Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences

Life and environment of fossil forms

Pelagic trilobites as an example of deducing the life habits of extinct arthropods

R. A. Forteya1

a1 Department of Palaeontology, British Museum (Natural History), Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, England.


This paper reviews the methods which have been used to deduce the life habits of trilobites. The most reliable conclusions are those that satisfy three independent criteria of evidence: (1) functional morphology of the exoskeleton; (2) analogy with living arthropods; and (3) geological evidence, as from facies relationships, or palaeogeography. Pelagic trilobites are one of the better examples for life habit reconstruction. The Ordovician trilobites that were most probably pelagic are those with hypertrophied eyes—Telephinidae, Opipeuteridae, Bohemillidae and Cyclopygidae—which satisfy the threefold requirements for evidence. Opipeuter, Carolinites (and other telephinids) were probably epipelagic, whereas cyclopygids and Bohemilla were likely to have been mesopelagic, living in exterior sites around the perimeter of Gondwana in the earlier Ordovician. These pelagics divide into two morphological groups: poorly streamlined, sluggish species somewhat like the living hyperiid Parathemisto, and well-streamlined species which are larger, and are considered to have been fast and active swimmers, with predatory habits. The streamlining of this group has been demonstrated by experiment. Other trilobites may also have been pelagic, but the evidence is less complete: Irvingella and its homeomorphs, and Remopleurides. Most Olenidae, however, which have been supposed to have been pelagic, were benthic forms inhabiting a specialised environment low in oxygen and possibly below the thermocline; only the leptoplastines may have been pelagic.

It is also shown that there are cases where ventral terrace ridges did not function to grip sediment during filter feeding. This applies not only to pelagic trilobites, but also to benthic ones in which the width and disposition of the doublure renders engagement with the sediment unlikely.


  • mesopelagic;
  • methodology;
  • Ordovician;
  • palaeoecology;
  • pelagic;
  • terrace ridges;
  • trilobites.