Design and function of trilobite exoskeletons

  • Nadine V. Wilmot

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The fossil arthropod Class Trilobita is characterised by the possession of a highly mineralised dorsal exoskeleton with an incurved marginal flange (doublure). This cuticle is usually the only part of the organism to be preserved. Despite the common occurrence of trilobites in Palaeozoic sediments, the original exoskeletal mineralogy has not been determined previously. Petrographic data involving over seventy trilobite species, ranging in age from Cambrian to Devonian, together with atomic absorption and stable isotope analyses, indicate a primary low-magnesian calcite composition. Trilobite cuticles exhibit a variety of preservational textures which are related to the different diagenetic realms through which they have passed. A greater knowledge of post-depositional processes and the specific features they produce, has enabled post-mortem artefacts to be distinguished from primary cuticular microstructures. Alterations of the cuticle can either enhance or destroy primary features, and their effects are best observed in thin-sections, both under transmitted light and cathodoluminescence. Well-preserved trilobites often retain primary microstructures such as laminations, canals, and tubercles. These have been examined in stained thin-sections and by scanning electron microscopy, from as wide a range of trilobites as possible. Construction of sensory field maps has shown that although the basic organisation of the exoskeleton is the same in all trilobites, the types of microstructures found, and their distribution is species-specific. The composition, microstructure, and architecture of the trilobite exoskeleton have also been studied from a biomechanical viewpoint. Total cuticle thickness, and the relative proportions of the different layers, together with the overall architecture all affected the mechanical properties of the exoskeleton.
Date of Award1988
Original languageEnglish


  • Design
  • function
  • trilobite exoskeletons

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