Vestiges of Home

I first became a scientist in my backyard. This path to life-long inquiry began when I was four years old, as soon as my family moved to a larger house, and one with a larger yard. This small, outdoor patch of land with a few large trees, bushes, and grass soon became my field area, laboratory, classroom, and all-purpose place for conducting experiments in nature. Even better, my proclivity for observing this world outside of myself was encouraged – or at least tolerated – by my mother and father.

At the time, I had no idea just how important of a role this backyard and parental support would play in my scientific career. Yet now I look back on it with a mix of gratitude and wistfulness, especially as both of my parents have departed this earth I have studied for most of my life.

Backyard-Home-IndianaHere’s where I first learned science by going into the field. Back in the day, people – including my parents – called it a “backyard.” (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Indiana was an odd place for a natural scientist to develop in the 1960s. I recall how kids in public schools there and then were encouraged to study and pursue careers in science. However, this was mostly because of the “space race,” in which the U.S. was competing against the U.S.S.R. to see who could first land on the moon. I loved space, staring at the moon, planets, and stars, and I watched Star Trek (the original series, of course), dreaming of some day traveling in space. Science fiction stories became an outlet for me as well. Weekly trips to the public library meant checking out books by Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and other sci-fi writers who expanded my perspectives and kick-started my imagination with worlds far different from those I could experience in the Midwest.

Yet science fiction wasn’t the only subject that put me on a first-name basis with librarians as I checked out stacks of books. There were two other topics that supplemented my learning, namely dinosaurs and insects. Although the study of dinosaurs had not yet gone through its major scientific revolution of the 1970s, these animals still loomed large in my and other children’s inner worlds. “Tyrannosaurus rex! Stegosaurus! Brontosaurus!” we kids would shout gleefully at one another, or at bemused adults. Books with artistic recreations of dinosaurs and the occasional movie starring dinosaurian protagonists – such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Valley of Gwangi – fed our fancy, too.

Charles-Knight-PaintingPhoto of the original mural of Charles Knight’s ‘Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus‘ (1927), which is in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. While growing up, I saw this image many times in books, and it inspired both my artistic and scientific leanings. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Still, no matter how hard I imagined, I could not see a tyrannosaur in my backyard, let alone watch it stalk and devour its prey. In contrast, insects and other animals with jointed legs delivered Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw,” and much more. For about nine months of any given year during my childhood, starting in the spring, I could step out the back door of my house and watch ants, bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, spiders, and praying mantises. Plant-insect interactions in particular – such as pollination, herbivory, and wound responses in plants – drew me in, teaching me those ecological principles long before I ever heard the words “pollination,” “herbivory,” and “wound response.”

Roses-Pollination-Bee-HomeRoses blooming in the front yard of my Indiana home in August 2014, attracting a pollen-gathering carpenter bee (probably Xylocopa virginica). Female carpenter bees leave exquisitely crafted traces in wood, boring into them to make brooding cells, which they provision with pollen balls. The rose bush was originally planted by my father in the late 1970s. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Leave-Insect-Feeding-TracesInsect damage on the leaf of an apple tree in the backyard of my Indiana home in August 2014. The leaf mine (left) was probably caused by a different insect from the one that made the incision along the leaf margin just to its right. Notice the brown discoloration in the leaf, a trace of its response to these injuries and its healing. My father planted this apple tree, but I’m not sure when: maybe also in the late 1970s. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Predation fascinated me, probably because death was such an inappropriate topic for children to discuss with their parents. This wasn’t the artificial, acted-out stuff of TV and movies, but was in your face, or rather, in front of your face. With mild shame now (and apologies to my Buddhist friends), I remember going into my backyard, picking up ants, and throwing them into wolf spiders’ ground webs. It was a repeatable experiment in which I could observe spider response-times to tactile stimuli, and it was real.

My backyard is also where I learned to sit still and wait. As soon as I spotted a praying mantis, it was only a matter of time before that magnificent, big-eyed head swiveled to lock onto a target, moved delicately toward it, and sprang its barbed arms forward to snatch and hold its squirming dinner, which it devoured alive. Who the hell needed TV, with sharks, lions, and polar bears, when you had this, and for free?

Ah, there’s that word, “free.” This connects to the main reason why my science leaned more toward field observations and less to indoor labs, a legacy that stuck. You see, my family was poor. I didn’t know this until other kids at school made fun of my shoes, which had holes in their soles, or my pants, which were too outgrown or ragged, or my haircuts, which looked odd because my mother cut it, and badly, but with good intentions, because haircuts done by barbers were just too expensive. Compounding this (and not coincidentally), my mother and father never went to college, and my parents struggled to maintain their traditional roles, for which they were ill suited to succeed.

