High Plains Anteater

Every time I travel away from home, I make a point of looking at the ground. The main reason for this seemingly odd behavior is to make sure I detect traces of whoever else might be living in my temporary neighborhood. This ichnological practice came in handy last month while I was doing field work in the high plains of central Montana. Located just east of the front range of the Rocky Mountains, this area – which happens to have some lovely Late Cretaceous trace fossils – is also prime real estate for grizzly bears.

Grizzly-Bear-Scat-Montana-Ants-1Had we found this in the woods, it would have answered just one specific question. But because it was in the high plains of Montana, it generated a lot more questions than answers. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in central Montana.)

Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) are the largest land carnivores in North America. The earliest written records describing grizzly bears came from Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who traipsed through this part of Montana with their expedition in the early 19th century. After several encounters, they soon verified that this species was much tougher than they had presupposed, often taking more than ten shots from then-modern rifles to kill. To make matters worse, it had a low tolerance for upright bipeds traipsing, skipping, sashaying, or dosey-doeing in its territory. Moreover, these bears possessed the means to enforce their you-no-go-here zones. There’s something about weighing 300+ kg (700+ lbs), having powerful limbs ending in huge claws, big teeth, an ability to run more than 50 kph (30+ mph), and an aggressive attitude that persuasively argued for people to avoid them whenever possible.

Bear-Treeing-PersonLewis and Clark thought they were badasses because they carried boom sticks, but Mr. Chocolate soon showed them why grizzlies were the Mongos of the animal kingdom: shooting them sometimes got them mad. (Image is originally from Sargent Patrick Gass’s journal and borrowed from Frances Hunter’s American Heroes Blog, co-written by Mary and Liz Clare.)

So although the area where I did field work in Montana is world famous for its dinosaur nests and other fossil evidence, modern grizzly-bear traces there also mean I associate this place with these animals. For instance, I’ll never forget my first morning there in 2000, when – while walking to an outcrop I’d be studying by myself for the next six days – I encountered fresh grizzly tracks in one of the arroyos. These traces readily explained why I heard a pack of coyotes making a racket the night before, while also invoking mild anxiety in this petite paleontologist once I realized the surrounding environment lacked any trees or other means of escaping an angry grizzly.

Grizzly-Bear-Tracks-MontanaLeft rear-foot track of an adult grizzly bear, left in the muddy sand of an arroyo next to a Cretaceous outcrop where I did field work in 2000.  Notice the length of its claws, which left marks well in front of its toes. Photo was taken about four days after I had seen them freshly made my first day in this area of Montana. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

This time, with 14 more years of tracking experience behind me, I felt a little more confident about detecting grizzly-bear tracks and other sign, and looked forward to seeing these traces, but not their tracemakers. Thus I was pleased when my field companions and I found several-weeks-old evidence of a grizzly during my first morning there. Yet these traces were not tracks. Instead, they consisted of scat bearing (sorry) some never-before-seen items (for me, anyway), accompanied by nearby feeding signs that directly connected to another trace made by another animal.

So let’s first talk feces. Based on its size alone, we quickly determined that this deposit was from a grizzly bear, as the two pieces collectively were about 15 cm (6 in) long and about 5 cm (2 in) wide. Nearby coyote scat nearby gave some perspective: although 20 cm (8 in) long, it was only 2 cm (0.8 in) wide, indicating a much smaller anal diameter. However, that wasn’t the largest grizzly scat I’d ever seen, which made us think that maybe it was from a young bear.

But was really puzzled us was the contents of the scat: it was full of ants and grass stems. Despite none of us being entomologists, let alone myrmecologists, we recognized the red-and-black ant parts in the scat were from an ant common there in the high plains, and probably some species of Formica. Colonies of this ant built nests with prominent domes at the ground surface, which are composed of a mixture of soil and grass stems. Hmm, ants and grass stems: what could it mean?

Grizzly-Bear-Scat-Montana-Ants-2See all of those orange and black bits in this scat? Those are ant parts that passed through the digestive tract of a grizzly bear. Notice these pieces are accompanied by lots of plant fibers, which must have provided some healthy roughage. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in central Montana.)

OK, you already got it: this scat was evidence of a grizzly bear that ate ants. But the grass also showed that this grizzly ingested a lot of plant debris along with these yummy insects. This implied that it must have been chowing down on the top of an ant nest, scooping up insects and grass stems indiscriminately, like it was dining on an ant salad. Furthermore, knowing how ants tend to defend attacks on their nests, they probably swarmed upward in great numbers and straight into this grizzly bear’s mouth, unwittingly aiding its efforts. (Incidentally, an insectivorous member of our field crew had been tasting these ants just minutes before we found the scat and independently confirmed their delectable qualities.)

Montana-Ant-Nest-2Ant-nest mound in the field area composed mostly of grass stems, and probably made by a species of Formica. Scale is a size 8 1/2 (men’s) boot. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Montana-Mound-Nest-Ants-CloseupClose-up of the ants in the colony moving in and out of a nest entrance, in between all of the grass stems. Also, check out those black abdomens and reddish-orange thoraxes and heads, which we now know don’t change color much after spending time inside a grizzly bear. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in central Montana.)

So how did we know that the grizzly was “scooping” (using its paws) instead of simply mashing its face into the nest like it was competing in an ant-eating contest at a grizzly-bear fair? Ah, that was the other trace evidence. Only a couple of meters away from the scat were two big pits. These pits showed exactly where the ant-eating grizzly had used its big-clawed paws to rip into a couple of nests. While taking into consideration the needed residence time of ants in a grizzly gut, we figured this bear had already raided a nest somewhere else and pooped here, or it came back to this place for seconds the next day. Either way, it left a little calling card for us bipeds and any other mammals in the area, warning us to stay away from its ant stash.

Grizzly-Bear-Ant-Predation-PitsEver wonder what a grizzly-bear-ant-eating pit looks like? Wonder no more, here’s two of them. The one on the left was about a meter (3.3 ft) across, whereas the one on the right was closer to 1.5 m (5 ft) wide. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

What was very gratifying about these traces is how they reflected the same sort of insectivorous bear behaviors I had discerned in black-bear traces in forests of Wyoming and Idaho. The big difference, though, was in the types of insects and substrates. Insect-eating bears in forests rip open rotten logs for their fodder, which mostly would hold wood-eating beetle grubs; this behavior leaves huge gouges and scatters wood chips around the feeding site. Without trees, the same behavior means digging into the soil, and after different insects, such as  moths and ants, and the traces will be large pits like the ones we saw.

So how would traces like these look in the fossil record? Better yet, how would our knowledge of these grizzly-bear traces help us to test whether any dinosaurs did similar behaviors, such as tearing into Mesozoic ant or termite nests and feasting on these little protein-rich treats?

Well, you’re lucky that I’m the person asking such rhetorical questions, because I just happened to have talked about about this in my most recent book, Dinosaurs Without Bones. Based on their anatomies, dinosaurs accused of ant- or termite-eating behaviors include a few unusual theropods, such as alvarezasaurs and therizinosaurs. Very simply, dinosaur trace fossils of insectivory would be analogous to what we saw with these grizzly-bear traces in Montana. Lacking dinosaur skeletons with insect parts in its gut region, trace fossils might include coprolites containing abundant ant parts, accompanied by sediments or plant debris from their nests. Even better would be a fossil ant or termite nest with visible damage matching the claws or other body parts of these suspected dinosaurs.

Have paleontologists ever found such two-for-one ichnological specials? Not yet, but given an awareness of modern insect-eating animals and the traces – some of which are next to Mesozoic rocks – I have every confidence that we’ll discover find them some day.

Fossil Visions in the Two Medicine

(This post is the third in a series of three about my field work on the trace fossils of the Late Cretaceous (75 million-year-old) Two Medicine Formation, which I just completed a week ago. My previous two posts, which mostly explain the scientific importance of this field work, are Tracing the Two Medicine and Burrowing Wasps and Baby Dinosaurs.)

Looking back on three weeks of field work in the Late Cretaceous Two Medicine Formation, one of the realizations I had was how long it took before I could see more of what was there. The most frustrating part of this realization, though, is also knowing that I still missed plenty. This mix of satisfaction and unease is the duality that often accompanies the birthing and honing of search images, a visual training that enables paleontologists to find the fossils we want to find whenever we walk around a field site and look.

Tony-Martin-Searching-Fossils-Two-MedicineThis outcrop of the Late Cretaceous (75 mya) Two Medicine Formation in central Montana is chock-full of fossils, but you might not know that from just looking at this picture. That means you have to get out onto the rocks and look closely for them, but first make sure you have the right search images for finding them. (Photograph by Ruth Schowalter.)

The Two Medicine Formation in particular presents a major challenge for cultivating search images because of the variety of fossils in it. Moreover, most of these fossils require very different search images. For example, over my three weeks of prospecting, I looked for the following fossils:

  • Plant root traces
  • Invertebrate burrows and tracks
  • Insect cocoons and pupal chambers
  • Dinosaur tracks
  • Dinosaur nests
  • Dinosaur eggshells
  • Dinosaur coprolites
  • Dinosaur bones
  • Dinosaur toothmarks (on dinosaur bones)

I also found a few other fossils I didn’t expect to find, but there they were. This happenstance served as a good reminder that simply going out into the field with a bullet-point checklist of what you think you’ll find (like what you just read) isn’t good enough. In other words, you also need to see what’s there, rather than just what you expect to be there.

On top of looking for these fossils, I’m a geologist, too. This means I also paid close attention to the rock types in the Two Medicine Formation – sandstones, mudstones, conglomerates, limestones – and their physical sedimentary structures – such as cross-bedding or graded bedding. Moreover, Two Medicine strata in the field area are not necessarily in their original horizontal positions, but instead are bent, tilted, and faulted in places. This is where training I had in structural geology – the study of how rocks were deformed – came in handy.

Geologic-Anticline-Two-MedicineOriginally horizontal sedimentary strata were bent upward into a fold, which we geologists normally call an anticline. In such folds, the fossils in the center of the fold are geologically older, whereas the fossils on the outside of the fold are younger. That is, unless the strata were overturned, in which case we’d call it antiformal syncline, then the fossils would have the opposite age relations. Thank you for teaching this, structural geology professors! (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Geologic-Fault-Two-MedicineIt’s not my fault, so we’ll blame the Two Medicine Formation for this breakage of sedimentary rocks. Based on how it looks like the fault block on the right moved up relative to the one on the left, I think this is a reverse fault, which – like the anticline and almost everything else on earth – was caused by plate tectonics. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Thus whenever I stepped into the field each day, I had to rapidly switch, combine, or otherwise tap into different types of vision. I’ve often jokingly referred to my ability to spot traces and trace fossils in the field as “ichnovision” (my most likely comic-book hero superpower), and my geological training means I’m using “geovision.” Yet in the Two Medicine Formation – a rock unit world-famous for its dinosaur bones and eggs – I also had to use “osteovision” (seeing fossil bones) and “oovision” (seeing fossil eggshells). These forms of fossil vision are tough for me, as I never see dinosaur bones or eggshells in the southeastern U.S., which is where I spend most of my time in the field.

So just to give you an appreciation of what it was like during my three weeks of looking for fossils in the Two Medicine Formation, here are a few photos and brief descriptions of some fossils I found. To be sure, there was much more than this, but at least I can share these for now so you can begin to see through my eyes.

