Sylvania, Ohio - Trilobites in the Heartland


Wide shot of two people in hard hats and bright orange vests crouched separately among the broken grey stones of a wide flat quarry pit and dwarfed by their surroundings.

       As anyone who has ever searched for trilobites already knows, the fossilized remains of these Paleozoic arthropods are often found in the most out-of-the-way places… frigid mountain tops… treacherous sea-side cliffs…inaccessible river valleys… and old cement quarries. And while this last entry may bear little of the Nat Geo aura of its predecessors, the fact is that in Sylvania, Ohio-- approximately 15 miles from downtown Toledo -- resides perhaps the most famous cement quarry in the paleontological world. There, for more than a century, within the confines of land controlled by the Medusa Stone Company, tons of what was once a Devonian-age seabed have been commercially extracted for use as road-fill, driveway gravel and, yes, a basic ingredient in cement. 
       Due to the men-at-work nature of the quarry operations, as well as the dangerous machinery that often still lurks within that locale, outsider access to this outcrop of Silica Shale has always been severely limited. Yet if you are lucky enough to gain entry to the quarry's fenced-in confines-- whether through an invitation or a somewhat clandestine weekend “raid”-- no matter where you may look it's almost impossible not to encounter evidence of life forms that some 400 million years ago lived, and apparently thrived, in what was then the bottom of a shallow, semi-tropical tidal estuary.
       Mixed within the coarse, light grey sedimentary mudstone that comprises the quarry's primary matrix is a vast array of fossiliferous material-brachiopods, coral crowns and crinoid stems -- which are so omnipresent that in many places they seem to dominate the silica-rich rock in which they've been trapped for nearly half-a-billion years. Indeed it is hard to move more than a few feet anywhere within the quarry's boundaries without spotting a fossil remnant of some kind. But, in all honesty, most of the collectors who wander into the Sylvania locale aren't particularly interested in this abundant array of brachs and crinoids they may encounter -- though some do, in fact, specialize in collecting, studying and even selling such material. To put it simply, virtually all who visit the quarry are there to find one thing -- the trilobites. 
       Ah yes, the trilobites, virtually all of which are of two quite similar phacopid species-Eldredgeops milleri and its slightly bumpier cousin, Eldredgeops crassituburculata. (FYI: there is also a species of proetid, Dechenella lucasensis, that ranks as one of the quarry's rarest finds). Beautifully preserved in either a chocolate-brown or charcoal-grey calcite, these incredibly three-dimensional arthropods -- which can be found either tightly enrolled in a defensive position, or totally outstretched, and usually range between 1 and 3 inches in length -- appear little the worse for wear, despite their lengthy passage through time. With each of the facets on their distinctive compound eyes easily distinguished (there is a slight difference in appearance, size and shape of the two differing phacopids' eye lenses), and with the microstructure of their ancient carapaces revealed in exquisite detail, the unmatched quality and quantity of these trilobites have helped make the Sylvania outcrops among the most famous fossil spots to be found anywhere… and the collectors that have been able to explore this rich paleontological resource among the most envied souls in the trilobite world. 
      Those that have long-collected fossils in and around the Sylvania quarry have earned the nickname Silica Brats, an initially derisive-sounding term that those targeted proudly wear as a badge of honor. They know that being recognized as such carries a certain degree of prestige among their fellow enthusiasts -- those who acknowledge the dedication these “brats” have exhibited towards gathering the Silica Shale's diverse Devonian fauna, as well as their luck for living so near such a renowned paleontological treasure trove. The fact is that over the years hundreds of trilobite collectors have grown up in and around the distinctly rural area that surrounds this legendary quarry, with many fondly recalling the idle-time hours they've spent wandering through the slag heaps and rock piles looking for prized Paleozoic relics. And even as they grew older, when life's inherent responsibilities began eating up much of the care-free time of their youth, the passion that these Midwestern hobbyists have maintained for the Silica Shale deposits -- and its trilobites -- has been nothing short of astonishing. 
       Many of these enthusiasts still venture into the field every chance they get in their never-ending quest to find the “ultimate” phacops specimen -- that elusive, big-eyed, perfectly aligned, 4 inch long “monster” of their dreams. At the slightest provocation, they will happily regale you with ”trilo tales” about the great specimen that their digging buddy found last year, while working just two feet away… or how the “biggest bug I've ever seen” was broken by a slightly overzealous hammer blow… or how a legendary trilobite may finally be freed from someone's private collection within the next few months. It's apparently a life-long game among the Silica Brats to boast about who has the biggest, the best, the most perfect Sylvania trilobite, though stories of humongous “lost” specimens, as well as of clandestine runs into a closed quarry, are also frequent topics of conversation. 
       As one might imagine, it breaks the hearts of these Silica Shale devotees to consider the fate suffered by the preponderance of the quarry's fossils. The fact is that for every trilobite found in the area's rich outcrops over the last 100-plus years -- and there have literally been thousands in a variety of sizes, shapes and degrees of preservation -- the vast majority of the fossils that once existed within the quarry's confines have been chewed up and spat out by the huge cranes and tractors that dig the layers of sedimentary rock. The resulting scree is then delivered into machines that crush it all, trilobites included, into the gravel that will eventually fill roadbeds and driveways. It's enough to bring a tear to the eye of any serious trilobite enthusiast.   
