian palaeontologist. Professor Brian D. E. Chatterton is without doubt one of today’s leading and most active trilobite workers. He is currently employed with the University of Alberta, Canada, and concerns himself mainly with trilobite ontogenesis, evolutionary developments in trilobites and trilobite systematics. He worked and works closely with such renowned personalities as Greg Edgecombe and Richard Fortey. In cooperation with the latter he erected the trilobite order Asaphida in 1988 (Fortey, R.A. and Chatterton, B.D.E. 1988. Classification of the trilobite suborder Asaphina. Journal of Paleontology, 31, 165-222.) He authored the chapters on trilobite ontogenesis in the 1997 revision of the Treatise and undoubtedly remains one of the most influential individuals in trilobitology. In recent years he has focused on the extraordinary diverse fossilized faunas of Morocco and has published some major works on the Devonian of the Anti-Atlas. Image used courtesy of Brian Chatterton. Thank you!

Richard A. Fortey (1946-)

Richard A. ForteyBritish palaeontologist. Collected his first trilobite at the age of 14, an encounter vividly described in one of his books. Thus began a lifelong fascination. Richard spent a good part of his life exploring, investigating and classifying trilobites, preferably from the Ordovician. He authored ground-breaking scientific papers on many aspects of trilobite morphology and ecology and wrote several books on palaeontology in general (Life: An Unauthorised Biography, 1997) and trilobites in particular (The Trilobite Exoskeleton, 1999; Feeding Habits in Trilobites, 1999; Trilobite!, 2000). He identified and named more than 150 new species and contributed considerably to higher level trilobite systematics and classification. He had a long career as a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and remains one of the most influential figures in trilobitology. Image used courtesy of Richard Fortey. I appreciate this!

Gregory D. Edgecombe (1964-)

Gregory D. Edgecombe Born in Canada, Gregory Edgecombe is currently employed with the palaeontology department at the Australian Museum in Sydney. His main interest in trilobites rests with trilobite ontogenesis and the systematic diagnosis of Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian taxa found in Australia and South America. His important works include efforts to determine the correct position of the class trilobita within the phylum Arthropoda (Edgecombe, G.D. and Ramsköld, L. 1999. Relationships of Cambrian Arachnata and the systematic position of Trilobita. J. Paleont., 73-2, 263-287; Scholtz, G. and Edgecombe, G.D., Heads, Hox and the phylogenetic position of trilobites.) Additional papers, important to the better understanding of trilobites, resulted from cooperation with Prof. Brian Chatterton et al. Image provided by and used courtesy of Gregory D. Edgecombe. Thanks, Greg! ;-)

Bruce S. Lieberman (1966-)

Bruce S. Lieberman American palaeontologist. Bruce Lieberman is currently employed with the University of Kansas, Lawrence, as a professor at the Department of Geology and as senior curator, Division of Invertebrate Paleontology – insiders will immediately realize that it is the University of Kansas Press which publishes the Treatise! His work includes research into macro-evolutionary mechanisms, in particular the reconstruction of phylogenetic patterns in arthropods with a focus on trilobites. He co-authored several scientific works on trilobites together with Edgecombe, Eldredge, Adrain and Kloc. He is also interested in subjects like plate tectonics, palaeobiogeography and climate change during the planet’s past, a field in which the radiation of trilobites during the Palaeozoic can be a major source of information. Bruce Lieberman is surely someone who is looking for the bigger picture. Image used courtesy of Bruce Lieberman. Thanks!

Gerald J. Kloc (1948-)

Gerald J. Kloc American palaeontologist. Gerry Kloc is currently employed as a geological technician at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Rochester, N. Y. Trilobites have always been one of his great passions. He is an extraordinary preparator of fossilized remains and has made important contributions to the understanding of New York’s trilobite fauna. In cooperation with Tom Whiteley and Carlton Brett he has co-authored a beautiful pictorial guide (Trilobites of New York). More than a dozen new genera were erected in 1997 when he co-authored a scientific paper on the Asteropyginae. (LIEBERMAN, B.S. & KLOC, G.J. 1997. Evolutionary and biogeographic patterns in the Asteropyginae (Trilobita, Devonian) Delo, 1935. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 232: 1-127.) Image provided by and used courtesy of Gerry Kloc. Thanks a lot!

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Last Update : 09/04/2010 9:44 PM