Fossil-Plant-Root-Traces-Two-MedicineThese odd-looking structures weathering out of an outcrop in the Two Medicine Formation had variable diameters, central cores filled with calcite, and branched in places. I’m fairly sure these are fossil plant root traces, but they were the only ones I saw like them during three weeks of field work. So I remain a little skeptical of my identification, and remain open to their being some geological features I’ve just never seen before then. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Horizontal-Burrows-Two-MedicineThese are longitudinal sections of horizontal burrows in a sandstone, showing off their beautifully expressed internal structures called meniscae. Meniscae are formed by burrowing invertebrates – such as beetle larvae or cicada nymphs – that pack their burrow with sediment behind them as they move. This means the convex side of the meniscae points in the direction the animal was moving. Go ahead, apply that principal and see what you figure out for yourself. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Vertical-Burrows-Two-MedicineThese are more invertebrate burrows, but they’re vertically oriented, meaning you only see their circular cross-sections when you look at the top bedding-plane surface of this sandstone. Notice how some of them are open but others are filled with sandstone. The open ones were filled with mud originally, but that softer sediment has since weathered out, leaving them hollow. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Limulid-Tracks-Two-MedicineThese are invertebrate tracks, and they form a distinctive enough pattern that I recognized them as a trackway, where the trackmaker (probably a freshwater horseshoe crab) turned. But they’re also preserved in positive relief (“sticking out”) because the original traces were filled with sand, which made a natural cast of the tracks. Think about how you have to reverse your concept of tracks to recognize these. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Fossil-Cocoons-Two-MedicineOne of my main research interests in the Two Medicine Formation is its insect trace fossils, which include some of the best-preserved fossil insect cocoons I’ve ever seen in the geologic record. See where the patterns of their original weaves? These cocoons were likely made by wasps – or something acting very much like wasps – 75 million years ago. I usually prospected for these cocoons by looking for their distinctive oval shapes on the ground, then looked more closely for the weave pattern. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Fossil-Cocoon-in-situ-Two-MedicineThis is what a fossil insect cocoon looks like in an outcrop. Sometimes a burrow would be connected to the cocoon, showing where the original mother insect dug a brooding chamber for its intended offspring. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Dinosaur-Bone-Two-MedicineA rare piece of dinosaur bone that actually looks like a bone, even to an untrained eye. Although this one is white, the dinosaur bones in the Two Medicine Formation varied wildly in their colors. So spotting these fossils was more a matter of looking for both a shape and texture that translate into “bone.” (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Fragmented-Dinosaur-Bone-Two-MedicineThis is more what most dinosaur bones looked like when I found them in the field area. You probably spotted the big chunk right away, but how about the smaller ones that tend to blend in with the non-dinosaur-bone rocks around them? (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Adult-Hadrosaur-Track-Two-MedicineHere’s another example of how fossil tracks are not like modern ones in size, shape, and how it’s preserved. This is a three-toed dinosaur track (probably made by a hadrosaur), but it was originally made in mud, then sand filled in the track-sized hole to make a natural cast, which 75 million years later weathered out so that it’s sitting by itself on the eroded surface of a mudstone. What’s the scale? My boot’s a size 8 1/2 (men’s). Yes, I felt a little inadequate.  (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Hadrosaur-Track-in-situ-Two-MedicineWhat does a natural sandstone cast of a dinosaur track look like when it’s still in outcrop? Look for a lump on the bottom of a sandstone bed. From a side view, you might then see a couple of “toes” pointing in one direction, like in this one: the central toe is to the left and one of the outer toes is on the side, clser to you. Note how the sandstone bed also has a few open invertebrate burrows in it, too. Ichnobonus! (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Hadrosaur-Coprolite-Two-MedicineCheck out this big piece of, well, dinosaur coprolite. These trace fossils contained blackened (carbonized) wood fragments that originally passed through the gut of a dinosaur (probably a hadrosaur), and were later cemented by calcite. But you had to look at them doubly, because some of these trace fossils included their own trace fossils made by insects, namely dung beetle burrows. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Field-of-Feces-Two-MedicineYou’ve heard of ‘Field of Dreams’? This is a ‘Field of Feces.’ The ground here is adorned with dinosaur coprolites, which are weathering out of the mudstone and breaking apart on the surface. This serves as a good example of how once you know what the dinosaur coprolites look like in this area, you’re less likely to just walk by them, singing “Where Have All the Coprolites Gone?”. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Eggshell-Fragments-Two-MedicineThe Two Medicine Formation is famous for its dinosaur eggs and babies, but even more common than those are bits and pieces of dinosaur eggshells. These show up as black flakes on ground surfaces and sometimes in a rock, which you then must distinguish from all other black flakes that are not dinosaur eggshells. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Find-Dinosaur-Eggshell-Two-MedicineCan you find the dinosaur eggshell in this photo? I’ll bet the answer was “yes,” but I made it a little easier for you by cropping the photo, placing the eggshell near the center of the image, and oh yea, showing you what typical eggshells look like in the previous photo. Now think about detecting this bit of eggshell from a standing height and while walking. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

After viewing the photos and reading the descriptions, do you think you could recognize each of these fossils if you were somehow magically transported to the Two Medicine Formation in Montana?

The likely answer to that question is, maybe, maybe not. For instance, despite all of my previous paleontological and geological field experience, it took me about two weeks of being in the field before I started accurately identifying dinosaur bones and eggshells. This humbling situation gave me a renewed appreciation for the people who regularly work in the Two Medicine Formation, but also imparted a lesson about taking the time to learn from misidentified burrows, cocoons, coprolites, bones, and eggshells in it. Most things I saw in the Two Medicine were not these fossils, meaning my ways of seeing had to become more discriminating over time.

Thus given enough practice and “dirt time” seeking fossil in the field and correcting your mistakes – preferably with an expert peer-reviewing your finds beside you – the fossil visions will come to you. Then, next thing you know, you start noticing more of what you didn’t see before, expanding your consciousness of the lives that preceded your own.

* * *

Many thanks to Dr. David Varricchio for inviting me to be part of his NSF-sponsored research project in the Two Medicine Formation this summer, and by extension, my deep appreciation to Montana State University and Museum of the Rockies for their logistical support at Camp Makela. May it have many more successful field seasons.

Seven-Samurai-PaleontologyThe Seven Samurai of paleontology at Camp Makela, ready for action in the Two Medicine Formation of central Montana. These ruffians/malcontents/Guardians of the Cretaceous Galaxy are otherwise known as (left to right): Ulf, Jared, me, Ashley, Emmy, Paul, and Eric. (Photograph and choreography by Ruth Schowalter.)

For more about these people and other human connections between the paleontological research that took place in the Two Medicine Formation – and told from a non-paleontological perspective – go to Cretaceous Summer 2014, which had links to four blog posts done on site by my wife Ruth Schowalter. Also be sure to check out Brad Brown’s blog post from the Burpee Museum of Natural History about his experiences at the field site, Just What the Doctor Ordered: Two Medicine Delivers High Biodiversity in a Low Profile Area.

Burrowing Wasps and Baby Dinosaurs

Anyone who knows a little bit about dinosaurs knows that some of them made nests, took care of their young, and that their parenting skills must have been more like birds, rather than most reptiles. If pressed, most dino-enthusiasts can further say this concept is exemplified by two dinosaurs, the large ornithopod Maiasaura and the small theropod Troodon, both of which lived at the same time and place, 75 million years ago and in what we now called Montana.

But what animals lived beneath the nests and feet of those dinosaur parents and their babies? What behaviors did these animals express 75 million years ago? Would the behaviors of these animals have resembled those of ones living today, or did they reflected evolutionary dead-ends? And did these animals also take care of their young?

Wasp-Digging-Burrow-Tybee copyWhoa, check out this female Carolina sand wasp (Stictia carolina), energetically digging an inclined burrow into a Georgia coast dune! Why is she digging a burrow? To make a brooding chamber for her babies (larvae), who will hatch from their eggs and chow down on paralyzed prey stuffed into that chamber by their thoughtful mama. Gee, I wonder if any wasps did this in the geologic past? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Tybee Island.)

Cretaceous-Wasp-Burrow-Pupal-ChamberWhy, yes, they did. That’s a fossil cocoon connected to an inclined burrow, reflecting a behavior much like that of modern sand wasps, but preserved in the Late Cretaceous Two Medicine Formation of central Montana. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

The answers to these questions are, in order: insects (wasps and beetles; most likely), burrowing and reproduction; they behaved very much like modern insects, and they likely did take care of their young by making brooding chambers and leaving food for their offspring. In my experience, these revelations surprise many people, who may not be aware of how many of the insects we live with today are descended from insects lineages that shared the same ecosystems with dinosaurs throughout the 165-million-year history of the latter animals.

This summer, for me to learn more about life underground way back then, I had to go to the same site in central Montana where our understanding of dinosaur parenting became better defined, but also where I first learned how insect parenting related to dinosaur parenting. Where I am now is the same general location where the first known dinosaurs nests in North America were found in the late 1970s by Jack Horner and his friend Bob Makela (mentioned in my previous blog post).

One of the most productive and interesting of these nest sites, which are all in the Late Cretaceous Two Medicine Formation, was informally dubbed “Egg Mountain.” The “Egg” part of the moniker is easy to understand, but the “Mountain” part is more of an exaggeration, as it’s an isolated and modest hill on the high-plains landscape of central Montana. Anyway, I’m working there now, along with a dedicated crew of rubble pickers being led by the ever-intrepid Dr. David Varricchio.

Egg-Mountain-Digging-2A snapshot of science in process at Egg Mountain in central Montana. Dr. David Varricchio (center, with jackhammer) has been leading an NSF-sponsored study of the fossils at this site, with the hope of understanding more about nesting dinosaurs and the animals that lived around them. Rubble pickers for scale. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

So why would an ichnologist like me care about a site that is famous for its mere body fossils, consisting of many dinosaur eggs, eggshells, and bones? I’ll start with three words: dinosaur nest structure. This is where the first known dinosaur nest structure – which is a trace fossil – was recognized. The structure was a rimmed depression about the size of a kiddie pool, but a little more shallow. In the center of this depression was a clutch of eggs belonging to the small theropod Troodon. The width of the nest was perfect for accommodating an adult Troodon, which probably sat above the egg clutch to protect and incubate it.

Troodon-Nest-StructureHere’s the first known dinosaur nest structure, as it looked soon after its discovery in the mid-1990s. The rim is composed of limestone, but originally was soil compacted and shaped by either one or both Troodon parents. The white part is plaster of Paris covering the egg clutch, which was aligned with the dead center (pun intended) of the structure. Tape measure shows 1 m (3.3 ft). Photograph was probably taken by David Varricchio, and is from Varricchio et al. (1999), Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, v. 19, p. 91-100.

Troodon-Nest-with-Eggs-MartinMy artistic recreation of this same rimmed Troodon nest structure with its egg clutch in the middle. The inner part of the structure – inside the rim – is about a meter wide. (Artwork by Anthony Martin, from Dinosaurs Without Bones (2014), which you should buy so I can better afford to do more research like this and blog about it for you.)

What’s even better about this find – ichnologically speaking – is how the parent dinosaurs must have moved the eggs after the mother laid them, and then partially buried them upright in soil. These eggs are elongate, which means they would have reclined if laid by a mother Troodon. Instead, they were nearly vertical, which means either the mother or father dinosaur manipulated these eggs after they emerged from the mother dinosaur. Thus this orientation is also a trace fossil of parental dinosaurs that were greatly increasing the chances their future offspring would stay alive.

Troodon-Egg-ClutchBottom view of the Troodon egg clutch from that nest structure, with these elongate eggs in nearly vertical positions, and aligned along a central axis. These arrangements of the eggs are trace fossils, too. Want to see this clutch for yourself? It’s is on display in the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Now let’s leave dinosaurs for a moment and talk about something that really matters, like insect trace fossils. What is well known by those who have worked at Egg Mountain is that the dinosaurs there were not alone. Just below the dinosaurs’ nests, egg clutches, and feet were insects, and lots of them, shown by numerous cocoons. In a few places near Egg Mountain, these exquisitely preserved cocoons – most with their spiraled weave patterns still visible – are so common, you can close your eyes and scoop up a handful of them.

Fossil-Cocoons-MontanaFossil insect cocoons from the Two Medicine Formation and a locality near Egg Mountain. The cocoons on the left and right are ichnological two-for-one specials: the left one has a partial burrow attached to it, and the right one has an emergence trace (top) from where the adult insect said goodbye to its cocoon 75 million years ago. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

In an article I coauthored with David Varricchio in 2011, we concluded that most of these insect cocoons were likely from burrowing wasps, and the rest may have been from beetles. The trace fossils reflect a unexpectedly modern behavior in these Cretaceous wasps, which dug inclined tunnels that led down to enlarged brooding chambers. These insects laid eggs in the chambers and stocked them with provisions, which may have been paralyzed prey, such as other insects or spiders. Later, larvae hatched in the chambers, ate whatever Mother Wasp left for them, made cocoons around themselves once they decided to stop being so larval, pupated, burst out of their cocoons when they became adults, and emerged on the surface.

