Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Earth's seas teemed with trilobites, hard-shelled critters that resembled spiny aquatic cockroaches. Because their exoskeletons lent themselves to fossilization, scientists know a lot about what the outside of their bodies looked like. Their inner workings, however, have remained mysterious. Now, a new study has revealed the structure of the trilobite eye, bringing researchers one step closer to understanding the evolution of vision.
Like today's insects and crustaceans, trilobites had compound eyes, with many different lenses focusing light onto clusters of sensory cells lying below them. The resulting image was put together a lot like a picture on your computer screen, with each lens producing one "pixel" of the whole. Because the lenses themselves were made of the mineral calcite, they often fossilized along with the rest of the trilobite's tough exoskeleton. The sensory cells underneath the lenses, however, were ephemeral, and scientists had always assumed that they had decayed without a trace.
So imagine Brigitte Schoenemann's surprise when she spotted fossilized versions of these delicate sensory cells while x-raying a long dead trilobite with a computed tomography (CT) scanner. "I expected that we would see [something] in the lens of trilobites, but then suddenly we saw structures of cells below the lens," recalls Schoenemann, a physiologist at the University of Bonn and the University of Cologne, both in Germany. Inspired, she applied to take more fossils to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, where she could use a particle accelerator's high energy x-rays to peer deeper into the trilobites' eyes. Now, she says, she's created images of the extinct animal's entire visual system, down to the level of fossilized individual cells.
So what does the inside of a trilobite eye look like? A bit like a flower, Schoenemann and a co-author report online Thursday in Scientific Reports. Beneath each lens, round sensory cells are arranged like petals around a diamond-shaped photoreceptor able to pick up the dim light that filtered down through the Earth's ancient oceans. Pigment cells filled in the space between the blooms and likely made trilobite eyes appear brownish-black.