olenellisTrilobite Fossil


Witness Post: Trilobite

Scanning through dusty old books in the Cottonwood Gulch Museum & Library, I came across some images in a geology encyclopedia that were puzzling. The pictures were of a prehistoric sea dweller captured in stone, but what was it exactly? It looked like a sea spider. A geologist friend and fellow staff member, Jack Oviatt, told me, “That’s a Trilobite, which is one of the oldest animals on earth.” He told me that Trilobites thrived and multiplied about 150 million years before the first dinosaur eggs hatched. Not knowing how common they were, a few more questions emerged. Jack said, “There are thousands of different species crystallized in the geologic records all over the world.  Many of the Trilobites died in the Great Permian Extinction, about 250 million years ago. Finding fossils like these is fairly common…and Horseshoe Crabs are their closest living relatives,” so if I saw one, it was pretty cool. Jack grew up in St. Louis, so he didn’t get to the Atlantic or Pacific much. (Jack is now a professor of geology at Kansas State University. At the time he was a graduate student getting his Ph.D.)


Near the Chesapeake Bay my family roots made me familiar with Horseshoe Crabs, which we saw breeding in the shallows around Cape May, New Jersey, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. They were spooky looking sea creatures with that long spear of a tail and protective plate of armor. They are like sea armadillos or an aquatic rolly-polly. It is not exactly a friendly-seahorse of an animal. Finding one design in the book I was scanning that looked good for my purposes, Jack’s word was gospel for its lineage and I went to work turning his science explanation into my art.

33-28-horseshoecrabs1Horseshoe Crabs congregating

That was the summer of 1980 and “the dinosaur phase” of artwork was the rage. I had already depicted a Dimetrodon on a brass belt buckle and was looking at Trilobite images in the Cottonwood Gulch library to see what might work. I wanted to figure out what the images were, which ones looked the coolest, and which could be rendered into metal in a few days. Jack pointed me in the right direction and I soon located an image that seemed appropriate for a brass belt buckle design and went to work.


Dimetrodon Dramatization


Saw Pierce Method 

HopigroupHopi Overlay

The art of cutting out a design in one sheet of metal (usually silver) and soldering it to another sheet to create a silhouette image has been around for a long time. It was perfected by the Hopi Indians in a technique often called Hopi Overlay. The artists in residence at the Cottonwood Gulch’s Native Arts Workshop (or NAW) had learned this technique from the Hopi and Navajo friends of the Gulch and taught it to the campers and staff. As one of the staff member pupils, I found it to be both therapeutic and exciting to create an image this way.


Cottonwood Gulch Native Arts Workshop, throwing a pot

In a few days I sawed out the image, filed off the rough edges, soldered the two sheets of brass together, attached the backing slot, bent it to shape, and oxidized the background to make it look black. Buffed up, the brass looked pretty good on my black leather belt. Pretty studly, brassy stuff.

photo (1)

Hooper Brass Belt Buckle, c. 1980


The Buckle

FAST FORWARD to 2014: I showed the belt buckle to my therapist, Kathleen Kirgin, the other day and she asked where I bought it. When I told her that I had made it, she asked a series of questions. What does the symbol mean to me? Had I studied the Trilobite? Had I ever dug one up? Were there any native people who had Trilobites as a totem?  Not knowing much more than what Jack Oviatt had told me those many years ago, Kathleen challenged me to go back in time myself: first to 1980 when I created the buckle and then to the geologic period when the Trilobites thrived.  She encouraged me to find out what these animals might mean to me on a deeper level. The request she made seemed daunting. How could I figure out if there were symbolic connects with the Trilobite and fossils that were buried in my psyche? This was a particularly tall order for a linear thinker.



Quest for Trilobites

Kathleen Kirgin is an unusual therapist. She is a massage therapist, energy reader, and female sounding board for my family. My wife and three daughters have all become very fond of her and seek Kathleen’s counsel on many matters of the heart.


Not sure exactly where to start my quest I looked at the brass belt buckle again with fresh eyes and tried to diagram a path. My first step was to figure out which species or subspecies of Trilobite it was. Then I would look for clues from there to take me further.  I could go further back in the history of the ocean or I could move forward to myths about the sea creatures. The trick seemed to be to narrow my focus and discover what was coaxing me toward the fossilized creature. What I found were ideas that were both startling and unnerving. I was drawn to several aspects of the fossil world: the Horseshoe Crab, the avian predators of that sea animal, the specific Trilobite, its Greek name, and the Greek myths and legends around those species. 