Stictia-BurrowMy simple depiction of a burrow and pupal chamber made by the solitary Carolina sand wasp (Stictia carolina). These traces consist of inclined tunnels that end in enlarged chambers, the latter of which accommodate eggs, food, and eventually larvae and cocoons. Scale = 10 cm (4 in). (Illustration by Anthony Martin, which is in Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (2013), which you should buy so I can better afford to do more research like this and blog about it for you.

Cretaceous-Wasp-Burrow-Pupal-Chamber-2Close-up of the burrow end – filled with sediment, but now rock – leading to a cocoon, still preserved in its pupal chamber in the Two Medicine Formation, from about 75 million years ago. Compare this to my illustration of a typical modern sand-wasp burrow, especially the end part of it. Notice the resemblance? (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

However, most of the fossil cocoons in the Two Medicine Formation did not make it past the pupal stage. How do we know this? Because some of these outcrops have thousands of cocoons that are perfectly preserved as beautiful ellipsoids, with no sign that an adult insect emerged from them. One of the axioms of paleontology is that each animal’s tragedy of the past can some day fulfill a paleontologist’s dreams. Thus these thousands of dead Cretaceous wasps are providing me with much joy this summer, as I study these trace fossils for more clues about their lives and how they related to the ecosystems they shared with adult and baby dinosaurs.

Martin-Fossil-Cocoons-MontanaA picture of one happy ichnologist, who is giving thanks for all of those insects that died and had their burrows and cocoons fossilized in the Two Medicine Formation for him to study. Thanks, insects! Thanks, geology! (Photograph taken by Ruth Schowalter in central Montana.)

But here’s what really cool about Egg Mountain: it has both dinosaur nests and insect nests, implying that wherever these insects nested, so did the dinosaurs. As a result, their co-occurrence gives us a glimpse of the ecology of those places at that time, a window into the past landscapes in which they lived and bred. This makes sense when you imagine how both these dinosaurs and insects wanted to keep their eggs out of water, so they placed them in high-and-dry areas, such as well-drained soils well above the water table. So as we gather more information from this site, we get ever-better insights in the cycles of life for both Cretaceous insects and the dinosaurs that happened to live in their world.

Tracing the Two Medicine

Field scientists have to get into the field. If they don’t, they get cranky, narrow-minded, and – worse of all – feel like frauds. What’s the cure for this malady? Getting into the field.

Tony-in-the-FieldSee that smile? That’s a field scientist, who is out standing in his field. (Photograph by Paul Germano.)

This is the first summer since 2008 in which I did not have to edit or write a book. From 2008 to 2012, I was writing and editing Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (2013, 692 pages), and from 2012-2013, my literary efforts were devoted to Dinosaurs Without Bones (2014, 460 pages) So with these two books behind me and none in the making now, along with three merciful months off from my “day job” of being a college professor, I had few excuses for not getting outside to see some rocks and fossils this summer.

So it was with much joy when my long-time friend and fellow paleontologist David (Dave) Varricchio asked me earlier this year if I’d be interested in coming out to Montana to do some field work with him this summer. Even better, I’d get to do paleontological field work with him in the Late Cretaceous Two Medicine Formation (~75 million years old) at “Egg Mountain,” a paleontologically classic area near Choteau, Montana. I said yes, have been here for a week now, and it’s been glorious.

Egg-Mountain-Digging-2 To look for traces, sometimes you have make your own traces. Here’s this summer’s Montana State University field crew excavating at Egg Mountain, where they’re looking for dinosaur bones and eggs, while also cataloging trace fossils like insect cocoons and burrows. If you’re looking for Dr. Varricchio, he’s the one in the middle with the jackhammer. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

The main reason why the field site is called “Egg Mountain” is because it and other places in the area are where the first known dinosaur nests in North America were discovered by Jack Horner and Bob Makela in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They further uncovered evidence that at least one dinosaur here – the large hadrosaur Maiasaura peeblesorum – had extended parental care, taking care of its young in their nests well after hatching.

Later in the 1990s, Dave and his colleagues showed that the small theropod Troodon formosus made rimmed ground nests and arranged it eggs carefully in these nests. This combination of body fossils (bones and eggs) and trace fossils (nests and egg arranging) changed many of our views of dinosaurs, rendering their behaviors much less like reptiles and more like birds.

Maiasaura-Nesting-Site Sometimes I hear paleontology referred to as a “historical science,” but it also has its own human history. This marker and several others in the field area mark where some of that history was made, with the discovery of the first known dinosaur nests in North America. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Two-Medicine-Formation-OutcropI love waking up to the Two Medicine Formation in the morning. And there’s no shortage of trace fossils to discover in it with each waking day. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Hadrosaur-Track-Two-MedicineA natural sandstone cast of an adult hadrosaur, weathered out of the surrounding softer mudstone that – in the absence of bones – serves as a visual reminder of who lived in this area. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

I had been to this site three times before – 2000, 2008, 2009 – but each of those were short visits, the longest lasting only a week. This time, I would get to stay for as long as three weeks, which allows for plenty of time to better document the invertebrate and vertebrate trace fossils here. So far, I’ve only published one paper with Dave based on previous work in the Two Medicine Formation, which was on some of the insect trace fossils near the nest sites. These trace fossils gave valuable clues about how these insects lived, and in the same ecosystems as the nesting dinosaurs, which I’ll happily cover in detail in my next blog post.

Fossil-Cocoons-MontanaInsect burrow with pupal chamber (left) and two insect cocoons, one of which has a “hatching window” where the adult insect left the cocoon. Look closely and you’ll see the original silk-weave pattern still on the cocoons, which are preserved as finely crystallized calcite. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

So with one week of field work done, I’m happy to report that plenty of trace fossils have revealed themselves to us, and I have every expectation that more will be found in the next two weeks. And this, boys and girls, is why I am a field scientist and paleontologist: to experience that joy of discovery that happens in the same places where the plants and animals of their ecosystems breathed and died 75 million years ago. Field work never fails to take me back in time, to when those animals behaved in ways that left their traces for us recent arrivals on this earth to appreciate with wonder.

Fun-With-Field-Work-MontanaThis is my office for the next two weeks. Not bad, huh? I could get used to this, and plan to. (Photograph taken by my camera, which was set on an automatic timer.)

(For another introduction to this field work, here’s a blog post done cooperatively with my wife Ruth, who will be joining me here at the field site in just a few days.)

Tracking Tybee Island

Plan to be surprised. That’s my adopted attitude whenever I’m on a developed barrier island of the southeastern U.S. coast and looking for animal traces. When primed by such open-mindedness, I’ve found that looking beyond the expected – or listening for the whispers below the shouts – can sometimes yield traces of the unexpected.

South-Tybee-Dunes-2A beach-to-dune-to-fencing-to-vacation-home transect on the south end of Tybee Island, Georgia. Not much for an ichnologist or any other naturalists to learn here, right? Try, try again. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Last month, just a couple of days after a successful book-related event in Savannah, Georgia (described here), my proximity to the Georgia coast meant I had to get to the nearest barrier island, which was Tybee Island. However, a challenge presented by Tybee – and the one that causes most coastal naturalists to run away from it screaming – is its degree of development.

Actual footage of a cephalopod ichnologist reacting to the news that a field trip would go to a developed barrier island. P.S. Octopus tentacle prints would make for the coolest trace fossils ever. (Source here.)

Accordingly, Tybee Island also has large numbers of people, especially on a pretty weekend during the summer. Granted, the development is not so awful that Tybee no longer has beaches and marshes. But it does have enough paved streets, houses, vacation rentals, hotels, restaurants, shops, and other urban amenities that you can easily forget you’re on a barrier island.

Rip-Rap-Seawall-South-TybeeAn oddly shaped beach on the south end of Tybee Island, molded by a combination of a seawall, big blocks of igneous rock, fences, boat wakes, and oh yeah, waves, tides, and sand. Better than a shopping mall, for sure, but it takes some getting used to for naturalists who do their field work in less peopled places. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Tybee’s beaches are also “armored” with rip-rap and seawalls, which were placed there in a vain attempt to keep sand from moving. (On a barrier island, this is like telling blood it can only circulate to one part of a body.) Moreover, its modest coastal dunes rely on fencing as a half-buttocked substitute for healthy, well-rooted vegetation holding the sand in place. The sand in those dunes also looks displaced to anyone acquainted with Georgia-coast dunes on undeveloped islands. This is because that sand really is from somewhere else, having been trucked in from somewhere else and dumped there for beach “renourishment.” There’s also not much of a maritime forest there, or freshwater ponds. So yeah, I guess those cranky naturalists have a point.

Tybee-Seawall-Rip-Rap-South-EndAnother view of the south end, showing the sharp vertical drop between the beach and dunes because of the seawall between them. The rocks (foreground) probably didn’t help much, either. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Ergo, a pessimistic expectation I had before arriving on Tybee is that it would have a barrage of human and dog tracks, a tedium only punctuated by human-generated trash, all of which would assault and otherwise insult my ichnological senses. Fair or not, this prejudice kept me away from Tybee when I was doing field research for Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, and I stayed off St. Simons Island for a while, too, before succumbing in 2009. (I’m glad my wife Ruth convinced me to visit St. Simons – and I’ve been back several times since – but the interesting ichnology of St. Simons is the topic of another post.)

But then again, there was the matter of honoring the all-American right to convenience. Tybee Island is only about a 20-minute drive from Savannah, and you could drive there thanks to a causeway that connects the island to the mainland. Plus I had been to Tybee several times with students on field trips, and knew that lots could be learned there if I put a gag on my cynicism. I even had a research question, wondering how many ghost crab burrows would be in the dunes there compared to other Georgia barrier islands.

So thanks to the Hartzell Power Couple™, who were hosting Ruth and me in Savannah for the aforementioned book event, we were in their car on a Saturday morning and soon found ourselves walking on the south end of the Tybee, checking out its dunes and beaches, and (of course) their traces.

Fortunately, my question about the ghost crab burrows was answered within a few minutes of arriving at the south-end beach. Sure enough, we spotted a few of these distinctive holes, sand piles outside of the holes, and ghost-crab tracks scribbled on the dunes. Their traces weren’t nearly as common as on other undeveloped islands, but still, there they were.

Ghost-Crab-Burrows-TybeeGhost crab burrows really do exist on developed barrier islands: whoa! Although it’s still a good question about their relative abundance on a developed Georgia barrier island versus one that’s barely altered, like nearby Wassaw Island. Sounds like some science needs to be done on that. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

But here’s the coolest thing we saw, ichnologically speaking. The dunes also had little holes that were about the width of a pencil, with crescent-shaped openings and fresh sand aprons just outside these holes.

Wasp-Burrow-Dunes-Tybee-1What have we here? A little hole in the dunes with some freshly dumped sand outside of it. The game’s afoot! (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Wasp-Burrow-TybeeA close-up look of another hole very similar to the previous one. I wonder what could have made this? Oh well, I guess we’ll never know. Unless you read more, that is. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

I was pretty sure what made these, but as a scientist, I needed more evidence. So after pointing out the holes to my companions (Ruth and the Hartzell Power Couple™), we stood in one place and waited a few minutes. That’s when one of the tracemakers arrived.

Wasp-Digging-Burrow-TybeeBehold, the mystery tracemaker revealed! Check out that incredible digging! She’s got legs, and knows how to use them! (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Hypothesis confirmed! I predicted these were wasp burrows, and after watching several flying around the dunes, landing, walking up to and entering the holes, digging energetically, and emerging (repeat cycle), this was all of the evidence I needed. The wasps were some species of Stictia (sometimes nicknamed “horse-guard wasps” because they prey on horse flies). Moreover, these were female wasps making brooding chambers, little nurseries where they were going to lovingly lay eggs on paralyzed prey as a form of parasitoid behavior. (P.S. I absolutely adore parasitoid wasps, and you should, too.)

