Anticosti Island - Trilobite Treasure Trove

A rock face rises above a narrow strip of rocky beach on Anticosti Island, in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in eastern Quebec.

     Some people will go just about anywhere, and do just about anything to get their hands on trilobites. No further proof of that statement is needed than the fact that for more than 150 years, brave souls have ventured to remote Anticosti Island, located amid the rugged waters that comprise the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Quebec, in search of these ancient arthropods. Indeed, the raging river currents that surround the island are so treacherous -- the prime reason for over 400 reported shipwrecks -- that they have caused the vicinity to earn a nasty reputation as The Cemetery of the Gulf.
     The spectacular trilobite material found within Anticosti's abundant 430 million year-old Silurian layers certainly serves as a major lure for both scientists and amateur collectors. Yet merely arriving on the island can prove to be a daunting challenge. With the nearest major airport 300 miles away in Quebec City, among the only sure ways to reach the island is to either drive or train to Perce, New Brunswick and then take a rugged multi-hour, seasickness-inducing ferry ride over to Anticosti itself. It is not a trip for either the faint of heart or weak of stomach. 
     Indeed, it would be difficult to find a more isolated sub-arctic spot in eastern North America than Anticosti Island. But, in all honesty, what is braving a few logistical inconveniences and overcoming some physical barriers when the prize at stake is access to one of North America's richest trilobite faunas?  The raw natural beauty, the verdant boreal forests and the abundant wildlife makes this a paradise for adventurers, campers and hikers… as well as trilobite enthusiasts. There's even a 221 square mile National Park on the island where visitors can see (and even hunt) everything from moose to white tail deer, both of which were introduced to the island in the latter years of the 19th Century and have flourished ever since.
     Once you manage to reach the island by ferry, ship or helicopter, if you are so inclined, you are then faced with the imposing task of navigating a large body of land 135 miles long and 30 miles wide, one with few roads and minimal electricity, but riddled with fossil-bearing formations. In fact, these sedimentary layers (which include a number of equally-abundant Ordovician outcrops in addition to the dominant Silurian rocks) are over 6,000 feet thick in certain spots on the island, marking them as the most complete strata of corresponding age in the entirety of eastern North America. 

     “Getting to Anticosti is part of the fun,” said one trilobite enthusiast who has visited the island on a number of occasions. “It can take you most of a day to do so, but once you're there you can't help but be impressed by what you see. It's incredibly beautiful… but very challenging. You certainly don't want to get lost on Anticosti Island.”
     With a year-round population of only 240 intrepid souls, it's a safe bet that trilobites are far more abundant than humans in this imposing spot of terra firma. Of course, the trilobites on Anticosti Island have long since been turned to stone… but what stones they are! It seems that back in the Silurian, the creatures inhabiting the waters now covering Anticosti were part of a cool-water, offshore megafauna. And whether it was due to the environment or some still-unknown ecological conditions, many of the trilobites here grew to a singularly impressive size, with some reaching five to seven inches in length. 
     Evidence provided by the 52 trilobite species that have been uncovered from the nearly half-billion year-old layers that run throughout the island is nothing less than stunning. These specimens are uniformly large, beautifully preserved and incredibly three-dimensional. Huge examples of Dicalymene schucherti, Failleana magnifica and Arctinurus anticostiensis are often two or even three times the size of comparatively “normal” species found in similar Silurian horizons in Ontario and New York State. Add to the mix their thick toffee-colored shells, as well as their life-like preservation and what you end up with are Paleozoic prizes of the highest order.
     “Early Silurian trilobites of Anticosti Island constitute something of a paleontological 'sleeper,'” said Dave Rudkin of Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. “They're not nearly as widely known or appreciated as other Silurian trilobite faunas, like those of Dudley's famous Much Wenlock Limestone, New York's Rochester Shale or even the Henryhouse Formation in Oklahoma. And that's a pity, because in terms of diversity, preservation and occasionally size, these are damned amazing trilobites.”
     Hunting for trilobites is not a particularly new endeavor in this part of the world. Indeed as early as the mid-19th Century, scientific expeditions sponsored by the Geological Survey of Canada were exploring Anticosti's rugged cliff exposures, with the first described species emerging in 1859.  In fact, at that time -- and even in the present day -- it was possible to find seaward-facing sedimentary outcrops where the fossiliferous material was quite literally protruding from the 60 foot-high cliff wall or littering the beach below. Rarely has “surface collecting” been easier, or more rewarding!
     Despite this early report on Anticosti trilobites, during which time nine initial trilobite species were described (including types of Hadromeros and Scotoharpes), it seems that these fossils failed to capture the public imagination in the same manner that other 19th century trilobite discoveries had done, particularly those in England and the Czech Republic. It wasn't until 1928, in fact, that a more complete monograph of the island's fauna was presented. Yet little heed was still paid to Anticosti's trilobite bounty, and after that it was as if this distant spot had disappeared off the face of the paleontological map. 
     There were sporadic scholarly works done on Anticosti's trilobites throughout the 1970s and '80s, and amateur collectors started visiting the island more frequently during this time. But for an extended period, as fossil hotspots such as Morocco and Russia took over the world stage, it seemed as if the impressive trilobites from Anticosti were all but forgotten. In fact, it wasn't until paleontologists Brian Chatterton (of the University of Alberta) and Rolf Ludvigsen (of the Denman Institute for Research on Trilobites) presented a modern revision of those previous works early in the 21st Century, that Anticosti Island once again fully entered the fossil lexicon. 
     “The variety of Silurian trilobites collected during our brief reconnaissance showed that the diversity was much greater than indicated by the existing literature,” Chatterton and Ludvigsen wrote. “We returned to Anticosti (on three separate occasions) and accumulated extensive collections of trilobites from almost all the Silurian locations.”
     The results of these efforts emerged in 2004 as the extensive volume, Early Silurian Trilobites of Anticosti Island, Quebec, Canada. Here Chatterton and Ludvigsen managed to add 32 new species (to the existing 20) and one new genus (to the previous 29) to the island's trilobite trove. They presented detailed black & white photographs of such species as Stenoparia grandis, Acrenaspis orestes and Nucleurus anticostiensis along with in-depth information regarding the island's singularly distinctive stratigraphy and paleoecology. While many of the figured trilobites represented only partial specimens, they still provided much-needed insight on both the breadth and scope of the island's fossil reserves.
     Upon careful examination, it appears as if Anticosti presents a fairly unique Silurian trilobite fauna. Perhaps the most similar locations in terms of comparative species would be Sweden's Gotland outcrop and England's famed Dudley formation… but the material in Anticosti is generally considerably larger than analogous specimens from these spots. With Silurian outcrops being fairly rare worldwide, the Anticosti material has added valuable new information to our understanding of this 27 million year-long period of earth history.

