Finding a 475-million-year-old fossil intact is a rare achievement even for top paleontologists. That’s why Dr. Colin Sumrall, Associate Professor of Paleobiology at the University of Tennessee, was shocked to see a long-extinct trilobite with all of its pieces unscathed and even more surprised by who discovered it: an 11-year-old.
Ryleigh Taylor was walking along the Douglas Lake in Dandridge, Tennessee, when she stumbled upon the fossil, Time reported on Thursday. Not exactly sure what the artifact was, Taylor’s family reached out to Sumrall, who explained that they had discovered something extremely rare.
“Typically when we look at fossils of trilobites, they molt when they grow. So what happens is, when the trilobite skeleton just crumbles into hundreds of little pieces,” Sumrall told local news WATE-TV. “To find one where all the pieces are intact, it’s actually a pretty lucky find.”
Trilobites belong to a group of marine arachnomorph arthropods that once thrived as scavengers in Earth’s waters back in the day. The earliest records of Trilobites are from 521 million years ago during the Early Cambrian period, but they really hit their stride (er, sea-bed crawl) during the Paleozoic era. Because they had such a vast geographic reach during their glory days, fossilized trilobites have made important contributions to the studies of biostratigraphy, paleontology, evolutionary biology, and plate tectonics.
Taylor hopes her rare discovery will contribute to such research. The noble 11-year-old said she doesn’t plan to keep the fossil but does intend to donate it to a public museum so that others may enjoy it.
Sumrall was thrilled with Taylor’s choice, seeing as a fossil this old is so infrequently found intact. “To find something like that, it could spark this youngster into a whole career,” Sumrall said. “Maybe she’ll become a great paleontologist one day.”