Wasp-Burrow-Sand-Kicked-TybeeUp-close view of the same wasp burrow shown above. Oh, she’s in there, all right. See those sand grains getting kicked out of the burrow? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Tybee Island.)

In our too-brief time there on Tybee, we also saw feral cat tracks in the dunes. This is a common trace on developed islands, especially where people live year-round. Sometimes these are from pets that residents let roam free, but more likely these are made by the descendants of escaped cats that then breed in the wild.

Feral-Cat-Tracks-TybeeFeral cat cats on dune sands, probably a day old at the time the photo was taken, eroded by wind and rain (see the raindrop impressions?). How to tell cat tracks from little foo-foo dog tracks? Cats make round compression shapes, a three-lobed heel pad, and rarely show claws. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Tybee Island.)

Another possible trace from a feral cat was an opened bird egg we found on the dunes. Admittedly, I’m quite the ichnological novice when it comes to egg traces, and can’t tell for sure whether this one was from predation (by a cat or other egg predator) or from hatching. But some clues are there, such as nearly half of the eggshell fragments adhering to the inside of the shell, instead of being absent.

Opened-Egg-Trace-TybeeIs it a birth trace or a death trace? Empty bird eggshells always present such questions. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Tybee Island.)

Down on the beach, one of the most common (and hence easiest) traces to find on Tybee or any other developed island with clam or snail shells washing up on their shores are predatory drillholes made by moon snails, the lions of the tidal flat. Sometimes these shells also have smaller holes, which are made by clionid sponges. Shells can thus bear the histories of life-and-death and life-after-death.

Drillholes-Bioerosion-Shells-TybeeThese shells are looking a little bored. (Yes, that’s a pun, albeit not a very good one.) The clam shell on the left was bored by a clionid sponge, and the three shells on the right were made by moon snails, probably Neverita duplicata. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Tybee Island.)

Once we were off the beach and walking on a paved road to where the car was parked, the ichnology didn’t stop then, either. In front of the car was a tree with some beautifully expressed rows of yellow-bellied sapsucker drillholes in its trunk.

Sapsucker-Holes-Tree-TybeeWhat can I say, I’m a sucker for sapsucker holes. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Tybee Island.)

So can you still do ichnology on Tybee Island, or other developed barrier islands, for that matter? Looks like…

So next time you go on that beach vacation to Tybee, Jekyll, St. Simons, or other developed barrier islands, may you likewise be pleasantly surprised on your ichnological endeavors. Good luck!

Ichnology in the Beer Garden of Good and Evil

For reasons unfathomable – but ultimately forgivable – I had never talked about my 2013 book Life Traces of the Georgia Coast in the lovely and historic city of Savannah, Georgia. There were many reasons for me to go there, preach the gospel of traces, and otherwise enlighten its citizens about the Holy Trinity of Ichnology (Substrate, Anatomy, and Behavior – amen, brothers and sisters!). For one, Savannah is not only the largest city in Georgia along its coast, but also has inspired many writers as a place. Even better, a good number of people there are keenly interested in the nearby ecosystems and non-human life inhabiting the Georgia coast. So it made sense to visit  and plug my book, which, despite having been out for more than a year, was regrettably unknown to most people in Savannah. Yeah, I know, some other book got in the way during the past year, but still.

Beer-Science-Sign-Anthony-Martin-Moon-RiverWho could resist the winning combination of science and beer? Here’s the sign we put out at Moon River Brewing Company in Savannah, Georgia as a siren call to those who might have wandered by. Lettering by Savannah artist Betsy Cain and trace fossil icons (theropod track on the left and a U-shaped burrow on the right) by me. (This photograph and all but the last were taken by Ruth Schowalter.)

With the help of well-connected friends there (who I hereby dub The Hartzell Power Couple™), we arranged for a book-related event in Savannah at a downtown microbrewery – Moon River Brewing Company - and placed it in their new outdoor beer garden. (Sorry bookstores, museums, and universities, you just can’t compete with that.) A local independent bookstore, The Book Lady Bookstore, helped out by selling my more recent (and much more reasonably priced) dinosaurian-themed book. But I also brought copies of Life Traces of the Georgia Coast for anyone interested in getting it for a bargain  from the author. Major bonus: all conventional author traces in these books (otherwise known as “autographs”) are always accompanied by my original drawing of a trace.

Geologists-Having-Beer-Science-BooksChatting with the locals, including (left to right), environmental activist Ann Hartzell, my two most recent books, me, and an anonymous geologist (right) who stopped by to talk about geology and paleontology. How can you tell he’s a geologist? Note the voluminous but mostly empty stein just behind him.

Advance publicity for the event was excellent, too, exceeding the expectations of most authors who wistfully hope that more than five people hear about their book-related event. For instance, Leslie Moses, a reporter for the local newspaper (the Savannah Morning News) wrote an article about my book, which included a nice photo of me standing (appropriately enough) on the Georgia coast. A reporter for the free weekly paper (Savannah Connect), Jessica Leigh Lobos, also conducted a delightful interview with me, in which I got to connect (get it?) both Life Traces of the Georgia Coast and Dinosaurs Without Bones via their common theme of ichnology enriching our otherwise mundane lives. Yet another reporter, Mary Landers (again for the Savannah Morning News) wrote a fun announcement about the event in which she alluded to my recent blog post about Godzilla’s tracemaking abilities. So let’s just say I felt loved by the local media, and the Hartzell Power Couple™ were able to bring in lots of their environmental-artistic-cool friends to attend the event, too.

Beer-Science-Sign-Moon-River-Betsy-CainSavannah environmental artist Betsy Cain graciously offered her calligraphy skills for the sign advertising the event, to which I later added my artistic depictions of trace fossils (see the photo at top for our finished masterpiece). In the background, The Hartzell Power Couple™ set up the much-needed-and-appreciated sound system I later used to project ichnological bon mots.

My talk at the beer garden wasn’t the usual formal slide show (i.e., Death by Powerpoint) we academics are expected to give almost by reflex nowadays. Instead, it was a totally different format adapted to the given circumstances. A lack of screen and projector, along with the outdoor setting and a nearby busy (and loud) city street, ensured that this would not be like any other talk I’d given about either book. Fortunately, at the urging of my ever-so-wise wife Ruth and the amazing resourcefulness of The Hartzell Power Couple™, I was able to get a microphone and speaker to speak over the urban din. But what to say, and how to say it without the support of pictures and oh-so-mesmerizing-and-persuasive bullet points?

Moon-River-Beer-Garden-ScienceA good example of how science education is wherever you take it: Thursday evening at the Moon River Brewing Company beer garden in Savannah, Georgia.

Thus I decided to make this book presentation more of a lively piece of performance science, rather than a lecture. It was part informative – with “elevator speeches” about each book on why they mattered, punctuated by brief (less than two minutes) readings – and part interactive. The latter was mostly improv, in which I asked audience members to shout out the name of their favorite Georgia-coast animal, followed by my acting out that animal’s tracemaking behavior, then describing what traces they would make from such behaviors. Alligator! Ghost crab! Sandhill crane! Fiddler crab!

Behold-My-Mighty-Claw-Fiddler-Crab-Dance“Look at my claw!” There’s nothing like a good fiddler-crab dance to warm up a crowd.

Preaching-Church-Ichnology-Moon-River-2Science authors, if you’re going to talk about your book in public, always make sure you have one as a prop so you can hold it up and say, “Have you heard the good news?”

Babies-Dig-IchnologyBabies dig ichnology.

Based on feedback from those there and my own perceptions of audience reactions, I thought the event went great. Not only did I have a good time, we even sold a few books. But something else that happened, and it was something that advocates of public-science outreach might note. I witnessed a subtle transformation in the people who were there at the beer garden just to have dinner, chat, and drink beer (and not necessarily in that order). First they ignored the “show” going on beside them, but soon they ended up listening, getting interested, and next thing you knew, they were (gasp) learning science.

Future-Paleontologist-Reading-BooksAfterwards, two science enthusiasts (mother and son) check out my books. One of those books went home with them, and may have later contributed to even more sciency goodness.

Ultimately, I hope my example introduced the Savannah community to the concept of a science tavern, which has been fantastically successful in Atlanta and is being adopted in several other U.S. cities. A key component of the Atlanta Science Tavern’s success, though, is making sure scientists are on board with being clear, lively, original, and fun with their science. As much as this paleontologist hates to admit, beer can only take you so far.

Goldfinch-Foot-Martin-Moon-RiverSomehow a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch ended up in the same box holding copies of my book Dinosaurs Without Bones. Seizing a teaching moment, I explain with my hand how this literary juxtaposition was completely appropriate, because goldfinches are dinosaurs, and their feet (and hence their tracks) show this ancestor-descendant relationship.

So for all of you science authors out there who love public outreach about the science and the beer you love, please flatter me through imitation and try this on for yourself, then let the rest of the world know how it went. Think of it as an experiment that requires much repeating. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it again. If it mostly works, then revise it based on suggestions by your peers (the audience, that is). It it works fantastically, do that again. Repeat until science is shared and beer mugs run dry. Good luck!

Hartzell-Power-Couple-Ruth-TonyMany thanks to: Ann and Andrew Hartzell (left) for hosting Ruth and me (right) during our fun time in Savannah; Ruth for all of her expert photographic documentation and loving support; Joni Saxon-Giusti and Chris of The Book Lady Bookstore; Brandi Cockram of the Moon River Brewing Company; Savannah reporters Jessica Leigh Lobos, Leslie Moss, and Mary Landers; Betsy Cain; Robin Gunn; Sarah Ross; Craig Barrow; and all of those folks in the beer garden who didn’t expect to get some science on a Thursday night out in Savannah. Hope it happens again to you soon.

The Ichnology of Godzilla

Upon learning that Godzilla would be making its way back onto movie screens this summer, my first thought was not about whether it would it would serve as a powerful allegory exploring the consequences of nuclear power. Nor did I wonder if it would be a metaphor of nature cleansing the world’s ecological ills through the deliberate destruction of humanity. Surprisingly, I didn’t even ponder whether the director of this version (Gareth Edwards) would have our hero incinerate Matthew Broderick with a radioactively fueled exhalation as cinematic penance for the 1998 version of Godzilla.

Instead, my first thought was, “Wow, I’ll bet Godzilla will leave some awesome tracks!”  My second thought was, “Wow, I’ll bet Godzilla will leave some awesome bite and claw marks!” My third thought was, “Wow, I’ll bet Godzilla will leave some awesome feces!” All of these musings could be summarized as, “Wow, I’ll bet Godzilla will leave awesome traces, no matter what!”

Godzilla-RoaringGodzilla: King of the Tracemakers. (Image and most others here from the movie were taken as screen-capture stills from the official trailer here and modified slightly for your science-learning pleasure.)

So as an ichnologist who is deeply concerned that movie monsters make plenty of tracks and other traces whilst rampaging, I am happy to report that yes, this Godzilla and its kaiju compatriots did indeed make some grand traces. Could they have made traces worthy of ichnological appraisal, ones that could be readily compared to trace fossils made by Godzilla’s ancestors? Yes, but these traces could have been better, and let me explain why.

[Minor spoilers follow, not least of which include the not-surprising news that The King of the Monsters prevails in the end, inevitably setting up a sequel in which I sincerely hope Godzilla and his rivals make more easily defined traces.]

Early on in the movie – set in 1999 – a surface mine in the Philippines collapses. Drs. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are summoned to the site and quickly whisked underground. There they find a spacious chamber containing body fossils – bones or similar endoskeletal parts – of an enormous creature. Instantly, I began yawning. I mean, body fossils: how boring.

Muto-Egg-Chamber-BonesA bit of paleontology near the start of Godzilla, in which some of the humans (who are mostly irrelevant) find skeletal remains underneath a surface mine. Little do they know they’re about to undergo enlightenment and become ichnologists.

