Magazine article The New Yorker

Bug Bed

Magazine article The New Yorker

Bug Bed

Article excerpt


Four hundred and fifty million years ago, what's now upstate New York lay roughly at the latitude of contemporary Brazil, at the bottom of the ocean. Bony fish had yet to evolve; instead, the ocean was populated by trilobites, which are sometimes referred to as "butterflies of the sea" but, in fact, looked a lot more like wood lice. One day, a sort of underwater avalanche buried millions of trilobites in the mud, and their bodies remained undisturbed even as the mud turned to stone, the seafloor buckled, and the continents regrouped. The result is a layer of fossil-rich rock that runs under a hill not far from Utica. The site, which has become known as Beecher's Trilobite Bed, has yielded some of the most coveted finds in the history of paleontology.

On a recent Saturday, Markus Martin stood at the spot, trying to speak above the roar of a rented jackhammer. He was dressed in a Yale University cap, a black T-shirt, and dusty khakis. Martin works in finance in Watertown, but his real passion is trilobites, and for the past five years he has leased the bed from a local dairy farmer. Martin had assembled a posse of fossil enthusiasts to help with the weekend's hunting; two had travelled all the way from Ohio, and a third had driven fourteen hours from Iowa.

"They're the only guys I can trust," Martin said of the trio. The fossiliferous layer lies beneath a hillside's worth of other layers; to expose a new section, the men were jackhammering through this "overburden," then taking turns shovelling away the debris. The Iowan, Travis Vivian, estimated that during the course of the day they would haul out more than a ton of fragmented rock. "What's funny," he said, wiping sweat from his face, "is that the three of us have desk jobs."

Beecher's Bed is named for Charles Emerson Beecher, a paleontologist and neo-Lamarckian who taught at Yale in the eighteen-nineties. What drew Beecher--and now Martin--to the bed is a quirk of geology. The fossils are coated in pyrite, or fool's gold; this has preserved the outline not just of the animals' shells but of their softest and most delicate parts.

Beecher used the fossils he gathered to solve the mysteries of trilobite anatomy; the animals had long, thin antennae, dozens of jointed legs, and, most bizarrely, above each leg an armlike appendage that they used to breathe. …

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