House OKs bill naming trilobite RI’s state fossil
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.”