But then I sat upright in my seat when I realized – along with the screen scientists – that this chamber wasn’t a mere tomb, but also a place of rebirth: it was a hatching chamber. Views from inside and outside of the chamber then revealed the ichnological money shots of the movie, showing first an emergence burrow, then an emergence crater* connecting to a trail, the latter cutting a swath through the forest and leading directly to the sea. This was trace evidence of a yet-unseen monster that was very much alive, and one that was brooded and born in a subterranean terrestrial environment, but then moved to an oceanic environment.

Muto-Emergence-BurrowDr. Serizawa sees light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not from an oncoming train, but something far worse. Still, it’s a cool example of an emergence burrow, so there was some consolation.

Muto-Larval-TrailKaiju emergence burrow connected with a kaiju trail, leading to the sea. So this is definite trace evidence of a heterometabolous animal, with different stages of its metamorphism (terrestrial egg –> marine larva) taking place in different environments. Unlike, you know, Gregor Samsa, who just stayed terrestrial.

A map of seismic signatures shown later in the film denoted where the animal burrowed in the seafloor from the Philippines to Japan, which would have made for one hell of a burrow. Why was this massive animal using so much energy to burrow to Japan? For some radiogenic sustenance, of course, which was conveniently located in a nuclear-power plant there. The “M.U.T.O.,” (= “Massive “Unidentified Terrestrial Object”) then caused a collapse of that power plant, thus qualifying as a feeding trace, rather than plate-tectonic-induced earthquake damage, which is what became the official story. That’s right, geophysicists: you’d better start studying some ichnology if you want to correctly interpret what’s causing those rapid releases of tensional energy that excite you so much. (I’m talking about earthquakes, you perverts.)

Anyway, people die, 15 years pass, families grow apart, blah blah blah, when the action finally returns to something that really matters, like monsters making traces. It turns out the Japanese government had been hiding the truth from the public, which, much like Tom Cruise, can’t handle it. The kaiju not only fed on a nuclear reactor in Japan, but also pupated there. As an example of how gigantic, deadly animal traces can be the real “job creators” in a modern economy, a huge industrial complex with hundreds of Japanese and American employees was monitoring the cocoon, with Drs. Serizawa and Graham as scientific advisors.

Watanabe-Hawkins-IchnologistsWho knew these actors – Ken Watanabe and Vivienne Graham – were actually playing ichnologists in the new Godzilla movie? Just about nobody, including them. (Photograph originally credited to Kimberley French, AP, and much reproduced elsewhere.)

The adult M.U.T.O. that emerged from the cocoon fractured the outer casing, broke through the steel cables that were supposed to restrain it, and immediately started making some tracks. So those are some mighty fine traces, and it was a pleasure watching them get made.

What about its tracks, though? Despite the kaiju’s blend of tetrapod and insect qualities, it had eight appendages and used six while walking – four forelimbs, two of which were wings, and two hindlimbs – making it hexapedal. Moreover, it used an alternating gait, similar to those used by pterosaurs or bats (if they had an extra pair of limbs, that is). Hook-like ends on the forelimbs would have made elongate impressions, and literally impressed a few panicked employees as the monster escaped. On the other hand, er, appendage, the hindlimbs looked as if they were terminated by flat-bottomed hooves. So if one were inclined to track this M.U.T.O, its trackway patterns might have looked like the following:

MUTO-Trackway-Pattern-GodzillaHypothesized male (winged) M.U.T.O. trackway pattern, moving from left to right, showing normal walking that ends with take-off. Wing impressions are on the outside and angled, whereas the forelimb tracks are just inside the trackway, and the hindlimb tracks are closest to the midline. Take-off pattern is at the end, with wing impressions forward so that, like a giant pterosaur, it could “pole vault” for its launch. What’s the scale? Really big. (Illustration by Anthony Martin.)

Toward the end of this scene, we find out this kaiju was also flight capable, as it takes off from its former pupation site. Accordingly, it would have made both take-off and landing track patterns, which have been interpreted in the fossil record for pterosaurs and birds, but from nothing nearly as big. (Oh, how I dream of finding Queztalcoatlus take-off or landing tracks some day…) This switch from terrestrial to aerial locomotion is noted in one of the few funny lines uttered in the movie, when U.S. Navy Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) first refers to the kaiju as a M.U.T.O., but then updates the status of its behavioral ecology by saying, “It is, however, no longer terrestrial, as it is airborne.”

Later in the movie, another tracemaking M.U.T.O. emerges from its pupation site –a nuclear-waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada – and proceeds to leave a trail of devastation through Las Vegas, which included killing lots of people who probably bet that wouldn’t happen to them.

Muto-Trail-Las-VegasLeaving Las Vegas, female M.U.T.O. style, with a well-defined trail in its wake, and perhaps knowing it should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque. Hey, U.S. military: I think it went that way!

This kaiju was female and much larger than the male, thus providing a great example of sexual dimorphism in tracemakers of the same species, as seen in horseshoe crabs (limulids) and many other animals. This meant its trackway width would have been correspondingly wider than that of the male, and its tracks larger. It also lacked wings, with the homologous pair of limbs used instead for walking. Consequently, the kaiju’s locomotion (and hence its tracemaking) was restricted to terrestrial environments, with no take-off or landing tracks. So if any more of these monsters came out of the ground, such ichnological knowledge might come in handy for the U.S. military (or recreational hunters) to know which gender of a M.U.T.O. pair they might be tracking.

Muto-Bioerosion-BoringBioerosion trace (boring) made by M.U.T.O. as it encountered a human commerce-generating hive in San Francisco. Unlike most bioeroson structures, this is a locomotion trace, rather than a dwelling or feeding trace.

Other tracemaking done by the M.U.T.O.s included mastication marks on a Russian nuclear submarine and some ICBMs, a little bit of bioerosion when they walked through buildings, and – following some kaiju courtship and sexy time – a nest structure made in San Francisco (no doubt inspiring a new song titled I Left My M.U.T.O. Nest in San Francisco). The nest structure was in the style of those made by many shorebirds, looking like a scratched-out hollow, with the trivial differences of being hundreds of meters across, about a hundred meters deep, and composed of urban debris. The fertilized eggs were in the middle of the structure and attached to an ICBM, like a sort of atomic yolk sac. Overall, it was a tremendous nest structure, dwarfing those likely made by the largest known sea turtle, Archelon from the Late Cretaceous Period, which would have been a mere 10-15 m (33-67 ft) across.

OK, enough about the M.U.T.O. tracemakers. What about our beloved behemoth, The King of the Monsters, The Stomper with the Chompers, Godzilla? The movie – much like this review – held him back until about an hour into the story, only giving us teasing glimpses from photographs over the past 60 years. Sure, this was done deliberately to build suspense, but the title of the movie wasn’t M.U.T.O.s Making Traces (although it could have been, and I would’ve been fine with that). So I was more than ready for Godzilla to leave some tracks, bite marks, and other megatraces that would have made the world’s largest dinosaurs’ traces look puny by comparison.

Sauropod-Tracks-Texas-GodzillaTracks on the left are of a sauropod dinosaur trackway in an Early Cretaceous (about 100-million-years-old) limestone bedrock in the Paluxy River of Texas. Tracks on the right are in rocks of same age and area, with left-side front- and rear-foot tracks; the stick is a meter long. For comparision, one Godzilla track would exceed the width of the river. (Both photographs by Anthony Martin, taken in Dinosaur Valley State Park, Texas; to read more about those tracks, go here.)

Did Godzilla leave any clearly defined tracks in the film? Oddly enough, no: imagine my disappointment. Such a glaring ichnological absence led me to believe that Godzilla tracks must not have been a high priority in director Gareth Edwards’s mind while making the film. This is also a rare instance of where the 1998 version of Godzilla surpassed the 2014 one, in that a few nicely outlined tracks were shown in the former.

Godzilla-Trackway-HawaiiGodzilla trackway made for 1998 movie, still visible on Oahu, Hawaii. Photo from http://the-american-godzilla.wikia.com/, credited to “Varg2000.”

However, had Edwards decided to add the scientific excitement that would have been induced by overhead views of Godzilla tracks, they would have looked a lot different from the 1998 ones. Although all movie versions of Godzilla have shown it as bipedal on land, the monsters’ feet have been different. For instance, the 1998 Godzilla tracks were definitely modeled after those of theropod dinosaurs, with three separated and forward-pointing toes adorned by sharp claws, albeit greatly up-scaled. According to a reporter in Hawaii who saw one of the Godzilla footprints, he estimated it was about 12 feet long (3.6 m). So using a footprint formula applied to theropod dinosaurs, where the footprint length is multiplied by 4.0, the hip height of that Godzilla would have been 48 feet (14.5 m).

For those of you who have a monster foot fetish, you’re in for a treat. This video shows nothing but close-ups of Godzilla‘s feet landing on and crushing stuff in the 1998 movie.

In contrast, the new Godzilla not only had a pedicure, but also a major foot makeover. Instead of three separate toes, this one has four toes scrunched together into more of an elephantine or sauropod-like configuration. It still has claws, but they look much more robust than those of the previous theropod-like feet of its predecessor, and more like those of a sauropod. Accordingly, Godzilla tracks from the 1998 movie versus the 2014 one would have been way different from one another. This means that a skilled movie-consulting ichnologist could have easily distinguished the two films just by glancing at tracks shown in each. (Mr. Edwards, please do keep me in mind if you need an ichnological advisor for Godzilla 2.)

Godzilla-Foot-Trackway-Pattern(Right) Right-foot anatomy of 2014 version of Godzilla, nearly as wide as long and with four digits ending in stout claws. (Left) Hypothesized trackway pattern for present version of Godzilla, using its normal city-destroying gait. Notice its wide stance, like that of a certain retired U.S. senator. A tail drag-mark is not included in this diagram, but probably would have registered once Godzilla stood more upright, such as to kick some M.U.T.U. abdomen. (Both illustrations by Anthony Martin, but foot anatomy is composite drawn freehand from unattributed online photos, such as this one.)

Something important to also note about these trackways is the lack of any tail drag marks. This is because both the 1998 and 2014 Godzillas kept their tails off the ground, which aligns with modern interpretations of how theropod dinosaurs walked. The original Godzilla – and many sequels after it – showed it dragging a weighty tail behind it. This behavior would have left a deep groove in the middle of the trackway, perhaps with a slight undulating pattern caused by side-by-side movement. This would have looked sort of like an alligator or crocodile trackway, but with only right-left tracks, because Godzilla was walking more like some guy wearing a rubber suit.

Godzilla-Trackway-1954Still taken from original 1954 Godzilla (Gojira), showing a bipedal trackway going from a terrestrial to marine environment. But also check out the prominent groove in the middle of the trackway, caused by a tail dragging behind it, and four forward-pointing toes on each foot.

What other traces would I have really liked to see Godzilla make, ones that would have made me stand up in the theater and scream “Ichnology for the win”? My #1 and # 2 choices, in that order, would have been urination marks and feces. In my latest book, Dinosaurs Without Bones (2014, Pegasus Books), I’ve written about trace fossils linked with dinosaur urination and defecation; dinosaur coprolites in particular are great trace fossils for showing what dinosaurs had for lunch millions of years ago. Alas, Godzilla performed neither excretory behavior in the movie, but that didn’t stop at least one scientist from speculating on how much urine this Godzilla would have produced.

So for my upcoming post, I’ll explore the possibility of a Godzilla urination trace. What mark would Godzilla have left if he got really pissed? Tune in next week, and in the meantime, enjoy seeing the movie. but now with an added ichnological perspective.

Other “Science and Godzilla” Posts

The Impossible Anatomy of Godzilla (Danielle Venton)

Godzilla Gets Bigger Every Year (Rhett Allain)

The Impossible Gait of Godzilla (Ria Misra)

The Ever Increasing Size of Godzilla: Implications for Sexual Selection and Urine Production (Craig McClain)

Reviewing the Science of Godzilla for Plausibility and Imagination (Mika McKinnon)

The Science of Godzilla (Scott Sutherland)

The Science of Godzilla, 2010 (Darren Naish)

*Just as a cool astronomical-geological-ichnological-cultural aside, indigenous Australians first interpreted a meteorite impact structure in Wolfe Creek Crater National Park of Western Australia as an emergence crater made a great, burrowing snake. Some stories that involve traces seem to repeat themselves in our human history.