My father was a veteran of World-War II, and late in his shortened life was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome), which in the 1970s was labeled “shell shock.” This condition meshed all too well with his alcoholism, meaning he had trouble keeping down a job for more than a few years. His last paycheck came from working as a night-shift janitor at a Columbia Records distribution center in Terre Haute. This job ended once he began suffering from a series of serious illnesses that put him in and out of hospitals for the last 15 years of his life. Only 59 years old, he died in the summer of 1985, just a few months before I left for Ph.D. study at the University of Georgia.

Dad-Then-LaterMy father at six months old (in 1927) and near the end of his life (circa 1982). His mother was still alive when the photo at the left was taken, but he never got to know her; she died when he was only two years old. During his last ten years of life, he developed a fondness for roses, cultivating them in our yard and bringing beauty to our home every year.

My parents were also Catholic, which in their time meant the only birth control they used was prayer. As a result, we had a big family, and I grew up with four brothers and one sister. But we were also reminded of unseen siblings, the ones who might have been. My mother was pregnant 13 times, with six successful births, but also six miscarriages and one stillbirth, meaning she bore more deaths than lives. Much later, I realized how this must have placed a profound emotional burden on her, even though she almost never mentioned it.

Judging from my mother’s affection for books and reading, I think she wanted to be an intellectual of sorts, perhaps even a scientist, or at least she wanted to learn and debate ideas with other people. This, however, was not possible when cleaning, cooking, shopping, paying bills, and otherwise taking care of six kids, all while constantly pregnant until she had her last child in 1962. Add to those demands a chain-smoking, alcohol-fueled, and narrow-minded husband who helped with none of those household tasks, followed by her being his in-house nurse and servant during the last 15 years of his life, and she didn’t stand a chance of reaching those ideals.

Dad-Back-From-War-with-MomHappier times for my parents, soon after my father came home after his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he fought in the Pacific. It would be his only trip abroad, but it scarred him for the rest of his life, which affected everyone around him. My mother never traveled outside of the U.S. and stayed in the Midwest for nearly all of her life.

Given such a family history, I experienced class differences and situations in college and graduate school that perplexed and occasionally stung. Even now, despite having taught at an elite private university for nearly 25 years, I still wrestle with imposter syndrome, and with how much my background sets me apart from others in my rarified academic world.

For instance, many of my academic colleagues are second-generation academics, or otherwise come from more socially elevated or well-to-do (or at least middle-class) families, where they never had to worry about paying the bills in time and making it through the month. Moreover, most of the students I’ve taught over the years have almost never experienced such economic anxieties, either. Behind all of the science I do and teach, and all of my achievements, I still hold onto a nagging, debilitating fear of scarcity, and a secret shame of how my family was on welfare and used food stamps to buy groceries. The taste of government cheese still lingers.

In the 1960s, education seemed like a way to escape from the cycle of poverty, and that was the message I constantly received from my mother and father. Sadly, that message sometimes translated as, “Don’t be failures like us.” Later in life, I turned that little frown upside down when I traveled, met wonderful people, and made scientific discoveries, many of which happened whenever I did field work in places far away from that backyard in Indiana.

Victoria-Coast-CretaceousIn grade school music class, I used to get in trouble for singing the chorus of Waltzing Matilda a bit too boisterously, which happened in between reading books about dinosaurs and insects. About 40 years later, I was walking along the coast of Victoria, Australia, looking for dinosaur tracks and insect trace fossils in the Cretaceous rocks there. Funny how that happens sometimes. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

But here’s the thing about that whole “education helps people to escape from poverty” trope, one seemingly affirmed by my little personal story. This was much easier to do in the 1960s than today. The gap between the poor and rich in the U.S. today is the worst it’s been since the 1920s, with no sign of abating. People who wants to preach their faith-based mantra of “People just need to work harder to succeed” conveniently overlook that Horatio Alger was a second-generation Harvard man and Ayn Rand took government assistance. Also, an increased emphasis on student loans to pay for exploding tuition rates during the past 30 years has meant young, aspiring scientists may be starting their careers with crippling debt.

But here’s another thing: I was damned lucky because of my parents. Not despite them, but because of them. That’s what I say – and with considerable ferocity – every time someone tries to tell me (in a well-meaning way) how much my life reflects “the American dream.” For one thing, I grew up at a time when white boys were far more encouraged to go into science than African-American boys, or all girls. This accident of being born male, and in a family belonging to the dominant ethnic group of my culture, meant I benefited from the privilege of my gender and race, even as my socioeconomic background held me back.

Flagpole-ClimbingThat’s me, climbing a flagpole just outside my house when I was about seven years old, circa 1967. The rest of my family was standing below watching, cheering me on, and documenting the event. Little did I know at the time that other kids were told they couldn’t climb flagpoles, let alone make it to the top. Yes, that’s a metaphor. (P.S. The flagpole’s gone now.)

