Book review – Travels with Trilobites: Adventures in the Paleozoic

7-minute read

Given my academic background, I often overlook the fact that fossils are not just objects of scientific study, but also sought-after collectables. While the previously reviewed Trilobite! by Richard Fortey focused on the former aspect, Andy Secher’s Travels with Trilobites combines an enthusiastic insider’s perspective of the world of trilobite collectors with photography of his extensive collection. This, then, is the second of a two-part dive into the world of that most enigmatic extinct creature: the trilobite.

Travels with Trilobites

Travels with Trilobites: Adventures in the Paleozoic, written by Andy Secher, published by Columbia University Press in July 2022 (hardback, 376 pages)

Fossil collectors come from all walks of life. Secher previously was the long-time editor of hard rock magazine Hit Parader and president of Titanium Records. While collecting trilobite fossils took a backseat during his younger years, it has become his main passion later in life and he is now a field associate in palaeontology with the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Having amassed over 4000 fossils, he ranks as one of the world’s most prolific collectors. As the three forewords by Niles Eldredge, Mark Norell, and Kirk Johnson reveal, he is keen to share his collection with the wider world. He has provided the AMNH with important specimens for study and display, and co-edits their trilobite website which laid the groundwork for this book.

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Secher is straightforward about the book’s aim: this is “a package of pure Paleozoic infotainment” (p. xxix) that takes the reader on a journey around the world to some of the most important fossil localities. The book is organised chronologically, with five chapters for the six geological periods making up the Palaeozoic Era, 541–252 million years ago, which encompasses the ~270 million year lifespan of these arthropods. Each chapter contains multiple self-contained sections, which introduces some repetition but means the book can be read in any order.

The biology and palaeontology of trilobites are covered in short essays that are sprinkled throughout the book in no particular order and without an overarching narrative. This covers such diverse topics as their unique calcite eyes and the spines that were only properly revealed when preparation techniques improved. It covers behaviours for which we have fossil evidence (moulting and enrollment, the capacity to roll up in a ball, likely for defence) and those we can only speculate about (feeding behaviour or the possibility that some trilobites ventured onto land on tidal flats). And there is of course their part in the Cambrian Explosion and in supporting the theories of plate tectonics and punctuated equilibrium. For those new to trilobites, there is interesting information here, though having read Fortey’s book I found only a few new ideas. The book furthermore includes no references. Occasionally an author is mentioned, but more often you are left with generic statements along the lines of “some scientists think…”. Given the book’s stated aim and the author’s background, you could argue there is no reason to expect them.

“[…] the backbone of this book is the essays that introduce you to key fossil locations. This is where Secher shines and gives insider stories and insights by himself and other seasoned collectors.”

Instead, the backbone of this book is the essays that introduce you to key fossil locations. This is where Secher shines and gives insider stories and insights by himself and other seasoned collectors. He introduces famous locations such as the Canadian Burgess Shale and the Chinese Chengjiang Biota, and lesser-known ones: Australia’s Emu Bay Shale which sits between the previous two in age, Portugal’s Valongo Formation that has yielded giant trilobites, or Quebec’s hard-to-reach Anticosti Island. He takes you to hotspots in Russia and Morocco and describes in detail how local collectors go about unearthing fossils. With Secher hailing from the US, plenty of North American locations get a good look-in. For some quarries, such as the Walcott/Rust Quarry in New York where the legendary Charles Doolittle Walcott dug for fossils, he can tell the full history from 1860 to now. Elsewhere he introduces you to some of today’s veterans, such as Bob Carroll, who single-handedly put Oklahoma’s Haragan Formation on the map and is legendary for his fossil preparation skills.

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It is clear that the book benefits from the chronological structure Secher has imposed upon himself because the moment it disappears the book meanders somewhat. The final chapter is aptly called “Trilobite Thoughts and Observations” and is indeed a collection of various musings on collectors and collecting. He ponders how to find trilobites, how to value them, and how to curate your collection. He describes the bazaar atmosphere of fossil shows such as that in Tucson, Arizona. He celebrates the work of fossil preparators (there are very few books doing this), lists the museums with the best trilobite collections, and talks of colour patterns, deep time, and the role of trilobites in history. And though he touches on sore points such as restrictive legislation by countries keen to protect their natural heritage or the problem of fossil forgery in Morocco and Russia, I found such sections somewhat superficial. Many important topics are briefly introduced, but none are exhaustively or objectively analysed. With 17 topics over 70 pages, this chapter could have been edited for length and focus. Or the best topics could have been incorporated in the first five chapters instead, where e.g. forgery is already mentioned.

“The essays are livened up by some 300 colour photos […] Secher’s collection and the selected specimens are jaw-dropping […] However, this is let down somewhat by the quality of the photos.”

The essays are livened up by some 300 colour photos, primarily of specimens from Secher’s own collection. These are not intended to be an all-encompassing catalogue such as Trilobites of the World, but to showcase the incredible diversity of trilobite form. Though Secher has attempted to tie them to the subjects and locations discussed, many noteworthy pictures were left while compiling the book. He has cleverly resorted to including a photo gallery at the end of each chapter to accommodate these. Now, Secher’s collection and the selected specimens are jaw-dropping. My mental image of what a trilobite can look like has been completely scrambled and reset. However, this is let down somewhat by the quality of the photos, which is a shame as the book’s large format clearly suggests this is a book to be enjoyed for its visual content. I am not talking about the 18 photos in chapter six that are visibly pixelated: this looks like an honest if embarrassing mistake where, I guess, low-resolution placeholder images used in early drafts accidentally made it into the final version. Instead, many images of especially smaller fossils look somewhat blurry. Since no photographer is mentioned or credited anywhere, I can only assume these are Secher’s own photos. My guess is that he made close-up photos using digital zoom, which simply crops and upscales the photo and is unsuitable for print reproduction at large sizes. The book would have benefited from the involvement of a professional (macro)photographer, ideally someone familiar with focus stacking to let the pictures of three-dimensionally preserved fossils pop (these are now also partially out of focus). This is a labour-intensive process, but if you have ever seen insect macrophotography combined with focus stacking, you know these pictures jump off the page.

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Some of you might wonder how this book compares to The Trilobite Book by the late Riccardo Levi-Setti, which was published in 2014 and had a similar approach though was organised geographically. Having leafed through it, the quality of the photography is noticeably better. Especially if you already have that book, you might want to first peruse a copy of Travels with Trilobites in a bookshop to make up your mind. I enjoyed Secher’s enthusiasm and the perspective he provides into a world I was not familiar with (I know of only one other recent book with input from fossil collectors and dealers). Even so, I could not help but feel that some opportunities were missed to really make this book shine.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Travels with Trilobites

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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