Life Traces of a Master: A Tribute to Dolf Seilacher (Part III)

(This is the third of a three-part series honoring the memory of paleontologist-ichnologist-teacher-artist Dolf Seilacher, who died on April 26, 2014. Part I of the series is here and Part II is here.)

After Dolf’s only trip to Georgia in 1997, I saw and talked with him a few more times, conversations that sometimes involved rocks and trace fossils in the field, but sometimes not. These times and places were in 2003 (Switzerland), 2004 (Argentina), 2006 (the far-off land of Philadelphia), and 2008 (Krakow, Poland).

Plenty of other ichnologists from around the world attended these meetings, too. Many of them I now consider as long-time friends, in which we get back for regular reunions to talk and argue about trace fossils, discussions that are normally accompanied by ritualistic consumption of significant volumes of libations. Almost always in such conversations, though, someone mentions the name “Dolf.” This then leads to animated discussions of his articles, remembrances of personal encounters with him (which usually involve some sort of strongly worded disagreement about a scientific idea), or telling stories about field trips, where Dolf noticed something extraordinary that everyone else had missed. In other words, even when Dolf wasn’t there, he was still present.

Seilacher-Ichnia-ArgentinaIf invited to speak at a gathering of ichnologists, Dolf Seilacher was never shy about saying “yes.” Here he addresses participants of the 1st International Ichnological Congress (Ichnia), held in Trelew, Argentina in 2004. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

As opposed to his trip to Georgia in 1997, the 2003 meeting in Switzerland was more-or-less in Dolf’s backyard, a short trip from his home in Tübingen, Germany. This was the International Ichnofabric Workshop, a biannual meeting of ichnologists that’s been taking place since the 1990s in various trace-fossil-rich places throughout the world. I love these meetings because of their balance between time spent blabbing in conference rooms and time spent in the field, looking at trace fossils: typically three days inside, three days outside. Now that’s what I call “fair and balanced.”

Dolf-Roland-IIW-BaselHow would you like to have your “Dolfing“? Inside or…

Dolf-Field-Switzerland…outside? (Both photographs taken by Anthony Martin in July 2003, Switzerland.)

Many of the trace fossils we encountered on the field-trip portion of the workshop were originally from deep-marine environments, made 30-50 million years ago by invertebrate animals that lived in on ocean-floor sediments hundreds or perhaps thousands of meters below the surface. Later, when the Alps were uplifted by colliding plates, this oceanic-continental mashing transported the trace fossils, resulting in seemingly anomalous signs of life from a deep seafloor, but in alpine settings. Dolf was one of the world’s experts on deep-sea traces, and among the few ichnologists to have taken a submersible ride (DSV Alvin) to more than 3,500 m (11,500 ft) down, highlighted in the IMAX film Volcanoes of the Deep Sea (2003). So it was no surprise when our first encounters with these trace fossils in the field prompted him to share his considerable knowledge about them.

Although Volcanoes of the Deep Sea is a fine documentary film in its entirety, for now just watch the first three minutes here to see Dolf in the field, looking for deep-sea trace fossils and talking about his mistress, who he met on his honeymoon. (Spoiler alert: His “mistress” is a trace fossil, and a complicated one, named Paleodictyon.)

Seilacher-SpirorapheDolf was clearly excited about sharing what he knew about the deep-sea trace fossils during our Ichnofabric Workshop in Switzerland. And he knew a lot. (Photograph taken by Anthony Martin in July 2003, Switzerland.)

The 2004 meeting in Argentina was a big deal for ichnologists, as this marked the first International Ichnological Congress, more briefly called Ichnia. More than a hundred ichnologists of varied interests, backgrounds, and nationalities gathered in Patagonia, Argentina, first for a glorious four-day field trip based out of Comodora Rivadavia, then for the congress itself in Trelew. Dolf joined us for the latter, and people who delivered talks in the sessions soon realized they were not going to leave the stage until Dolf asked them a question or made a comment about their work. At the time, he was 79 years old, but clearly was not ready to slow down teaching all of us.

Bromley-Pemberton-Seilacher-IchniaA rare circumstance: three of the most significant ichnologists in the world leaving fresh and contemporaneous footprints in the same habitat. From left to right is Richard Bromley (Denmark), George Pemberton (Canada), and Dolf, who was accepting an award from the organizers of this Ichnia. Jorge Genise’s hands (left) for scale. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Trelew, Argentina in April 2004).

The 2006 meeting in Philadelphia was significant, as this was for a symposium in honor of Dolf’s long and successful career. Organized as a session within the Geological Society of America meeting, it attracted so many ichnologists that the symposium lasted the entire day. In our talk, Andy Rindsberg (mentioned in my last post) and I decided we would cover one of Dolf’s favorite topics, the traces made by animals when they stop, nicknamed “resting traces.” In planning our talk, we knew Dolf would appreciate some good-natured poking fun at his expense. So we decided to lampoon both his authority in our field and his penchant for smoking good cigars through the following two slides (shown here side-by-side).

Freud-Seilacher-CigarTwo slides shown in succession at the Seilacher symposium, held in the 2006 Geological Society of America meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Translation on the right is “Sometimes a resting trace is just a resting trace,” and I think you can figure out the one on the left now. I don’t know the photo credit for Dr. Freud, but the one on the right was taken by Andy Rindsberg at the Seilachers’ home in Tubingen, Germany in 2006.

It was a success. Dolf was sitting in the front row while I gave my talk, and I’ll never forget his delighted smile when he saw the image of Sigmund Freud dissolve into his, with an almost perfectly mirrored pose.

The last time I saw Dolf was in Krakow, Poland, and at the second Ichnia meeting in 2008. His presence was doubly appreciated by all of us, as Jagiellonian University was also hosting – at the same time – Dolf’s pride and joy, the Fossil Art exhibit.

Fossil-Art-Sign-KrakowIt’s a sign! Advertising the exhibit Fossil Art, that is. In this instance, the venue was at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and in 2008. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

However, it was at this meeting where Dolf showed us a side we had almost never seen, but one that was completely appropriate for where we were. Alfred Uchman, the meeting organizer (and one of the world’s experts on deep-sea trace fossils), had asked Dolf to speak at the opening of the meeting on an ichnologically themed topic of his choosing. I don’t remember the main topic of his presentation, and the reason why for my faulty memory is because of what happened first.

Dolf began his talk with a deeply heartfelt and remorseful apology. In an awareness of both history and place, he told us how the grand room in which we were seated was where, in 1939, Jagiellonian University officials had handed over control of this esteemed institution – one of the oldest universities in the world and the intellectual home of Copernicus – to invading forces of Nazi Germany. Dolf, as a German citizen, a World-War II veteran who fought on the side of the Nazis, and who shared a first name with a certain genocidal dictator from Germany, expressed his shame and regret about what had happened in that place and then. I looked around the room and recall sensing the surprise we all felt at his  expression of regret, but also its poignancy and sense of redemption. He then went on and delivered his scientific talk, but it had become one overshadowed by our realization of how horrific histories and inquisitive inquiries are shared facets of our humanity.

Then there was Fossil Art. I remember seeing the first iteration of this traveling display in Germany in 1994, then elsewhere. This exhibit consists of life-sized reproductions (epoxy resin casts) of rock slabs, most of which held gorgeously intricate and intriguing trace fossils, but some with body fossils and physical sedimentary structures, such as ripples and mudcracks. At this meeting, we were privileged enough to get a guided tour of the exhibit by Dolf himself, who gave an introduction to its purpose as a way of engaging our minds and senses with beautiful patterns in rocks, many of which were made by animals from millions of years ago.

Seilacher-Fossil-Art-2Seilacher-Fossil-Art-1Dolf Seialcher introducing Fossil Art to a gathering of ichnologists at Ichnia 2008 in Krakow, Poland. (Photographs by Anthony Martin.)

Many of these reproductions received fanciful titles, such as The Trilobite Circus of Penha Garcia and Witch Broomings, and are mounted like works of art, with carefully arranged lighting accentuating their features. These “slabs” also have Dolf’s written explanations in placards next to them, describing and interpreting their geological significance, but also marveling at their beauty. Is it art, or is it science? Yes. Anyway, I’ll just let these images speak for this masterful blending of natural, aesthetic beauty and scientific information.

Cambrian-Beach-Party-Fossil-ArtCambrian Beach Party II, representing trace fossils made by large slug-like animals on a beach about 500 million years ago. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Krakow, Poland in 2008.)

Trilobite-Circus-Fossil-ArtThe Trilobite Circus of Penha Garcia, a collection of exquisitely preserved trilobite burrows from Portugal, preserved as natural casts. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Krakow, Poland in 2008.)

Trilobite-Pirouettes-Fossil-ArtTrilobite Pirouettes, more natural casts of trilobite burrows, but showing looping and stopping (“resting”) behaviors. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Krakow, Poland in 2008.)

More ichnology meetings took place since then: the third Ichnia meeting in Newfoundland, Canada (2012), and the most recent International Ichnofabric Workshop in Çannakale, Turkey (2013). Dolf did not physically attend either meeting, which did not surprise anyone, as he was in his late 80s, and we were starting to hear stories about his failing health. Nevertheless, a day never passed without his name coming up in conversation. So although most of us had not seen him since 2008, his ideas, personality, and methods seemed permanently attached to us, akin to some of the fossils he had studied.

Now that Dolf is gone and we are left with his considerable life traces, what would be  the best way for all of us to remember him? I suggest we do it through the flattery of imitation.

We are living in a time when science is very popular, even in the U.S., evident from TV shows like Cosmos and Your Inner Fish, as well as many clear and wonderfully written  science books. A few people have even declared that we’ve entered a “golden age” of science communication. Yet basic scientific research is also under assault from anti-science political forces, ones that insist on alternative realities where opinions are given equal (or superior) weight when compared to factual evidence. Moreover, mainstream academia is currently undergoing an administratively led collapse from within, as U.S. universities move more toward a corporate model that places higher profits over discoveries, knowledge, and teaching.

Still, through Dolf Seilacher’s life and accomplishments as a scientist, teacher, and artist, he showed a way to side-step the current chaos. Through his practices, he demonstrated how nearly all of us can do science and make discoveries every day by simply using our senses, pencils, paper, and intellects. Just to be clear, this is not a call to Neo-Luddism, in which we abandon our precious iPads and laser scanners while chanting incantations honoring our pre-technological ancestors. Instead, it is one that asks us to rediscover these basic skills – observing, drawing, and imagination – for conducting science, discovering, learning, and passing on new-found insights to future generations. In short: be more like Dolf.

Danke und Auf Wiedersehen, Dolf, for the gifts you gave us, traces that will continue long after you have become part of the earth and life you so loved studying.

References

Seilacher, A. 2007. Trace Fossil Analysis. Springer, Berlin: 226 p.

Seilacher, A. 1997, 2008. Fossil Art. (Two versions of this book were published, one through the Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology in 1997, which was 64 page long; the other was through CBM Publishing in Laasby, Denmark, and was 101 pages long. The latter book can be purchased here.)

Life Traces of a Master: A Tribute to Dolf Seilacher (Part II)

(This is the second in a three-part series honoring the memory of ichnologist-paleontologist-educator-artist Dolf Seilacher (1925-2014). For Part I, please go here.)

Dolf Seilacher and I crossed trails again in the fall of 1997, but through my initiative and in my backyard, here in Georgia. After the Evolutionary Biology Study Group at Emory University hosted a series of prominent biologists on the Emory University campus – such as George C. Williams, Richard Lewontin, and the Grants (Rosemary and Peter) – its director asked me which paleontologist we might bring to campus. Having invited theoreticians and lab-based or field biologists as our main guests, he wanted to give the members of our group more of a “deep time” perspective on evolutionary processes. So I immediately said, “Dolf Seilacher.”

