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“I hope people come away with a sense of awe at the vast history and amazing diversity of life on Earth. Trilobites are but a tiny part of the story of ocean life, yet with their accessible size, distinctive eyes, and elegant symmetry, they draw us in to imagine ancient ocean worlds.”

What exactly is a trilobite, you may ask. Distantly related to modern lobsters, scorpions and insects, trilobites were among the earliest arthropods – animals with segmented bodies, jointed legs, and an exoskeleton. Flourishing during the Cambrian Period (542 million to 488 million years ago), early trilobite diversity was extraordinary. Some crawled; some burrowed; some swam. There were hunters and passive feeders. In the Journey Through Time gallery of the Ocean Hall, you will have a chance to compare fossils of a large number of these ancient animals – many from a single private individual's collection.

Trilobites evolved to thrive in a variety of habitats. The trilobites pictured here show just a small sampling of these adaptations. Images courtesy:Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

The success and disappearance of trilobites illustrate evolution's ups and downs.

The Age of Trilobites

Trilobites had long antennae and flattened bodies with three sections: a head, middle, and tail. But that may have been where their similarities ended and their differences took off. This group of animals evolved some 15,000 species over their 300-million-year existence. Trilobites ranged from a few millimeters (less than half an inch) to 58 centimeters (23 inches) long. They flourished for 120 million years before an extinction event wiped out many of their species. They vanished altogether by the end of the Permian Period (251 million years ago).

Fortunately for us, trilobites' hard bodies made excellent fossils, and thousands have been preserved. From looking at them, we can gain a sense of Earth's amazing diversity – in just a single group of ancient animals.

Trilobites adapted to their environments in so many ways that scientists are still trying to understand their functions and purposes. Images courtesy:Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Meet Dr. Hazen

Although the National Museum of Natural History has its own collection of trilobites, Ocean Hall curator Dr. Brian Huber found out during a conversation with a colleague about an extraordinary private collection in the hands of Dr. Robert Hazen. Dr. Hazen, in addition to being a trilobite collector, is an earth science professor at George Mason University, plays trumpet in the National Symphony and is author of several science trade books.

A Trilobite Family Reunion

When Dr. Huber took a look at Dr. Hazen's collection, he was amazed by the diversity of the collection and its spectacular preservation. Many specimens showed spines and other delicate features of the animals.

Dr. Hazen has been collecting fossil trilobites on and off since he was eight years old. In assembling his collection over the years, he has gathered examples from all eight trilobite orders and almost all families and sub-families. He wanted to put together as complete a picture as possible of trilobite diversity over time and geography. Today his collection contains specimens from six continents and some 75 countries.

Why trilobites?

Trilobite detail of eyes
Trilobites' eyes remain well-preserved even after hundreds of millions of years. Image courtesy: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

“I loved the detail of trilobites, especially the life-like eyes that peer out from the rock after hundreds of millions of years of burial,” he says.

Dr. Hazen decided to donate his entire 2000-item collection to the Smithsonian; about 50 of his specimens will be on display in the Ocean Hall. In giving this collection to the museum, he will ensure it will be kept together and help build the Smithsonian's trilobite offerings.

Variety of life

Dr. Hazen hopes that you, visitors to the Sant Ocean Hall, will gaze at his ancient fossils and gain at least a small sense of the tremendous biodiversity that is constantly changing on Earth – both in the past and present.

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