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Science, Maths & Technology

Tym the Trilobite: My hairy legs and crystal eyes

Updated Thursday, 4th September 2008

With his crystalline eyes and hairy legs - Tym describes how he looked before he became a fossil.

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Trilobite detail

Now, as I said I’m a fossil, with only my hard bits preserved. In real life we Trilobites did look a bit like large cockroaches or woodlice, so we had some soft, squishy bits too, but they tend not to survive the whole fossilization process as well as our hard exoskeleton.

In fact, our legs have been preserved in less than twenty species.

So, this is where I get to give you some inside information…

We all had a pair of many-jointed antenna that stuck out from our heads. Very useful for feeling around, if you know what I mean… We could use them to taste and smell as well as to touch, rather like a snake uses its forked tongue. We also had some pairs of legs on our head, plus a pair of legs attached to each body segment.

That sounds like a lot of legs I know – but we used them for multi-tasking. Many of our legs divided up into two branches, with one branch used for walking, sometimes with spines attached for tearing up prey as well, and an outer leg-branch equipped with gills for breathing.

So, all in all we had great legs!

Take a look at your own human legs, and ask how useful they are – I mean, they can get you from ‘A to B’, but you can’t breathe or eat with them can you?

But it’s not just our fantastic personality, great legs and sturdy exoskeleton that make us so special…

We Trilobites have the only pure crystalline eyes ever recorded in the whole of the animal kingdom!

My eyes are made up hundreds of crystals of pure calcite, and that same mineral makes up the rest of my exoskeleton too. Calcite is sister to that same wonderful (don’t you just love it) element calcium, that makes it possible for you humans to have a have a hard internal skeleton and stand up and walk tall to this day. Calcite and calcium – lets hear it for them!

Mostly our trilobite eyes resemble the compound eyes of modern insects like dragonflies have today, and they work in pretty much the same way.

Each crystal of calcite acts like a reflecting prism - it’s rather like looking down the wrong end of a pair of binoculars – try doing that if you haven’t already, and times it by a hundred.

Our kind of compound eyes produce thousands of tiny individual images which together make up a bigger picture, rather like a mosaic. Now, because we trilobites adapted to all kinds of different habitats, different species had different eyewear. Some of my brothers, the crawlers, burrowers and ‘those that lived in deep, dark places of the world’, were even blind! Why waste time on eyes when it was too dark to see?

Some other brothers had pretty poor eyes with just a single calcite lens - dare I even say it, similar to you humans; who also have only one lens!

But most of our species, like me, were lucky enough to have the gold standard in eyewear. Some of my swimming trilobite relatives had great big googly eyes – so big, in fact, it looked as if they were mostly just all eyes.

I could go into this in some detail – but surely it’s just enough to know we had good, exceptionally beautiful eyes.

And let’s face it, if all you look like is an overgrown woodlouse – you’ve got to have something on your side!

Interview with the trilobite





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