Seilacher-Coca-Cola-EmoryDolf Seilacher in Melton’s App & Tap, a neighborhood pub near the Emory University campus that served both Coca-Cola (which has economic connections to Emory) and proper adult beverages, the latter necessary for fueling meaningful paleontological conversations. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Atlanta, Georgia 1997.)

I recall a few snobbish members of the group doubted that any paleontologist could be a real evolutionary scientist: after all, paleontologists don’t do “experimental work.” (Yes, I’ve actually heard this smug, self-important drivel emit from the mouths of proudly lab-bound neontologists, making Sheldon Cooper look downright open-minded by comparison.) I was also at a university that had jettisoned its Department of Geology only eight years previously, meaning I had little support in my on-campus academic community for hosting an earth scientist. However, Dolf had won the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Crafoord Prize just five years before, thus he qualified as prestigious enough for most of the doubters. (Needless to say – but it bears saying anyway – none of his prejudiced skeptics had similar honors.)

Fortunately, Dolf did not disappoint, and hosting him at Emory University was among the most intellectually exhilarating three days I’ve experienced in the past 24 years at my institution. I had him mostly to myself on his first day in Atlanta, but we were joined by fellow ichnologist and friend Andrew (Andy) Rindsberg for dinner, with both of us feeling as if we had the world’s best private tutor in ichnology for that brief time. The next day, Dolf did a lunchtime seminar for the Evolutionary Biology Study Group, then later that afternoon delivered a talk in a big room open to the entire university and the general public. For his last full day in Georgia, he insisted we take him out in the field to see some of the Ordovician-Silurian rocks in the northwest corner of the state. (Other than transferring planes in Atlanta’s airport, Dolf had never been to Georgia and wanted to see our trace fossils.)

His second day in Atlanta, he began his engagement with the Evolutionary Biology Study Group, which was composed mostly of biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists; Andy and I were the lone paleontologists there. The lunchtime seminar was held in a cramped room, and most people there were awkwardly holding flimsy paper plates weighed down by slices of cheap pizza. The overall mood was one of curiosity, as Dolf was a complete unknown to most people there. (Remember, this was 1997: “Googling” was still a year away from being anything, let alone a verb.)

His seminar topic was on fossil tracks, and he started with the classic historical example of how some Early Triassic tracks from Germany (named Chirotherium) had been badly misinterpreted by some of the greatest scientists of their time, such as Alexander von Humboldt, Richard Owen, and Charles Lyell. Later, with more scrutiny and the application of a few key ichnological principles, other scientists revealed what animals made them and how, which Dolf explained in his book Trace Fossil Analysis (2007, p. 6-7).

Seilacher-Chirotherium-AnalysisDolf Seilacher’s visual explanation for how the anatomy and dimensions of a tracemaker, its behavior, and the original substrate (a firm mud) all contributed to making a fossil trackway from the Early Triassic Period (about 245 million years old). He also included  explanations of previous interpretations for these tracks and when they were proposed (middle right), neatly summarizing the progression of the science done on these tracks. (Figure from: Seilacher, A., 2007, Trace Fossil Analysis, Springer, p. 7.)

Wrong-Way-Hands-Fossil-ArtA reproduction of the Early Triassic (about 245 million-year-old) rock slab with mudcracks and Chirotherium tracks, both preserved in convex relief as natural casts. I said “reproduction” because this is a epoxy resin cast made from a latex mold that was also colored to mimic the original rock. Does this sound like a work of art? Well, as a matter of fact, this was one piece in a show Seilacher conceived called Fossil Art. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Krakow, Poland in 2008.)

Once introduced, Dolf took off, and his audience went with him. In a lively, mesmerizing presentation, Dolf deftly interwove history of science with detective-like applications of ichnology, anatomy, sedimentology, and evolution, all delivered with his trademark enthusiasm, humor, and charisma.

In one memorable instant, he used his hands and arms to play-act the wrongly interpreted gait of the Chirotherium maker, in which this wretched imaginary animal had to cross its limbs as it walked. (Later, paleontologists figured out its so-called “thumb” was actually its outermost digit, thus erasing any need for the animal to cross-step.) He then pantomimed the more correct gait, again bringing across his points far more effectively than if he had used, say, a computer-animated reconstruction of the tracemaker. The audience was enthralled, enchanted, engaged, or whatever words science communicators use to describe what happens when a speaker is rhetorically kicking butt.

How did I know Dolf’s talk was a success? About five minutes into it, one of the most egotistical and pedantic curmudgeons in the Evolutionary Biology Study Group (who may or may not have been an anthropologist) turned to me and said with genuine delight, “This guy is terrific!” Yes, he was.

Later that afternoon, Dolf gave a lecture in a, well, lecture hall, with about a hundred people attending. For me, this was less exciting than his noontime talk because trace fossils and ichnology only figured briefly in its message. Instead, it was more about the “big picture” of evolution as reflected by the fossil record, with emphases on constructional morphology and biological structuralism, and connecting these to the evolution of animal behaviors. Some of these concepts – which I won’t even try to explain here – represented expansions on research by Dolf’s Ph.D. advisor, Otto Schindewolf. Nonetheless, he delivered a thought-provoking lecture, and enthusiastically answered a variety of questions when the time came.

Dinner at a Lebanese restaurant after the lecture was an opportunity to see yet another side of Dolf. For instance, soon after our party had been seated, he and the restaurant owner exchanged pleasantries (and jokes) in Arabic. I had forgotten that Dolf taught at the University of Baghdad early in his career and did much field work in Libya and other parts of the Middle East. The dinner – which included many field stories Dolf had experienced around the world – went well into the night, but did not hinder Dolf’s observation skills at the end of it.

As we exited the restaurant, he pointed to the cement on the doorstep and said, “Look, evidence of a former biomat, helping to preserve this footprint.” We looked down and saw where a shoe-clad human had stepped into the originally wet cement. But wrinkle marks around its edges – as Dolf explained – showed where plastic sheeting had been placed over the cement in a vain attempt to prevent people from stepping on it. It was a moment when we felt like Watson to his Sherlock.

Following his triumphant visit to the Emory campus in Atlanta, Dolf was then ready to experience something that really mattered, like trace fossils. The next day, we took him to northwestern Georgia to look at trace fossils in the Ordovician-Silurian rocks there, a mere 2.5 hour drive from Atlanta.

We had a varied group, composed of a few paleontologists – Andy Rindsberg, Sally Walker, and me – along with the director of the Evolutionary Biology Study Group (Michael Zeiler), a couple of evolutionary biologists and biology graduate students, and a few undergraduate students from one of my geology classes. Our only goal for the day was to see the I-75 Ringgold roadcut, which through its height, breadth, and gently tilted strata afforded an opportunity to stroll along its length, find many trace fossils, and put them into the context of changing environments from more than 440-430 million years ago.

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-1The start of the field trip with Dolf Seilacher to see Ordovician-Silurian rocks near Ringgold, Georgia. This photo was taken about 10 minutes before he took over the field trip, which immediately followed Andy Rindsberg and me getting “Dolfed.” (Photograph taken by Anthony Martin in November 1997.)

Andy and I were thrilled to have Dolf at this outcrop with us because we had done a lot of work there, and we wanted to show off what we had found. Andy studied the Ordovician and Silurian trace fossils there in an M.S. thesis done at the University of Georgia, and I completed a bed-by-bed analysis of its Upper Ordovician rocks as part of my Ph.D. dissertation, also at the University of Georgia. Because we worked for the same graduate advisor (Robert “Bob” Frey), Andy and I communicated well with one another, and we mostly agreed on what trace fossils were there and what they meant. Moreover, Frey had published a paper with Dolf in 1980 (well before he died in 1992). Thus Andy and I felt as if we were fulfilling an ichnological legacy by taking Dolf to see trace fossils that Frey had studied here in Georgia.

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-2A first sign that Andy and I were not leading this field trip: within minutes of arriving at the site, the group gathered around Dolf to listen to what he had to say about the Late Ordovician rocks under our feet and around us. Did I mention this was his first time there? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-3Probably my favorite photograph of Dolf, showing him in full lecture mode while surrounded by Late Ordovician rocks in northwest Georgia. His synapses also might have been firing double time because of the caffeinated beverage he picked up at a Golden Gallon convenience store just beforehand. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

When we got to our destination, we parked and walked a short ways to our first stop. Rather than going directly to the road cut, we first looked at big slabs of sandstone in a former quarry site. These sandstones were from the Late Ordovician Sequatchie Formation, and they made for wonderful teaching specimens, containing many fossil burrows, mudcracks, and reddish clay, all indicating formerly intertidal environments. However, Andy and I didn’t know what made the burrows. Little did we know (but we should have), we were about to find out.

After Andy and I gave a brief introduction to this site and a preview of what to expect at the outcrop, Dolf strolled over to a large slab of sandstone, and nonchalantly placed his hand over a bump on its surface. “This trilobite resting trace shows how they were well adapted to living in intertidal environments at this time…” he began.

Andy and I exchanged startled looks. “Trilobite resting traces?” we both said. In all of our years of field work at this site, we had found very little evidence of a trilobite presence. We also had never recognized a trace fossil showing where a trilobite dug into mud or sand in one place and left an outline of its body, a so-called “resting trace,” sometimes called Rusophycus.

That’s when we realized it. We’d been Dolfed. And on our own field trip.

Fortunately, we didn’t care. Dolf then went on to propose that the more common burrows in these rocks were also made by trilobites, but smaller ones. I’ve written previously about this trilobite-themed revelation and how Andy and I tried later to disprove it, only to find that Dolf was probably right. This served as yet another example of why experience matters in ichnology, and why we ichnologists should always listen to those who have it.

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-4Dolf in action, as he started to put together the story of how trilobites were burrowing on and into tidal flats more than 400 million years ago in a place we now call Georgia. Notice how Dolf was using pencil and paper to assist in his explanations of what was in front of us, no doubt drawing out his conclusions. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-5Dr. Sally Walker, getting a close look at the bedding-plane surface of the sandstone, which is loaded with natural casts of mudcracks. But wait: what’s that blurry, whitish bump in the lower left corner?

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-6Why, that’s a trilobite resting trace, the first ever found in this formation and locality. Thanks for the Dolfing, Dolf. (Both photographs by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

Seilacher-Trilobite-Resting-Trace-DrawingDon’t quite see the trilobite resting trace fossil, and you think it’s a just a random bump on that rock surface? Here’s an illustration by Dolf that should help to enlighten. Take a look at the left-hand side of this figure with his depictions of trilobite resting traces, then look again at the photograph of the “random bump.” Yes, that’s right: you’re wrong. And you know what? It’s perfectly fine to be wrong in science. Just make sure you learn from your mistakes. (Figure from: Seilacher, A., 2007, Trace Fossil Analysis, Springer, p. 39.)

The rest of the field trip seemed almost anti-climatic after Dolf’s discovery, but it was still quite enjoyable. We left the quarry site and walked along the roadcut itself for the next few hours, stopping to look at whatever caught our attention. Its titled strata meant were were going forward in geologic time, from oldest to youngest (Middle Ordovician –> Early Silurian). This provided a nice lesson for the geological novices in our group in how to interpret changing environments through time. We found more trace fossils, and even a few body fossils, giving everyone plenty of paleontological stimulation to get them through that day and beyond.

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-7Dolf Seilacher, master ichnologist and consumate teacher. We will greatly miss his pointing out the obvious to the oblivious. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

When it came time to leave, we walked out with Dolf, feeling exceedingly grateful for his requesting this trip. Later, we joked with him about the success of his “first visit to Georgia.” Alas, we did not know then that it would also his last. Nonetheless, what remains are the provocative thoughts and methods he imparted on so many of us during his brief time here, no doubt inspiring future generations of paleontologists, ichnologists, and all others interested in learning about the wondrous history of the earth.

Seilacher-Ringgold-14A group picture following our field trip with Dolf Seilacher to northwest Georgia in November 1997 (and much gratitude to whoever suggested it and took it). For me (far right, big hat), the road behind us seems to symbolize a trail he blazed for us to follow. Thanks for all of the cognitive traces, Dolf: may they continue to reach into the fossil record.