Having no idea at the time that the path would lead me to glance at tens of thousands of different Trilobites with hundreds of thousands of stories and avenues to pursue, I just jumped. I felt in free fall, then floating…to the bottom of the ocean.


Horseshoe Crab

IMG_9020Horseshoe Crabs flipping themselves over in the surf

In the heat of summer, when the water along the Atlantic Coast gets to be near 70° F, the Horseshoe Crabs retreat to the brackish water to mate. I used to walk along the beaches while birdwatching and from time to time there would be a large flock of gulls and shore birds, chattering as if in a frenzy. It turns out that at the high tides of the summer’s full and new moons the Horseshoe Crab female lays her eggs in a sand nest. The eggs are then fertilized by the smaller male who comes behind her. Once fertilized, the eggs get covered by the receding waves as they cover the nest. What becomes apparent is that this is part of the seasonal battle for survival.


High Tide on a New Summer Moon

The eggs represent the species in its most vulnerable state. The eggs also provide important food for migrating birds, which need the eggs for their long journeys. It is a fight to see who would win, the Crabs or the birds. To help influence their odds, the Horseshoe Crab produces thousands of pearly green eggs in each nest, gaming that a few of them will survive to adulthood.[1]



Untie the Red Knot

1261339329_8203_full Red Knot picking barnacles from a Horseshoe Crab

One particular bird species, the Red Knot, seems to have its life cycle geared to the Horseshoe Crab. While this large sandpiper bird breeds in the high Canadian Arctic, it coasts around the world to the southern tip of South America, traveling more than 9,000 miles. Theirs is one of the longest migration patterns on earth.  Its cousins in adjacent hemispheres have the same migration patterns from Northern Europe to South Africa, and from Eastern Siberia to Australia and New Zealand.

Red-Knots-and-crabs_-Gregory-Breese.USFWSRed Knots in migration, eating Horseshoe Crab eggs

The Red Knot is the second largest sandpiper and it fuels these long transcontinental migrations with a voracious appetite. Knots mostly eat sand spiders, arthropods and larvae, which they find in profusion by pecking their beaks into the soft sand and mud flats. In the summer they are not visual feeders, instead they are able to detect mollusks buried under the surface from changes in the pressure of the water, using what are called the Herbst corpuscles in their bills.[2] During migration the Red Knot adopts the visual feeding pattern, capturing surface food that populates its feeding grounds. Interestingly the Red Knot shows up along the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey right around the high tides, just at the eggs of the Horseshoe Crab are being fertilized. They consume vast quantities of Horseshoe Crab eggs and then some.[3]

Red-Knot_(Calidris_canutus)_RWD4Red Knots in flight


The Trilobite

Back to the ancestor of the Horseshoe Crab, it was time to do some research on the animal itself. Taking out a ruler, adult Trilobites seem to range in size from a quarter inch to the dimensions of a kitchen table!  Some of them scurried on the ocean floor searching for food, while others dug deeply into the bottom sediment eating the detritus there. Still others swam freely, floating to or near the surface of the seas, where they hunted small invertebrates for their diet. They were among the first scavengers of the seas. Called TRI-LOBITES because of the three vertical lobes that these creatures have in common, the Class name is derived from this characteristic.

One article I found quoted Dr. Nigel Hughes, a Trilobite researcher at the University of California, Riverside. Dr. Hughes said, “[Trilobites] can have scoops or shovels, be fantastically spiny or beautifully streamlined. They diverged to really explore their evolutionary space, but they maintain that common [three part] body plan.” Apparently they avoided the evolutionary complications of metamorphosis, like the butterfly, and instead grew larger by simply generating new segments toward the rear of the abdomen and then “jacking itself apart.” They changed relatively little as they molted, so Dr. Hughes has been able to “assemble growth series, stage by stage, for a number of Trilobite species.” [4]  After they molted, the Trilobite was vulnerable until its shell hardened again. The danger stage lasted several hours to days. That notion of vulnerability drew me in to learn more.

