Early life (and trilobite eyes)

By Grant Jacobs 18/06/2011

A brief diversion on trilobite eyes for everyone and a quick head’s up for New Zealanders on a couple of events related to the science of early life.

This Sunday sees the start of the David Attenborough narrated BBC two-episode series First Life. Rated 8.5 out of 10 by reviewers at IMDB, the promotional material promises the BBC’s stunning photography from all over the world. Catch it on Prime TV Sunday at 8:30pm.


Explore the series website, too. Beyond a synopsis of the series, there’s short trailer video (see below or on their website), photos, and information about making the series.

I’m not a palaeontologist–I know very little about fossils–but the fossil shown in the trailer (see to left) with it’s impressive raised spines and conical structures might be an Erbenochile genus of trilobite. As Attenborough says in the trailer, those raised conical things are compound eyes.

The shape of the eyes would allow for wide vision (apparently 360Ëš in the horizontal plane for some trilobites). There is a suggestion that the eye shades at the top of the eye suggest these particular species were diurnal, rather than nocturnal – eye shades wouldn’t be an advantage in the dark.

Erbernochile erbeni eye detail, Large compound eye with "eye-shade". (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Erbernochile erbeni eye detail, Large compound eye with "eye-shade". (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

I’d spend an evening reading all the research done on these eyes–it sounds fascinating–but I’m trying hard to not get distracted and do my own reading… (On computing the three-dimensional of metaphase genomes. Uber-geeky stuff!) Those with subscription access to Science can learn more from Richard Fortey and Brian Chatterton’s 2003 Brevia article A Devonian Trilobite with an Eyeshade (DOI: 10.1126/science.1088713; you can also sign up for free access to papers that are more than one year old – see ‘Register (Free)’ in the lower right panel of the page). An introduction to trilobite eyes is presented by S. M. Gon III.

Below is the trailer for the series.


If talks are more your thing–they can be more sociable than staring at a box!–or you’d prefer to learn more about the details of the origin of life, last year’s Rutherford Medal winner–Professor Warren Tate from the department of biochemistry of the University of Otago[1]–will be touring the country during the second half of July presenting How to Make Life from the Primordial Soup. His focus is why RNA is the key ingredient to human life. Bookings are currently being taken via the Royal Society website and local sources. The talks won’t costs anything, but you do need to book. Venues are Nelson, Dunedin, Wanaka, Rotorua, Palmerson North and Auckland.

Everyone is welcome: don’t think you have to be a scientist to attend – these are public lectures.


[1] Professor Tate is currently Associate Dean of Research for the Health Science Division, and was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in June.

More articles in Code for life:

Autism — looking for parent-of-origin effects

The worm from the deep! and other stories

Fairy fly

Arsenic life – more criticism, formally published

Literate and test-driven programming (in bioinformatics)

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