       “I've been very lucky to have gone digging for trilobites in many parts of the world,” said noted trilobite authority and life-long Silica Brat, Tom Johnson. “But few locations have ever provided more excitement, and kept me enthralled for longer than Sylvania. It's really a special place and the trilobites are truly amazing. They seem to have a soul… especially with those big eyes that can stare back at you.”
       According to many trilobite aficionados, there are simply no eyes in the fossil world that can come close to matching those found attached to Silica Shale phacopid specimens. Proudly ensconced high atop the creature's semi-circular cephalon, these eyes -- often featuring over 200 individual lenses -- hold an almost mystical fascination for those who gaze upon them, with their perfect geometric symmetry and space-age design seeming to defy their incredibly ancient ancestry. The detail of the eyes found on Sylvania's two phacopid species has also helped scientists (most notably Dr. Niles Eldredge, formerly of New York's American Museum of Natural History, for whom Eldredgeops milleri has been named) to solidify the theory of Punctuated Equilibria, which presents how certain species will quickly “mutate” and evolve after lengthy periods of relative stasis. 
      The undeniable fact, however, is that whether they serve as a foundation for scientific research or as an inspiration for amateur collectors, few morphological features in the entire fossil record are as astounding as trilobite eyes. By the time the initial members of the trilobite line appeared early in the Cambrian slightly more than 520 million years ago, they already featured highly developed eyes -- the first creatures to leave behind fossil evidence of such a major evolutionary advance. Those early eyes were crescent-shaped and in many cases provided nearly 360-degree vision for the primitive Olenellid and Redlichid trilobite types that sported them. 
      Some 130 million years later, in the Middle Devonian, those eyes had developed into some of the most complex optic attachments ever to see, or be seen… schizochroal eyes featuring dozens of individual lenses stacked in tight, symmetrical rows that provided its host with a truly unique view of the world around them. Unlike any modern eyes -- whether they are human, arthropod or annelid -- trilobite eyes were actually constructed of calcite, providing these ancient creatures with virtually unparalleled eyesight, vision that (thanks to recent experiments conducted with calcite crystals) we can assume was filled with streams of light and bursts of color. But while scientists continue to be fascinated with the logistics behind the development of these amazing, mineralized ocular outlets, trilobite collectors prefer to revel more in their singularly distinctive beauty.
     “If there's one thing that the phacopids from Sylvania are famous for, it's those eyes,” said Ray Meyer, a long-time Sylvania enthusiast. “Of course the overall preservation of each trilobite is also important, but a specimen with perfect eyes is what everyone is looking for when they visit the quarry.”
      Reports of fossils being found in the Sylvania area have existed ever since the first settlers began traveling through northern Ohio in the early 1800s. Back then, the locals were more concerned about battling against the harsh winter elements and the occasionally unfriendly native tribes than considering the possible paleontological significance of the shells made of stone (brachiopods) that they frequently encountered while digging in their fields. While stories of strange fossil finds would occasionally make local newspaper headlines for much of the next century, it wasn't until 1892, when the Sandusky Cement Company bought a tract of land in Sylvania and began quarry operations, that people began to pay greater attention to the strange shapes that inhabited the area's Devonian-age rock formations. 
       By the time the facility was renamed the Medusa Stone Company in 1929, the area's trilobites were already attracting attention from a variety of local museums and collectors. By the mid '60s, what many feel was the peak period of quarry operations -- almost 200 men were employed at the site, and their contact with the area's fossils, and fossil collectors, were constant and to some extent troublesome. Local trilobite enthusiasts would continually pester quarry foremen for the opportunity to sneak into the facility and wade through the slag heaps. They would also frequently confront the workers with strident requests to put aside prime specimens for subsequent re-sale. It is said that many great trilobites were acquired through these aggressive actions, though such distractions have been continually frowned upon by those running quarry operations, many of whom believed that “nothing good” could come from their workers associating with the fossil collectors. The fact is, however, that this intriguing interaction between local trilobite enthusiasts and Medusa employees continued virtually unabated until full-time quarry operations were stopped in 1979.
    “Working with the people at the quarry has always been a tricky subject,” one Sylvania resident explained. “Some of the folks there were very cooperative with local collectors; they'd either look the other way when we went in, or they'd save special trilobites from being ground up. But obviously a lot of their bosses didn't look favorably on such activities. Their main concern was about someone breaking in without permission and getting hurt while running around looking for fossils.”
      Such concerns were apparently well merited. The fact is that over the years there have been a number of reported (and unreported) injuries incurred by somewhat rambunctious trilobite hounds mucking about within the confines of the Silica Shale quarry. But despite the potential hazards they may have to face, it seems that each and every Silica Brat was, is and will always be more-than-ready to pick up their trusty rock hammer at a moment's notice and venture out onto the sacred soils of the Sylvania quarry. They each seem to know deep in their fossil-loving souls that the biggest, best, most perfect phacops trilobite ever found is right out there waiting to be uncovered. And they're each determined to be the one to find it.

Quarry photo courtesy of Jayson Kowinsky

Click here for the Gallery of Silica Shale Trilobites