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Friday, June 10, 2022

No trouble for trilobites

General Assembly passes bill naming trilobite RI’s state fossil

By Will Collette

Trilobite fossil. Photo by Will Collette
UPDATE #2: In a slap at House Trumplican leader and Charlestown state Rep. Blake "Flip" Filippi, the legislature passed 2022-H 7908 and 2022-S 2497, sending the legislation to the Governor for his signature. Flip had snarked this bill despite his own weird taste in legislation.

UPDATE: for those of you with a prurient interest in trilobites, a new study was just released on how they mate. CLICK HERE for an article that also describes how trilobites were able to see.  - W. Collette

The General Assembly passes bills from time to time honoring this or that as the official state thing. The best known was the designation of Rhode Island-style calamari as the official state snack food (though I would have picked clam cakes).

These designations are usually light-hearted and, as in the case of calamari, good for tourism, state fisheries and the economy. Usually, recommendations for official state things come from groups with an interest (again, think calamari and fishing) or from students.

The Rhode Island House just passed a bill sponsored by neighboring legislator Teresa Tanzi (D-South Kingstown) that designates the trilobite as Rhode Island's official state fossil. 

Here's Flip's snarky remark about the trilobite bill. Note that he has had
nothing to say about his neighbor Dennis Algiere's retirement,
the shocking Roe V. Wade events, Ukraine. Nada. 
Charlestown's state Rep. Blake "Flip" Filippi is outraged, as he usually is whenever a new official state something is announced and showed his scorn on Twitter.

But I think it's great. I've been fossil hunting since the late 1950s when I-95  gouged out my neighborhood in Pawtucket. Right near my house was the infamous and deadly "S-Turn" that required a huge cut through a huge deposit of slate. I cracked dozens of pieces open, finding a fossil - usually a fern - inside many of them.

I bought the trilobite fossil pictured above. Trilobites are very interesting fossils of one of Earth's most successful species. Trilobites first appeared half a billion years ago and lasted for 250,000,000 years. The State House news release below summarizes the presentation that Narragansett High School student Gary Jennison made to support the bill he suggested to Teresa.

In his testimony, he actually discloses the best place to find trilobite fossils in Rhode Island. Look for rock faces that are at least 250 million years old.

Among the many things an ignorant clown like Flip Filippi misses when he takes potshots at ideas like this is that they actually do generate visitors and revenue. For example, Maryland's Calvert Cliffs State Park draws visitors to the area largely because its beach is a great place to find fossils, especially shark teeth.

Here's the State House news release:

STATE HOUSE – The extinct ocean arthropod trilobite could soon be standing shoulder to shoulder with the American burying beetle, northern star coral and calamari (if any of them had shoulders) as a proud symbol of the Ocean State.

The House of Representatives today approved a measure sponsored by Rep. Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett) to designate the trilobite as Rhode Island’s state fossil.

The legislation is the brainchild of Narragansett High School student Gary Jennison, who wanted to address Rhode Island’s woeful status as one of only four states that lack an official state fossil. He made the designation his senior project, and provided fascinating testimony to legislators about the life and times of trilobites in support of the legislation.

Trilobites were marine creatures, although some appear to have ventured onto land, and looked something like a horseshoe crab, minus the tail. They ranged in size from less than 3 mm to over one foot.

“About half a billion years ago the trilobites emerged and they’re basically the precursor to nearly all arthropods on the planet today,” Jennison told the House Special Legislation Committee during a hearing on the bill, adding that they had many of the adaptations that would become common in the animal kingdom, such as photosensitive patches of cells that were a forerunner of eyes to outer plates that functioned as exoskeletons. 

“They died out about 250 million years ago during the Permian extinction event, but their evolutionary descendants continue to this day in the forms of thousands upon thousands of different species, really all across the Kingdom Animalia.”

Jennison made the case for the trilobite’s importance, saying it provides information that is important to the studies of plate tectonics, environmental science and oceanography – a field in which the Ocean State is a leader.

The trilobite is not at all unique to Rhode Island —Jennison noted that it was probably one of the first species to populate globally. But it is one of relatively few fossils that can be found in Rhode Island, he said, since the area was a geological late bloomer, having risen from the sea only about 50 million years ago. While it is most common around Jamestown, Jennison said it can be found anywhere in the state.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Alana DiMario (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown) is sponsoring its Senate companion (2022-S 2497).

If the bill is enacted, the trilobite would be one of several new state emblems to which lawmakers have granted “official” status in recent years. Last year, the northern star coral became the official state coral, and the harbor seal joined the ranks as the official state marine mammal in 2016. The prior year, the American burying beetle became the state insect, also as the result of advocacy by Rhode Island schoolchildren.

“It’s been a pleasure sponsoring this legislation on Gary’s behalf. He did an amazing job providing ample evidence and interesting information with a touch of humor that acknowledged the lighthearted nature of this bill,” said Representative Tanzi. “His work is an excellent example of civic engagement being taught and encouraged in our public schools, and if it results in people looking up trilobites and learning a bit about early life forms or marine science, this designation is worthwhile.”