24 February 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

Archaeologists found a 2,000-year-old Roman road in Cluj-Napoca in northwest Romania

23 January 2023

23 January 2023

Archaeologists from the National Museum of the History of Transylvania have discovered a well-preserved 2,000-year-old Roman road in the city...

Early humans appreciated geometry and symmetry and were intentionally crafting spherical shapes 1.4 million years ago, according to a new study

7 September 2023

7 September 2023

An examination of 150 round, baseball-sized stones discovered at a site where early humans lived 1.4 million years ago shows...

Archaeologists Find the Missing Link of the Alphabet

15 April 2021

15 April 2021

Researchers believe that Tel Lachish pottery is the oldest of its kind found in the region, and could explain how...

A gilded silver Anglo-Saxon object “made by someone with a real eye for loveliness” has the experts baffled

2 January 2024

2 January 2024

An enigmatic Anglo-Saxon object has been unearthed in a captivating discovery near Langham, Norfolk, East of England. This gilded silver...

Archaeologists have unearthed a flawless Roman blue glass bowl in the Dutch city of Nijmegen

23 January 2022

23 January 2022

Archaeologists excavating the site of a comprehensive housing and green space development in Nijmegen’s Winkelsteeg, one of the oldest cities...

2,300 Years Old First Complete Ancient Celtic Village and Roman Settlement Discovered in Munich

22 October 2023

22 October 2023

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient Celtic village and evidence of a smaller Roman settlement in Munich, Germany. The 2,300-year-old Celtic...

Runic Alphabet Symbols in the Tombs Found in the Excavations in Istanbul

23 May 2021

23 May 2021

In the excavations carried out by the Istanbul Archeology Museums in the area where the metro station will be built...

The exciting discovery of a 4000-year-old stone box grave in western Norway

10 November 2023

10 November 2023

Archaeologists report an extremely important 4,000-year-old stone box grave has been unearthed in Western Norway, describing it as the most...

At Ostrowite, archaeologists have discovered a high-status burial dating back almost a thousand years

2 January 2022

2 January 2022

Archaeologists have discovered a burial chamber in Ostrowite, in Poland’s Pomeranian Voivodeship, containing several high-status grave goods from the 11th...

Centuries-old burials discovered near Antandros Ancient City in Turkey

10 January 2022

10 January 2022

Ancient tombs were discovered during a foundation excavation at a building site near the ancient city of Antandros, which is...

Twin temples linked to Hercules and Alexander the Great discovered in Sumerian city of Girsu

29 January 2024

29 January 2024

Archaeologists discovered two temples, with one buried over the other, during excavations at Girsu, a Sumerian city in southeastern Iraq...

Centuries-old boardwalk discovered

22 December 2023

22 December 2023

During construction work in November 2023, road construction workers in Fürth came across an archaeological sensation: a centuries-old boardwalk under...

DNA from human remains found in medieval well shines new light into a significant historical crime and into Ashkenazi Jewish history

30 November 2022

30 November 2022

An analysis of DNA from 12th-century human remains has provided new insights into a significant historical crime and into Ashkenazi...

Mandrin cave in France shows Homo Sapiens arrived in Europe almost 10,000 years earlier than thought

10 February 2022

10 February 2022

According to archaeological research published in Science magazine on Wednesday, Homo sapiens ventured into the Neanderthal territory in Europe far...

In Turkey’s Gedikkaya Cave, a stone figurine was discovered inside a 16,500-year-old votive pit

17 December 2022

17 December 2022

A stone figurine was discovered in a 16500-year-old votive pit belonging to the Epi-paleolithic period, the transition phase from the...