     The net results of Chatterton and Ludvigsen's work cast exciting new light on both the fauna of Anticosti and the Silurian itself… and somewhat indirectly led to an influx of amateur collectors eager to seek out their perceived share of the island's Paleozoic riches. This unexpected infusion of trilobite-seekers at first alarmed Anticosti officials who did not initially know how to handle these adventurers who arrived without hunting rifles, but rather with picks and shovels. Understandably, those who control the non-National Park elements of the island, Sepaq Anticosti (a division of the Canadian parks and wildlife agency, which oversees 60 percent of the landmass), were concerned that these visitors would end up doing irreparable damage to the area's natural beauty. 
     “You do sometimes need to keep an eye out for park officials,” said a frequent Anticosti visitor. “It's not that collectors are doing anything wrong. It's more that the officials usually don't have a great grasp of what we are doing with our shovels and picks, so their first inclination is to believe we are somehow defacing the landscape. And then the few officials who are actually knowledgeable about fossils may try to get involved with where you're digging and what you find. It can be a little tricky at times, but it's never really a problem.”
     Somewhat ironically, despite the flurry of digging activity that has taken place on Anticosti in recent years, relatively few of the resulting trilobite specimens have managed to find their way onto the commercial market. That is particularly surprising when one considers the fact that trilobites are fairly abundant in the island's outcrops. Indeed, in sharp contrast to the bountiful flow-to-market of both Ordovician and Silurian trilobite material from nearby Ontario or New York state, prime specimens from Anticosti are generally as difficult to obtain as trilobite teeth. There was a notable fossil auction held in Montreal in the late '90s where some large Anticosti trilobites were quickly gobbled up by both museums and collectors, but for the most part specimens from the island rank among the true “rara avis” items of the fossil world. 
     It appears that part of this scarcity stems from the sheer difficulty involved with mounting a major commercial expedition to Anticosti. It can cost thousands of dollars per person to travel to this inconvenient corner of the globe, transport in all the needed tools and provisions, and then stay for a week or longer -- in what may often turn out to be an inhospitable climate. Another reason for the dearth of these trilobites on the world market has to do with the fact that those lucky enough to find top-quality specimens on the island tend to hold on to them like precious family heirlooms.So all things considered, if you find yourself fortunate enough to come face-to-face with a trilobite from the rugged outcrops of Anticosti Island -- whether in a museum, a private collection or in the field -- perhaps you'll take an extra moment to admire it. Odds are you won't be seeing another example any time soon. But such a notion does little to detract from either the natural beauty or the scientific importance of these truly special trilobites, each of which provide invaluable insight into what life may have been like back in those ancient Silurian seas.

Click here for The Gallery of Anticosti Trilobites