Looking a Trilobite in the Eye
by Lizzy Wade
Like today’s insects and crustaceans, trilobites had compound eyes, with many different lenses focusing light onto clusters of sensory cells lying below them. The resulting image was put together a lot like a picture on your computer screen, with each lens producing one “pixel” of the whole. Because the lenses themselves were made of the mineral calcite, they often fossilized along with the rest of the trilobite’s tough exoskeleton. The sensory cells underneath the lenses, however, were ephemeral, and scientists had always assumed that they had decayed without a trace.
So imagine Brigitte Schoenemann’s surprise when she spotted fossilized versions of these delicate sensory cells while x-raying a long dead trilobite with a computed tomography (CT) scanner. “I expected that we would see [something] in the lens of trilobites, but then suddenly we saw structures of cells below the lens,” recalls Schoenemann, a physiologist at the University of Bonn and the University of Cologne, both in Germany.
Inspired, she applied to take more fossils to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, where she could use a particle accelerator’s high energy x-rays to peer deeper into the trilobites’ eyes. Now, she says, she’s created images of the extinct animal’s entire visual system, down to the level of fossilized individual cells…
(read more: Science Now) (photo: Brigitte Schoenemann)