Nfld. & Labrador

Trilobite fossil gifted back to Manuels River, decades after its discovery

The expert who uncovered a 500-million-year-old complete trilobite fossil has gifted it back to the local Newfoundland interpretation centre instead of to a large U.S. museum.

'I decided that this should really come back to where it came from'

Paleontologist gifts rare fossil to Manuels River centre

5 years ago
Riccardo Levi Setti found a valuable trilobite at the river 40 years ago, and has now returned the 500 million year old fossil to where it was first discovered. 2:32

A rare 500-million-year-old fossil, first excavated from the banks of Manuels River in eastern Newfoundland decades ago, has made its way back to its original home to be put on public display, a gift from the man who discovered it.

Riccardo Levi-Setti, a physicist and paleontologist, uncovered the large trilobite close to 40 years ago in Conception Bay South. As he was chiseling away at a wall of rock, he spied the edge of the fossil.

"By prying very carefully, I was able to extract the big trilobite, the biggest one that I ever found," he said. He shipped it in three parts back to his home in Chicago, where he taught at the University of Chicago, and re-assembled it into a complete specimen.

Levi-Setti had been offered $10,000 by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for his find, but he felt that wasn't the right home for the fossil he calls "the top of my collection."

"I've been keeping it, studying it for many years. and then finally I decided that this should really come back to where it came from," he said.

"Now it's here, for everybody to see."

Riccardo Levi-Setti has spent years excavating trilobites at Manuels River, and says the site has enormous scientific importance. (CBC)

'Butterflies of the sea'

To say Levi-Setti is an expert on trilobites almost understates the fact: he's written three books on the ancient marine arthropods, and the Manuels River find graces the cover of one of them.

"I call them butterflies of the sea in my book, because they have a shape that is hydrodynamically apt for them to swim very gently," he said.

Trilobites lived on Earth for about 250 million years, in a very different world than our own.

"At the time, there was no life on land, the only life was in the sea, and trilobites occupied the shallow seas," he said, adding the Manuels River specimen would have lived in about 10 or 20 metres of water, floating along and sucking in organic matter to eat.

Levi-Setti has spent years excavating trilobites at Manuels River, donating many smaller fossils to the interpretation centre in the past.

The trilobite will soon be put on public display at the Manuels River Hibernia Interpretation Centre in C.B.S. (CBC)

He said the entire site has enormous scientific importance, as fossils there are of the same species and era as those found in England and Wales, although the Newfoundland fossils are less disturbed and distorted than the European finds.

"The trilobites of Manuels River are extremely meaningful as proof of continental drift, aside from their paleontological interest," he said.

The trilobite was unveiled to a private audience on Thursday at the Manuels River Hibernia Interpretation Centre, and will be put on public display in the coming months.

With files from Bruce Tilley