There is a lot of variation in the architectural partitioning among Trilobite orders, and researchers were long at a loss to explain the origins of these differences. They believed that early Trilobites lived flatly, like halibuts, on the bottom of the ocean and only later began rolling around — curling up into a ball, armadillo-style, to protect their soft underparts. Many species adapted such a tight ball structure that they were impossible to pry open. [5]


The specific Trilobite I had cut out in brass has the long tail of the later species, without some of the fancy appendages of many of its cousins. Identifying it was the next challenge. There are over twenty thousand (20,000) Trilobites in the world, and that number includes just the ones that have been identified and named. Apparently, there are still thousands of others that are believed to be undiscovered or erased from the geological record. A virtual needle in a hay stack, I started searching in the obvious places.

As luck would have it, I came across an article in the New York Times, which explained in plain English, the basics of what I will call Trilobite-ology. The authors, David Corcoran and Jeffrey DelViscio, interviewed Brian Huber, who works at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Huber proved to be a great resource for me, at least in determining where to start. The other great clues came from the drawings of an artist by the name of Samuel M. Gon III.  Gon’s images were just what I needed to blow away the chaff and see the needle of the haystack.[6]

photo (2)Set of 15 Trilobites by Samuel M. Gon, III 


The Olenellus Trilobite

Scanning pages and pages of Trilobite images, they have categorizations by Order. Upon inspection it appeared that there were obvious similarities among them. They all have the following characteristics: they are symmetrical, have easily distinguished circular head and differentiated tail end, can curl up in a ball, have armor tops, have many leg spines underneath, and have forward feelers and eyes slits. Beyond that the species and subspecies are all unique.


Trilobite Movement by Samuel M. Gon, III

I was looking for one that had a primary tail and a few secondary legs that were longer than the others. The search continued.

Through trial and error I found the description of one two-inch long, semi-circular Trilobite that looked as close as I could find to the one I had saw-pierced and soldered into a brass bucket those years before. The image seemed pretty close to the one I had found in the old geology book in the Gulch Museum Library. It was called the Olenellidae (Olenellus Trilobite) and it looks like this:


 Olenellus Diagram

A picture of the Olenellus Trilobite fossil with some spines missing looks like this [7]:


Olenellus Trilobite

There are several keys to the Olenellus Trilobites: first is the size, shape, and width of the frontal lobe (head); then its the margin, prominence, and convexity of the eye sockets (ocular lobe); next is the proportional size of the thorax to the rest of the body; and lastly are the number and length of the spines (legs). Depending on these characteristics the Olenellus can be one of over a hundred species with names such as Olenellus chiefensis, O. agellus, O. roddyi, O. clarki, O. nevadensis, O. transitans, O. parvofrontratus, O. romensis, O. getzi, O. thompsoni, O. crassimarginatus, or O. robsonensis, among others. There are some amazingly precise measurements that are made of the Trilobite to further differentiate the Orders and species, which adds to the complexity of finding the exact one I had turned to art. [8]



Olenus Myths

The name Olenellus is derived from the Greek name, Olenus. According to Greek Mythology, there are several uses of the name Olenus in the literature, some for gods and some for humans. The trick was to find the one that seemed to fit my disposition those years ago and to figure out what it mean to me.

The first reference I found to the name Olenus said that he was the son of Hephaestus and the father of Helike and Aex, two nurses of the infant Zeus. (There is a city in the state of Aulis that is named for this god.) The second reference is also related to Zeus.  This second Olenus was the son of Zeus and Anaxithea, who was the daughter of Danaus. The third was a god, who was the father of Tectaphus the Lapith. A fourth was a man who lived on Mount Ida and loved a vane woman. And the last one was Olenus, a Lelegian, and the father of Phoceus, whose son was killed by the Argonauts. [9] None of these references resonated with me at all, which called for some more searching.


