17 July 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

490-Million-Year-Old Trilobites Could Solve Ancient Geography Puzzle

The humble trilobites may be extinct, but even as fossils, they can teach us much about our planet’s history. Indeed, ancient arthropods from nearly half a billion years ago, including ten newly discovered species,  may be key to understanding Thailand’s place on the former supercontinent Gondwana.

Trilobites are extinct sea creatures with half-moon-shaped heads that breathed through their legs. A 100-page monograph in the British journal offers great detail about the new species, including one named in honor of Thai Royal Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

The trilobite fossils were trapped between layers of petrified ash in sandstone, the product of old volcanic eruptions that settled on the sea floor and formed a green layer called a tuff. Unlike some other kinds of rocks or sediment, tuffs contain crystals of zircon — a mineral that formed during an eruption and are, as the name of the rock layer containing them suggests, tough.

Zircon is chemically stable as well as heat and weather resistant. It is hard as steel and persists when minerals in other kinds of rocks erode. Inside these resilient zircon crystals, individual atoms of uranium gradually decay and transform into atoms of lead.

“We can use radio isotope techniques to date when the zircon formed and thus find the age of the eruption, as well as the fossil,” said Nigel Hughes, monograph co-author and UC Riverside geology professor.

It is rare to find tuffs from this particular period of time, the late Cambrian period, between 497 and 485 million years ago. “Not many places around the world have this. It is one of the worst dated intervals of time in Earth’s history,” Hughes said.

Artist's rendering of a trilobite based on preserved soft body parts. (Nobu Tamura)
Artist’s rendering of a trilobite based on preserved soft body parts. (Nobu Tamura)

“The tuffs will allow us to not only determine the age of the fossils we found in Thailand, but to better understand parts of the world like China, Australia, and even North America where similar fossils have been found in rocks that cannot be dated,” said Shelly Wernette, former Hughes lab geologist now at Texas State University, and first author of the monograph.

The fossils were uncovered on the coast of an island called Ko Tarutao. It is about 40 minutes southwest from the mainland via high-speed boat and is part of a UNESCO geopark site that has encouraged international teams of scientists to work in this area.

For Wernette, the most interesting discovery was 12 types of trilobites that have been seen in other parts of the world, but never in Thailand before. “We can now connect Thailand to parts of Australia, a really exciting discovery.”

During the trilobites’ lifetime, this region was on the outer margins of Gondwanaland, an ancient supercontinent that included Africa, India, Australia, South America, and Antarctica.

“Because continents shift over time, part of our job has been to work out where this region of Thailand was in relation to the rest of Gondwanaland,” Hughes said. “It’s a moving, shape shifting, 3D jigsaw puzzle we’re trying to put together. This discovery will help us do that.”

Location of the fossil discoveries. Credit: Shelly Wernette/UCR
Location of the fossil discoveries. Credit: Shelly Wernette/UCR

For example, take the species named for Royal Princess Sirindhorn. The species was named in tribute to the princess for her steadfast dedication to developing the sciences in Thailand. “I also thought this species had a regal quality. It has a broad headdress and clean sweeping lines,” Wernette said.

If researchers can get a date from the tuffs containing her namesake species, Tsinania sirindhornae, and determine when they lived, they will be able to say that closely related species of Tsinania found in northern and southern China are roughly the same age.

Ultimately, the researchers feel that the pictures of the ancient world hidden in the fossils they found contain invaluable information for the present day.

“What we have here is a chronicle of evolutionary change accompanied by extinctions. The Earth has written this record for us, and we’re fortunate to have it,” Hughes said. “The more we learn from it the better prepared we are for the challenges we’re engineering on the planet for ourselves today.”

DOI: 10.1002/spp2.1516

University of California

Cover image: Wikipedia

Related Articles

A rare treasure with ornaments nearly a thousand years old was discovered in Staraya Ryazan, Russia

18 August 2021

18 August 2021

During expeditions of the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a rare treasure with ornaments of about...

Oldest Recorded Gynecological Treatment

7 February 2021

7 February 2021

In their latest research, scientists have come across a treatment practice in a mummy from 4000 years ago, as written...

A cave painting found in Egyptian Sahara depicts a nativity scene 3,000 years before Jesus’ Birth

21 December 2023

21 December 2023

5,000-year-old rock art depicting the oldest nativity scene ever found has been found in Egypt’s Sahara Desert: A newborn between...

Rare ivory plaques from First Temple Period were discovered in Jerusalem

8 September 2022

8 September 2022

An extraordinary find was made in Jerusalem: an assemblage of ivory plaques from the First Temple period, one of only...

Lost sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci show that he understood gravity long before Newton

19 February 2023

19 February 2023

Leonardo da Vinci’s centuries-old sketches show that he may have understood key aspects of gravity long before Galileo, Newton, and...

2000-year-old tomb guarded by two bull heads found in Tharsa Ancient City, Türkiye

18 May 2024

18 May 2024

In Türkiye, archaeologists have discovered a new 2000-year-old tomb protected by two bull heads during excavation and cleaning efforts in...

3500-year-old menhir discovered in Mahbubabad, India

15 March 2022

15 March 2022

Six feet in height stone, also called a menhir, was found on the roadside of Ellarigudem, a hamlet of Beechrajupally...

Grain Barns dating back 6,000 years unearthed in China

15 December 2022

15 December 2022

Chinese archaeologists have revealed a cluster of 16 ancient granaries that traced back to the mid-late period of the Yangshao...

An 8,500-year-old trepanned skull discovered in Çatalhöyük

23 December 2023

23 December 2023

Traces of trepanation (skull drilling operation) were found on a skull found in the 9,000-year-old Çatalhöyük, near the modern city...

Authorities in New York have been accused by leading academics of repatriating fake Roman artifacts to Lebanon

19 November 2023

19 November 2023

Leading academics from France and the United Kingdom have accused New York authorities of returning fake Roman artifacts to Lebanon....

Archaeologists Unearthed a 1000-year-old Medieval Game Collection in a Castle in Southern Germany

4 June 2024

4 June 2024

Archaeologists found a collection of medieval game pieces at a forgotten castle in southern Germany. Among the discoveries are a...

A unique tomb decorated with amber was discovered near Petrozavodsk

26 August 2021

26 August 2021

According to a press release from the Petrozavodsk State University a unique tomb was discovered on the western shore of...

1400-year-old gold foil figures found in pagan temple

19 September 2023

19 September 2023

Archaeologists have discovered a votive gold hoard during road development works in Vingrom, south of Lillehammer on the shores of...

2,000-Year-Old Dancing Man Statuette Unearthed in Siberia

6 May 2021

6 May 2021

During excavations for a new bridge over the Ob River in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest district, a ten-centimeter-tall figurine was discovered....

3600-year-old lead weights were unearthed in the Kumluca Bronze Age Shipwreck, one of the oldest shipwrecks in the world

27 November 2022

27 November 2022

Underwater archaeological work continues in the Bronze Age shipwreck off Antalya Kumluca, one of the oldest shipwrecks in the world....