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Check Out This Awesome Trilobite Corn Maze

The elaborate Wisconsin maze honors the state’s geologic history

(Angie Treinen)
smithsonian.com

Agritourism is pretty popular right now, with farmers trying to add a little extra cash to their corn cribs by inviting the public to the farm to hang out in pumpkin patches, take haunted hay rides, pick apples, pet goats and pig out on pizza. One of the most popular draws, however, are corn mazes, which seem to get more and more elaborate each year. This fall, one of the best is a stunning maze in Wisconsin that is a tribute to the science of geology, with a fossil trilobite as the centerpiece, reports Christine Mlot at Science.

According to a press release, Alan Treinen of Treinen Farms in Lodi, about 25 minutes north of Madison, was cutting corn in one of his fields when he realized there was 480-foot trilobite fossil sitting in the corn, so the family decided to build a maze around it. We’re 99.9 percent sure that story is apocryphal since most trilobites are less than an inch long (though there are exceptions).

The farm told the local news station, WISC-TV, a different story. Angie Treinen tells the news station that in April or May the farm comes up with the idea for its annual maze, which it has been doing for the past decade.

This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Geology Museum approached the farm, suggesting they create a science-themed maze starring the state’s official fossil, the trilobite Calymene celebra, which prowled the seafloor a quarter billion years ago. After museum geologists Rich Slaughter and Brooke Norsted showed Treinen their trilobite temporary tattoos, she was on board.

Treinen says that at first she struggled with coming up with a trilobite design since she didn’t think most mazegoers would be familiar with the tentacled fossil. Every year, the farm tries to use a different style for its maze. For instance, they used linocut folk art as the inspiration for their 2015 “fox and grapes” maze. Last year, they used the Japanese Kawaii (“cute”) style for their killer baby unicorn maze.

When Trienen started researching the Art Nouveau style, everything fell into place, and along with the museum she designed a “Cabinet of Curiosities”-themed maze featuring the trilobite and other tributes to Wisconsin and to the science of geology.

In the middle of the cabinet is the ginormous trilobite. Surrounding it are symbols including a honeybee (which "help[s] many Wisconsin crops reproduce including apples, cranberries and pumpkins"), a butterfly (whose wings are like trilobite exoskeleton in that they are made of a protein called chitin), an ammonite fossil (the few that have been discovered in Wisconsin were left there by the last Ice Age), an empty jar representing all the dinosaur fossils found in the state (that would be a big, fat zero), a spear point (resembling one found on the farm during an archaeological survey), and a cluster of the state mineral galena.

The maze also includes a depiction of the portable microscope used by geologist Charles Van​ Hise, the first person to earn a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin as well as a cone-shaped nautiloid fossil from when Wisconsin lay near the equator under a shallow tropical sea.

WISC reports that the elaborate maze was not simply hacked out of mature corn. Instead, the farm cut the design into the 15-acre field in early summer when the corn was less than knee-high. While many corn-maze artists used GPS to mow their designs, the Treinens keep it old school, planting the corn in a grid and using wooden stakes, a lawnmower and a gaggle of teenage helpers to create the design. The final product is a complex warren of trails. “We like it to be pretty elaborate because we want to have a lot of confusing trails so people really have to read their map,” says Treinan.    

The maze is open now and will stay open until the second weekend in November. Mlot reports that during weekends in October, the museum will sponsor trilobite teach-ins at the maze, including temporary trilobite tattoos, a trilobite bean bag toss and a replica of Isotelus rex, the largest trilobite species discovered which measures over 2 feet long.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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