Preparing a Trilobite
by AMNH on
The Museum has about 32,000 lots of trilobite specimens, with each lot containing anywhere from one to thousands of examples of these ancient arthropods. Assistant Curator Melanie Hopkins recently took us through a preparation process that helps her identify a given specimen’s species.
Given the subtle differences between one species and another—and there are over 20,000 recognized species of trilobite, spanning 10 orders—correctly identifying a given specimen can be a trying task. The fact that many trilobites, like this one, are very small, doesn’t help!
To make it easier to identify key trilobite characteristics like ridges, spines, and eye stalks, Museum staffers first prepare a batch of ammonium chloride by grinding it into a powder. This chemical, used in fertilizer, cough syrup, and some brands of licorice is a bright white color. That powder is placed in a glass drying tube and heated until it sublimates—transitioning immediately from a solid to a gas.
Above, Dr. Hopkins uses a plastic bulb attached to the glass one to produce small clouds of ammonium chloride gas, which coat the fossil in a thin, bright white film. (The powder will later be gently washed off the fossil and has no permanent effect, making it a good option for introducing contrast in fossils.)
The final result is a startlingly white trilobite fossil, with easily discernable bumps and ridges that paleontologists like Hopkins use to identify the species.