The Lost Barrier Islands of Georgia

The Georgia coast is well known for its historic role in the development of modern ecology, starting in the 1950s and ongoing today. But what about geologists? Fortunately, they were not long behind the ecologists, starting their research projects on Sapelo Island and other Georgia barrier islands in the early 1960s. Indeed, through that seminal work and investigations afterwards, these islands are now renown for the insights they bestowed on our understanding of sedimentary geology.

Why would geologists be attracted to these islands made of shifting sand and mud that were nearly devoid of anything resembling a rock? Well, before sedimentary rocks can be made, sediments are needed, and those sediments must get deposited before solidifying into rock. So these geologists were interested in learning how the modern sands and muds of the barrier islands were deposited, eroded, or otherwise moved in coastal environments, a dynamism that can be watched and studied every day along any Georgia shoreline. The products of this sediment movement were sedimentary structures, which were either from physical processes – such as wind, waves, or tides – or biological processes, such as burrowing. Hence sedimentary structures can be classified as either physical or biogenic, respectively.

Cabretta Beach on Sapelo Island at low tide, its sandflat adorned with beautiful ripples and many traces of animal life. Sand is abundant here because of a nearby tidal channel and strong ebb-tide currents that tend to deposit more sand than in other places around the island. This sand, in turn, provides lots of places for animals that live on or in the sand, making trails and burrows, demonstrating how ecology and geology intersect through ichnology, the study of traces.  Speaking of traces, what are all of those dark “pipes” sticking out of that sandy surface? Hmmm… (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

These geologists in the 1960s were among the first people in North America to apply what they observed in modern environments to ancient sedimentary deposits, and just like the ecologists, they did this right here in Georgia. For example, in 1964, a few of these geologists – John H. Hoyt, Robert J. Weimer, and V.J. (“Jim”) Henry – used a combination of: geology, which involved looking at physical sedimentary structures and the sediments themselves; modern traces made by coastal Georgia animals; and trace fossils. Through this integrated approach, they successfully showed that the long, linear sand ridges in southeastern Georgia were actually former dunes and beaches of ancient barrier islands.

These sand ridges, barely discernible rises on a mostly flat coastal plain, are southwest-northeast trending and more-or-less parallel to the present-day shoreline. Remarkably, these ridges denote the positions of sea-level highs during the last few million years on the Georgia coastal plain. The geologists applied colorful Native American and colonial names to each of these island systems – Wicomico, Penholoway, Talbot, Pamlico, Princess Anne, and Silver Bluff – with the most inland system reflecting the highest sea level. So how did these geologists figure out that a bunch of sand hills were actually lost barrier islands? And what does this all of this have to do with traces and trace fossils?

Map showing positions of sand ridges that represent ancient barrier islands, with each ridge marking the fomer position of the seashore. The one farthest west (Wicomico) represents the highest sea level reached in the past few million years, whereas the current barrier islands reflect an overlapping of two positions of sea level, one from about 40,000 years ago (Silver Bluff), and the other happening now. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken of a display at the Sapelo Island Visitor Center.)

Here’s how they did it. They first observed modern traces on Georgia shorelines that were burrows made by ghost shrimp, also known by biologists as callianassid shrimp. On a sandy beach surface, the tops of these burrows look like small shield volcanoes, and a burrow occupied by a ghost shrimp will complete that allusion by “erupting” water and fecal pellets through a narrow aperture.

Top of a typical callianassid shrimp burrow, looking much like a little volcano and adorned by fecal pellets, which coincidentally resemble “chocolate sprinkles,” but will likely disappoint if you do a taste test. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on St. Catherines Island.)

A couple of ghost shrimp, which are either a male-female pair of Carolina ghost shrimp (Callichirus major) or a Carolina ghost shrimp and a Georgia ghost shrimp (Biffarius biformis). Sorry I can’t be more accurate, but I’m an ichnologist, not a biologist (although I could easily play either role on TV). Regardless, notice they have big claws, which they use as their main “digging tools.” The tracemakers look a little displeased about being outside of their protective burrow environments, but be assured I thanked them for their contribution to science, and promptly threw them back in the water so they could burrow again. Scale = 1 cm (0.4 in) (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on St. Catherines Island, Georgia.)

