Wooster’s Fossil of the Week: a beautiful phacopid trilobite (Middle Devonian of Ohio, USA)

August 5th, 2012

Trilobites are always favorite fossils, especially big bug-eyed ones like Phacops rana (Green, 1832) shown above. It is, in fact, the state fossil of Pennsylvania after a petition from schoolchildren in 1988. This specimen is from the Middle Devonian of northwestern Ohio. Trilobites were Paleozoic arthropods with a hard dorsal skeleton divided into numerous segments. They look rather cute and brainy because of a swelling between the eyes (the glabella), but that space prosaically contained the stomach. Many trilobites, like this one, could roll up into balls when stressed, much like pill bugs today.

Phacops was studied by paleontologist Niles Eldredge in the early 1970s as the start of what became the theory of punctuated equilibria. The arrangement of lenses in the eyes show rapid changes in short intervals of geological time, which provided evidence for the theory he presented with colleague Stephen Jay Gould.

Phacops rana was named by Jacob Green in 1832. He called it Calymene bufo rana. Hall (1861) renamed it Phacops rana, which was confirmed by Eldedge (1972). Struve (1990) placed it in the new genus Eldredgeops (named after you know who), but I prefer the older name.
Jacob Green (1790-1841) was one of those early 19th Century American polymaths. He was a lawyer, a chemist, a physician, an astronomer, and a paleontologist. He came from a religious family, with both his father and grandfather being theologians. His father, in fact, was at one time president of Princeton University. Jacob graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at the young age of 16, and he published a treatise on electricity when he was 19. He did lawyering for a few years before becoming a professor at (you guessed it) Princeton (and later Jefferson Medical College). He published an amazing array of diverse scientific papers in his career. A trip to England introduced him to trilobites. He then spent a decade putting together a monograph on the trilobites of North America — the first ever.

References:

Eldredge, N. 1972. Systematics and evolution of Phacops rana (Green, 1832) and Phacops iowensis Delo, 1935 (Trilobita) for the Middle Devonian of North America. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 147:45-114.

Eldredge, N. 1973. Systematics of Lower and Lower Middle Devonian species of the trilobite Phacops Emmrich in North America. Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist. 151:285-338.

Green, J. 1832. A Monograph of the Trilobites of North America. Philadelphia.

Hall, J. 1861. Descriptions of new species of fossils from the Upper Helderberg, Hamilton, and Chemung Groups. N.Y. State Cab. Nat. Hist., Ann. Rept. No. 14.

Struve, W. 1990. Paläozoologie III (1986-1990). Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 127: 251-279.

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