Reference

Seilacher, A. 2007. Trace Fossil Analysis. Springer, Berlin: 226 p.

 

Life Traces of a Master: A Tribute to Dolf Seilacher (Part I)

Every paleontologist has a Dolf story. Or at least it seems that way, especially for the past couple of weeks. One-by-one, like feather-duster worms poking their heads out of burrows, these stories have all emerged since the paleontological community heard the sad news that Adolf (Dolf) Seilacher died on April 26, 2014.

This manifestation of Dolf connecting with so many paleontologists over multiple generations symbolizes his ultimate and most lasting trace as a scientist and teacher. During his 89 years with us, he observed, discovered, pondered, argued, and argued more over the evidence that life left in the rocks of the past 600 million years or so. Much of this evidence is preserved as trace fossils, the vestiges of animal behavior that imparted their former presence as burrows, trails, tracks, feces, or other signs of life that almost never connect to their undoubted makers. Although Dolf was no slouch when pontificating on the bodily remains of ancient animals, either, it was with trace fossils where he truly excelled.

Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-TeachingAdolf (“Dolf”) Seilacher in his natural habitat, teaching students and professors alike when in the field. Notice how he was using paper and pencil as tools, which were instrinsic to his teaching methods. (Photo taken by Anthony Martin at Ringgold, Georgia in November 1997; Dr. Sally Walker (right) for scale.)

Dolf is often acknowledged as the founder of modern ichnology, the study of traces and trace fossils. Through this science, he could divine the original intents and purposes of trilobites, worms, clams, snails, shrimp, fish, pelycosaurs, dinosaurs, and many other former denizens of the earth. He accomplished this Sherlockian feat through the careful examination of ancient animals’ signatures, or the jots and tittles in those signatures: miniscule clues he reconstructed as entire manuscripts or symphonies that spill their secrets to those who pay heed. Dolf’s marvelous ability to spin fossil gold from carbonized straw is most of what inspired the many stories we paleontologists tell about him, although his personality was intrinsically linked to this, too (more on that later).

Nonetheless, what was truly remarkable about how Dolf worked his ichnological magic was his use of such old-fashioned methods. What were his primary tools for observing? His eyes, brain, pencil, paper, and drawing: no laser scanners (let alone “laser cowboys”), CT imaging, digital photogrammetry, rotating 3-D visualizations, or other modern technological tools were necessary for what he did. If someone had a time machine, they could have inserted Dolf into the late 19th century among the naturalists of those days, and he would have blended. Paradoxically, though, we 21st century paleontologists remember him as someone who surpassed all of us with his observational and intuitive skills. In this sense, he was a reminder of the readily available and valuable means we already possess that allow us to make sense of our planet and its vast history.

Dolf-Drawing-Zoophycos

The Hand of Dolf, drawing onto a Middle Jurassic trace fossil (Zoophycos) to teach me and others how it was made by worm-like animal on a deep seafloor about 170 million years ago. (Photograph taken by Anthony Martin in Switzerland, 2003.)

Field-Notebook-Dolf-DrawingA composite trace (drawings plus writings) made by Dolf and me. The central figure is a visual explanation he drew for me, showing how one could figure out whether the Zoophycos-making animal was moving down below the sediment surface (protrusive) or moving up (retrusive) as it burrowed. Under his watchful eye, I then parceled out the details below. Field notes and drawings done on July 16, 2003, at the outcrop indicated in Switzerland.

Still, Dolf vigorously disagreed whenever anyone praised him as an “artist,” insisting he was a mere illustrator. With all due respect to his memory, he was wrong on this, and most of the paleontological community likewise rejected such statements. He was a fine artist and scientist, inseparably partnered in one person.

Trilobite-Grazing-SeilacherOne of many examples of how Dolf Seilacher was both a scientist and an artist, in which through drawing he interpreted a series of movements made by a trilobite along an Early Cambrian seafloor, more than 500 million years ago. (Figure from Seilacher, A., 2007, Trace Fossil Analysis, Springer: p. 27. If you support the unification of science and art, then you must get this book.)

Like all students of paleontology who took their first toddling steps in the 1970s-80s, I first learned of Seilacher through his papers. In those readings, I also soon realized the most effective way to discern the key points of his papers was to skip straight to his exquisite illustrations. Following a long tradition of German artist-scientists, such as Albrecht Dürer, he could accurately reproduce what might have been evident from a photograph of a trace fossil, or the specimen itself. Yet the salient qualities of a trace fossil were somehow more deeply understood – and thus better communicated – through his drawing of that specimen. His illustrations often impelled a viewer to take a second, third, or fourth look at a trace fossil, prompting more learning and often provoking marvel at what he perceived.

In some instances, he “cheated” in his drawing by using a camera lucida. This is a clever device that, through a prism, projects the image of a subject onto paper, where its proportions and details can be traced and thus captured accurately by the person drawing it. However, in Dolf’s drawings, his tracings were often fortified and embellished with dramatic black-and-white contrast rendered by pen and ink. Even better, these so-called “illustrations” were used as launching points for interpretive drawings that presented provocative explanations for how a trace fossil was made. Sometimes he even added a whimsical touch to these figures, such as placing a little windmill next to the cross-section of a marine-invertebrate burrow. Was this science, or was this art? Yes.

When did I first meet Dr. Adolf Seilacher, a person many other paleontologists and I would later casually call “Dolf”? It was on a Geological Society of America field trip in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the fall of 1992. In retrospect, I was extremely lucky with that first meeting to watch him perform his expertise – and it was always a performance – in the field, rather than the sterile confines of a convention hall or conference room.

On this field trip, we paleontologists were looking at outcrops in the Cincinnati area, which bear some of the best Late Ordovician fossils (about 445 million years old) in the world. Among these fossils are brachiopods, bryozoans, snails, clams, crinoids, and other animals – such as trilobites – that have no living relatives today. You can walk up to most of these outcrops, close your eyes, and scoop up a handful of these fossils. I had also done my M.S. thesis in this area, so it was a trip back to familiar territory, and some of the fossils felt like old friends: I mean, really old friends.

Yet thanks to Dolf, these body fossils were not the stars of the field trip that day. When we went to an outcrop with numerous U-shaped burrows preserved in its limestones – trace fossils the field-trip leaders called Rhizocorallium – I witnessed his scientific process at work. After we had all listened to the field-trip leaders give their interpretation of the burrows, he sat down next to one of these trace fossils, and for about 10 minutes, he quietly drew in his field notebook. Gradually, some of us gathered around to see what had attracted his attention and we watched him draw. Once he had a critical mass for what he considered an adequate audience, he began sharing his thoughts, a didactic lecture accompanied by more drawing as he explained his conception of how the burrows were made by small animals living in a shallow sea hundreds of millions of years before that moment.

Rhizocorallium-Zoophycos

A field-trip memory expressed through drawing: my recollection of what Dolf Seilacher illustrated in his field notebook in October 1992 while explaining a 445-million-year-old burrow and how it was made. The burrow is the main U-shaped structure, and the lines in between are spreite, showing where the former location of the animal’s burrow. In my illustration here, the animal – either a small arthropod or worm – adjusted its burrow downward into the sediment, then to the right. The behaviors recorded here may have been from the animal feeding, reacting to changes in the surrounding sediment, or a combination of ecological cues.

“You see, this so-called ‘Rhizocorallium’ is just the beginning of a Zoophycos,” he said with his patented Teutonic confidence mixed with professorial charm. He then drew more in his field notebook to show what he meant, a slow-motion visualization that delivered his lesson unambiguously. In his estimation, the U-shaped burrow, which had curved lines showing where the animal had moved it, was only the start of a more complex feeding probe. In Dolf’s assessment, one trace fossil (what ichnologists would call Rhizocorallium) could have thus easily merged into another form, one we would then assign another name (Zoophycos). This was a clarifying moment for me as a young scientist and educator about the communicative power of drawing. As a result, I have tried to use drawing in my research articles, books, and teaching ever since.

Based on this sample of one, I did not know then that Dolf’s “hijacking” of field trips was a time-honored tradition for him. Moreover, I did not know then that nearly every paleontologist who had ever disagreed with him, or presented a hypothesis he somehow found lacking, was running the risk of being subjected to an intense and aggressive interrogation that over the years was nicknamed “Dolfing.”

Dolf-Roland-IIW-Basel-2“Dolfing” in action, in which Dolf Seilacher would ask a series of penetrating questions as a follow-up to a helpful statement informing the “Dolfee” that she/he is completely wrong about everything ever. And just to show how no one was excused from potential “Dolfing,” regardless of their accomplishments and seniority, here he is subjecting Dr. Roland Goldring (1928-2005) to this treatment, just like he would have done to a well-meaning but woefully misguided graduate student. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Basel, Switzerland in July 2003.)

This harrowing critique was equal opportunity, in that he applied it to graduate students, senior professors, and everyone in between. For Dolf, getting the science right was far more important than honoring silly academic hierarchies. Although “Dolfing” occasionally caused discomfort in those getting “Dolfed,” these lopsided personal lectures often resulted in more details emerging, clearer explanations, and deeper understanding about a paleontological problem, meaning both the “Dolfer” and “Dolfee” learned more in the process. “Dolfing” became such a badge of honor, graduate students even wished for it to happen (“I’ve been Dolfed!”, they would say excitedly after surviving such an encounter.) One paleontologist friend of mine – after a colleague and I described “Dolfing” to her – said wistfully, “Oh…I want to be Dolfed!”

It was with much pleasure, then, that I got to watch “Dolfing” happen again during a field trip to the Cretaceous-Paleogene stratigraphic boundary in Recife, Brazil in 1994. This was when the “end-Cretaceous meteorite” hypothesis was still debated fiercely at professional meetings, with both proponents and skeptics fighting over the evidence. Preceding the field trip was a morning symposium on this contentious topic, much of which dealt with the 65-million-year-old boundary exposed at a nearby outcrop we would see later that afternoon.

In this session, one of the geologist speakers referred to a “massive” deposit of limestone as a tsunamite (a deposit formed by a meteorite-induced tsunami), which we were all supposed to see on the field trip. As soon as this speaker finished and the question-answer period began, Dolf sprang to his feet and declared, “You realize, of course, that if we find one burrow, it will completely negate your hypothesis.” Very simply, an animal would not have continued burrowing blithely on and in the ocean sediments while a gigantic sea wave washed over it. The speaker, taken aback by Dolf’s confident pronouncement, simply repeated that the deposit was “massive,” meaning it lacked any defined layering (bedding), and had no burrows. Ichnologists know better, though, as we sometimes translate “massive” as “There’s no bedding because it’s been completely burrowed, you ichnologically ignorant geologist!”

Dolf’s statement turned out to be a prophetic one. Later that afternoon, we field trip participants walked along the outcrop, looking at the layer of limestone interpreted as a meteorite-induced “tsunamite.” Sure enough, within ten minutes of inspecting, I found a burrow. Acting as a field-trip troll, I called out, “Oh Dolf, look what I found!” He came over and confirmed that yes indeed, it was a burrow, he quickly spotted dozens more, and the rest of the field trip was his for the taking. Many of the participants on the trip sat back and watched the fireworks, enjoyed the show, and we very nearly applauded at the end. Although I felt a little sorry for the field-trip leaders, it served as a good reminder that all you need is one burrow (or its factual equivalent) to upset a hypothetical apple cart.

Seilacher-Brazil-Outcrop-Cretaceous-Boundary

Dolf Seilacher (left) delivering the intellectual equivalent of a bolide impact while standing in front of an outcrop containing evidence from the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in 1994 near Recife, Brazil.)

After such a memorable conference and field trip, when would Dolf and I cross trails again? Not until 1997, and through my initiative and in my backyard, here in Georgia. But that story is worth its own post, one I promise to tell next time.

(To Be Continued)

Reference (Which is Also Quite Likely the Best Book Ever Done on Trace Fossils That Also Includes Some Incredible Artwork):

Seilacher, A. 2007. Trace Fossil Analysis. Springer, Berlin: 226 p.