Olenus and Lethaea on Mount Ida

Coming back to the fourth Olenus, the man who live on Mount Ida, I searched for the back story. Apparently the story is that Olenus married (or was in love with) an extraordinarily beautiful woman named Lethaea. She claimed that she was more beautiful than any of the Greek goddesses. Outraged by the vanity of her proclamation, the gods turned Lethaea to stone. Her husband (lover), Olenus, tried to rescue her from the underworld but he was unsuccessful. He could have avoided the same fate as Lethaea, but he chose to be turned to stone as well, preferring to be with his wife in death, than without her in life. [10]

The remarkable act of love by Olenus made me think of my wife, Tracy.  In the Greek tradition there are three types of love: erotic love (eros), brotherly love (philios), and giving up one’s life for love (agape). There were times when Tracy was going through treatment for breast cancer that I thought I would die rather than live without her. Our Mount Ida is probably Mount Hood, which we look at admiringly, when “the mountain is out.” My marriage has led me to desire agape love, for I would surely trade my life for Tracy’s health any time. I would rather be in a stony tomb with her than live in the flesh without her.


Other Discoveries


In the fall of 20012, our daughter, Kathleen, lived in New Zealand.  We chose her Junior Semester abroad for a grand world excursion for our family.  We visited our friends, Barry and Rosalind Coates, in Auckland, NZ and our friends, Mary and Greg Bayles in Australia.   We went on a boat trip out of Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia to the Great Barrier Reef for some snorkeling and diving. On the ocean floor, at the edge of the reef we saw some other living fossils, including sea cucumbers.  The cucumber is soft and rough, armored but easily penetrated.  It looks fierce but it cannot roll up into a self-protecting ball the way a Trilobite could.  When it is scared it shoots out its intestines at its intruder, literally puking its guts out in self defense.  So much for that look of toughness.


All of the creatures in the sea have some amazing adaptations that they have made to survive, including the coral reefs themselves. This journey could go on an on about our great trip to the bottom of the ocean, but it may be better to stop here and take a pause. Trilobites and Horeshoe Crabs may be just enough for this Witness Post.

My greatest discovery seems to be the renewal of my love for Tracy. I did not imagine that my journey would take me there and back again, but it appears to be just that simple circle. Kathleen Kirgin believes that the Trilobite creature on my belt buckle is about love. “With its hardened shell, which comes in so many varied and interesting designs, is about enduring love. That is what you created and that is the emblem you wear.”  

The mystery for me and the surprise is that the belt buckle was saw-pierced three years before I re-met Tracy and we decided to marry. As if the enduring love was less specific to a person and more about my capacity for it. Kathleen went on to say, “This type of love, your type, the love you give, I believe, is the kind that builds, heals, nourishes, sustains, inspires and grounds. It is the kind that is there when perhaps everything else has seemingly disappeared.” In her concluding remarks Kathleen stated: “In my opinion selfless love is the greatest gift I have ever witnessed in those that have had  the privilege to have had that planted within them. Perhaps the closest essence to God’s love.” Wow, I will have to take that in over a long swim some day. Right now I am glad to be back on dry land.



Additional Learning

I came across a book about Trilobites which delves more deeply into the science than I have. It may be of interest to those who are looking to have some extracurricular learning, or wish to pulse the seas for the Trilobite of their fantasy. [11]


Have a nice dive.




[1] http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishfacts/horseshoecrab.asp

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_knot

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/science/when-trilobites-ruled-the-world.html?_r=0

[5] http://www.trilobites.info/

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/science/when-trilobites-ruled-the-world.html?_r=0

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olenellus

[8] Ibid.

Example of the descriptions from Wikipedia: “As with most early trilobites, Olenellus has an almost flat exoskeleton, that is only thinly calcified, and has crescent-shaped eye ridges. As part of the Olenellina suborder, Olenellus lacks dorsal sutures. Like all other members of the Olenelloidea superfamily, the eye-ridges emerge from the back of the frontal lobe (L4) of the central area of the cephalon, that is called glabella. Olenellus also shares the typical character of whole Olenellidae family that the frontal (L3) and middle pair (L2) of lateral lobes of the glabella are partially merged. This creates two very typical, isolated slits. It can be distinguished from the other two genera in the family, Mesolenellus and Mesonacis, because the angle in the back rim of the cephalon is less than 15°, making the head approximately semi-circular. The genal spines are reaching back no further than the 6th thorax segment, making them 4-5 times as long as the most backward lobe of the glabella (occipital ring or L0)1. The thorax is 4-4½ times wider that the axis, measured at the 3rd segment. The spine on the 15th thorax segment is almost as wide as the axis.”

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olenus

[10] Ibid.  Also Olenus and Lethaea are characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

[11] Fortey, Richard. Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution, Vintage Books, New York, 2001.


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