Trilobite

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Conrad C. Labandeira, Ph.D.

Conrad Labandiera

Dr. Conrad C. Labandeira is a research scientist and curator of fossil arthropods at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Conrad’s interests include the evolution of terrestrial ecosystems revealed by the fossil insect record and the deep-time feeding relationships of insects with plants. His interest in insects and plants began on his father’s small farm in California’s Central Valley, where he observed the way aphids were consumed by ladybug beetle larvae. As an undergraduate, he became fascinated with plant and insect fossils. For his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he worked on Cambrian trilobite taxonomy. For his doctoral program at the University of Chicago,Conrad evaluated insect feeding styles for the past 410 million years by examining the fossil insect record in the context of modern insect mouthparts. As a postdoctoral scholar (or “postdoc”) at the University of Illinois, he studied insect-caused damage in petrified peat tissues of ancient swamp deposits. Conrad joined the Smithsonian in 1992 and has research programs on every continent except Antarctica. They include responses of insects and plant associations to major crises such as extinction events and global climate change (South Africa, western North America); origins of ecological and evolutionary diversity in the Neotropics (Argentina); evaluation of insect herbivory, pollination and mimicry of mid Mesozoic ecosystems (northeastern China); and comparisons of modern insect herbivory with the fossil record (Panama, western Europe).

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Diagram showing body parts of a trilobite
Photo by Mary Parrish, Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History

About Trilobites (Class Trilobita): Paleobiology

Trilobites are extinct, but lived on Earth for about 290 million years, achieving incredible abundance during from the Cambrian to Devonian. The oldest trilobite fossils are about 540 million years old, but even earlier trilobites may have lacked the hard body parts that fossilize. Trilobites are one of the most diverse groups of extinct organisms known. Their variety of body forms were undoubtedly specialized to different modes of life. Imagine tiny (1 mm long) trilobites floating in the ocean and filter-feeding on suspended detritus, juxtaposed with a large (60 cm, or 2 feet long) predatory trilobite crawling on the seafloor and catching worms. In spite of their diversity, trilobites shared a three-lobed body plan consisting of a central axis from head to tail with lobes on each side. All three lobes were protected by a hard covering (exoskeleton) which, depending on the species, was ornamented with ridges, spines, and color. The last trilobite lineages disappeared during the huge end-Permian extinction event (about 252 million years ago).

Fossil crab claw
Photo by John Steiner, Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History

About Arthropods (Phylum Arthropoda): Paleobiology

Arthropods have been on Earth for more than 540 million years, and were diverse almost from the beginning. Different lineages of arthropods, such as crustaceans, diverged as early as 525 million years ago. The evolution of an external body covering (the exoskeleton), and the presence of body segments and paired appendages (mouthparts, legs, claws, antennae) signaled the transition from early worm-like precursors to arthropods. While modern arthropods live in nearly every habitat, the earliest arthropods were probably tiny, bottom-dwellers scavenging detritus at the bottom of warm seas. The enormous success of arthropods is at least partly due to their appendages. Located on all body regions, their appendages became specialized especially for feeding through the mouthparts, but also for getting oxygen through respiration (gills), reproducing (elaborate external genitalia), and moving around including walking, swimming, and/or flying. The gradual adoption of a modular body plan with multifunctional appendages has allowed arthropods to thrive in an impressive variety of environments.

Fossil crab claw
Photo by John Steiner, Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History

About Arthropods (Phylum Arthropoda): Paleobiology

Arthropods have been on Earth for more than 540 million years, and were diverse almost from the beginning. Different lineages of arthropods, such as crustaceans, diverged as early as 525 million years ago. The evolution of an external body covering (the exoskeleton), and the presence of body segments and paired appendages (mouthparts, legs, claws, antennae) signaled the transition from early worm-like precursors to arthropods. While modern arthropods live in nearly every habitat, the earliest arthropods were probably tiny, bottom-dwellers scavenging detritus at the bottom of warm seas. The enormous success of arthropods is at least partly due to their appendages. Located on all body regions, their appendages became specialized especially for feeding through the mouthparts, but also for getting oxygen through respiration (gills), reproducing (elaborate external genitalia), and moving around including walking, swimming, and/or flying. The gradual adoption of a modular body plan with multifunctional appendages has allowed arthropods to thrive in an impressive variety of environments.

Related Resources
Fossil crab claw
Photo by John Steiner, Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History

About Arthropods (Phylum Arthropoda): Paleobiology

Arthropods have been on Earth for more than 540 million years, and were diverse almost from the beginning. Different lineages of arthropods, such as crustaceans, diverged as early as 525 million years ago. The evolution of an external body covering (the exoskeleton), and the presence of body segments and paired appendages (mouthparts, legs, claws, antennae) signaled the transition from early worm-like precursors to arthropods. While modern arthropods live in nearly every habitat, the earliest arthropods were probably tiny, bottom-dwellers scavenging detritus at the bottom of warm seas. The enormous success of arthropods is at least partly due to their appendages. Located on all body regions, their appendages became specialized especially for feeding through the mouthparts, but also for getting oxygen through respiration (gills), reproducing (elaborate external genitalia), and moving around including walking, swimming, and/or flying. The gradual adoption of a modular body plan with multifunctional appendages has allowed arthropods to thrive in an impressive variety of environments.

Related Resources