Assembly OKs bill naming trilobite RI’s state fossil


STATE HOUSE – Although they haven’t been around for a quarter of a billion years, trilobites moved one step closer to glory in Rhode Island today.

The General Assembly gave its approval today to legislation sponsored by Rep. Teresa Tanzi and Sen. Alana DiMario on behalf of a teenage constituent to designate the trilobite Rhode Island’s state fossil.

The legislation (2022-H 7908, 2022-S 2497), which now heads to the governor’s desk, is the brainchild of Narragansett High School student Gary Jennison, who has been mentored by Senator DiMario. Jennison had long wanted to address Rhode Island’s woeful status as one of only four states that lack an official state fossil, so he made the designation his senior project, and worked with Senator DiMario to research and develop the legislation.

During hearings on the bill, he provided fascinating testimony to legislators about the life and times of trilobites.

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.”

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.

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.

“Gary really took the initiative to bring his idea to life, and convincingly demonstrated why an ancient bit of geological history actually has relevance to Rhode Island today,” said Senator DiMario (D-Dist. 36, Narragansett, North Kingstown). “Besides serving as a model for how young people can have a hand in democracy, his work will doubtlessly result in generations of kids — and adults — in Rhode Island who learn a little bit about the trilobite and how it illustrates the development of life on this planet.”

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 (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett). “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.”