Just below the beach surface, these interior shafts widen considerably, making these burrows look more like wine bottles than volcanoes. This widening accommodates the ghost shrimp, which moves up and down the shaft to irrigate its burrow by pumping out its unwanted feces (understandable, that) and circulating oxygenated water into the burrow. Balls of muddy sand reinforce the burrow walls like bricks in a house, stuck together by shrimp spit, and the burrow interior is lined with a smooth wall of packed mud.

A small portion of a ghost-shrimp burrow, showing its wall reinforced by rounded pellets of sand and stuck together with that field-tested and all-natural adhesive, shrimp  spit. Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island.

Amazingly, these shafts descend vertically far below the beach, as much as 2-3 meters (6.5-10 feet) deep. Here they turn horizontal, oblique, and vertical, and tunnels intersect, branch, and otherwise look like a complex tangle of piping, perhaps reminding baby-boomers of “jungle gyms” that they used to enjoy as children in a pre-litigation world. Who knows what goes on down there in such adjoining ghost-shrimp burrow complexes, away from prying human eyes?

The deeper part of a modern ghost-shrimp burrow, exposed by erosion along a shoreline and revealing the more complex horizontally oriented and branching networks. Gee, do you think these burrows might have good fossilization potential? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island.)

See all of those burrow entrances on this sandy beach? Now imagine them all connecting in complex networks below your feet the next time you’re walking along a beach. Feels a little different knowing that, doesn’t it? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island.)

Interestingly, these burrows are definitely restricted to the shallow intertidal and subtidal environments of the Georgia coast, and their openings are visible at low tide on nearly every Georgia beach. Hence if you found similar burrows in the geologic record, you could reasonably infer where you were with respect to the ancient shoreline.

I think you now know where this is going, and how the geologists figured out what geologic processes were responsible for the sand ridges on the Georgia coastal plain. Before doing field work in those area, the geologists may have already suspected that these sandhills were associated with former shorelines. So with such a hypothesis in mind, they must have been thrilled to find fossil burrows preserved in the ancient sand deposits that matched modern ghost-shrimp burrows they had seen on the Georgia coast. They also found these fossil burrows in Pleistocene-age deposits on Sapelo Island, which helped them to know where the shoreline was located about 40,000 years ago with respect to the present-day one. This is when geologists started realizing that the Georgia barrier islands were made of both Pleistocene and modern sediments as amalgams of two shorelines, and hence unlike any other known barrier islands in the world.

Vertical shaft of a modern ghost-shrimp burrow eroding out of a shoreline on Cabretta Beach, Sapelo Island. Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Vertical shaft of a fossil ghost-shrimp burrow eroding out of an outcrop in what is now maritime forest on Sapelo Island, but we know used to be a shoreline because of the presence of this trace fossil. Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Geology and ecology combined further later in the 1960s, when paleontologists who also were well trained in biology began looking at how organisms, such as ghost shrimp, ghost crabs, marine worms, and many other animals changed coastal sediments through their behavior. So were these scientists considered geologists, biologists, or ecologists? They were actually greater than the sum of their parts: they were ichnologists. And what they found through their studies of modern traces on the Georgia barrier islands made them even more scientifically famous, and these places became recognized worldwide as among the best for comparing modern traces with trace fossils.

Further Reading:

Hoyt, J.H., and Hails, J.R. 1967. Pleistocene shoreline sediments in coastal Georgia: deposition and modification. Science, 155: 1541-1543.

Hoyt, J.H., Weimer, R.J., and Henry, V.J., Jr. 1964. Late Pleistocene and recent sedimentation on the central Georgia coast, U.S.A. In van Straaten, L.M.J.U. (editor), Deltaic and Shallow Marine Deposits, Developments in Sedimentology I. Elsevier, Amsterdam: 170-176.

Weimer, R.J., and Hoyt, J.H. 1964. Burrows of Callianassa major Say, geologic indicators of littoral and shallow neritic environments. Journal of Paleontology, 38: 761-767.

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