I also had lots of help along the way, such as financial aid and scholarships in college, and teaching assistantships in graduate school. This meant I didn’t have to take out student loans. Sure, I had less than $100 to my name the first month I began the teaching job I still hold (so far), but at least I began that job debt-free. Many of today’s aspiring scientists don’t have this luxury, and entrenched inequities related to gender and ethnicity continue to discourage careers in science for most Americans. Also, achieving a college degree today is nine times more likely if you come from an upper-income family than a poor one. It was never easy for poor people to become successful scientists, but it’s far, far tougher today. I was lucky.

Perhaps most importantly, though, I had parents who let me play outside and supported my learning science, however weird I must have seemed to them. I mean, staying out in the backyard for hours, flinging ants in spider webs, and watching praying mantises kill other insects? That was pretty strange, even in the 1960s. I even climbed trees in our backyard. I suspect that many of today’s “helicopter parents” would have forbidden a scrawny runt like me from going outside, let alone get my face close to spiders and insects, and handle unknown plants. Climbing trees probably would have involved first donning a series of ropes, carabiners, harnesses, padding, and a helmet, all while being supervised by a team of tree-climbing experts. Instead, like any arboreal primate should, I climbed those trees by myself, occasionally fell out of them, then got back up and climbed again. I was lucky.

Climbing-Pine-TreeMy favorite climbing tree in my backyard, which I started scaling when I was about six years old, so it must be more than 70 years old now. It was great fun to see how far I could get up into it and explore, and I found much peace just sitting in its crooks, watching the world below. Notice in the close-up (right) all of the scars on the trunk, marking the sites of the low-hanging branches, which fell off the tree a long time ago. (Yes, that’s another metaphor.)

My parents also regularly took me to our modest public library, where I checked out many books, which I read, and sometimes re-read. After my grade-school teachers alerted them that I was showing talent as an artist, my parents also spent some of their meager cash to buy me crayons, pencils, paper, acrylic paints, oil paints, and canvases as birthday and Christmas presents. So I drew and painted, and nature was my inspiration for such creations. I still can draw well – and sometimes teach drawing to my students – because of what my parents did for me. I was lucky.

Insects-Then-NowOne of my earliest attempts at scientific illustration (left), coupled with one of my more recent efforts (right). The one on the left – clearly intended as a multi-part figure – shows some of the insects I observed in my backyard, as well as some of the ecological interactions they had as pollinators, predators, and prey. The one on the right is from Figure 5.4a in Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (2013, Indiana University Press, p. 192), and is the subsurface form of a nest made by Florida harvester-ants (Pogonomyrmex badius); scale bar = 25 cm (10 in).

As I do field work today, I silently thank my father for taking me on hunting and fishing trips, effectively planting the seeds for my present-day comfort with forests, streams, lakes, and other outdoor environments. On those hunting trips, I learned what little my father knew then about tracking animals, a skill that I honed later in life, and now one of my passions. On fishing trips, I watched the behavior and ecology of freshwater crayfish, which abounded in the streams of southern Indiana. I had no clue that more than 40 years later I would reconnect with that childhood interest in crayfish by discovering the oldest fossil crayfish in Australia. I also did a different kind of fishing by studying and interpreting fish trace fossils, such as a trail left by a bottom-feeding fish about 50 million years ago in Wyoming. Then I combined my childhood love of insects and dinosaurs by writing and publishing a paper about Cretaceous insect cocoons near dinosaur nests in Montana. I didn’t see an ocean until I was 20 years old, but last year published a 700-page book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, which I also illustrated myself. None of those things would have happened without my parents’ help early in my life. I was lucky.

My father and mother did what they could with what life dealt them, and my mother in particular. She was born in northern Illinois and lived there through the Great Depression during her childhood. While there, she met her high-school sweetheart, who some day would be the father of her six children. He went off to fight in a world war, she waited for him to return, and they married soon afterwards. They headed south to Terre Haute, and lived in one house, then another. The latter was her home for 50 years.

Mom-Honeymoon-OutcropMy mother on her honeymoon at Turkey Run State Park in southern Indiana, 1947. While looking through a photo album in 2012, I was delighted to see this photo, showing her when she was fully in love with my father, but also enjoying what must have been a glorious waterfall. Best of all for me, though, it has an outcrop of Late Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) Period deltaic sandstones in the background.

My mother outlived my father by nearly 30 years and got to see how her love of books, reading, and encouragement of my learning came back home to her. In 2001 and 2006, it was with much pride I mailed her each edition of a textbook I wrote and published (Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs). In the preface to Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, I pointedly thanked her and my father for cultivating a childhood life filled with books, art, and the outdoors.

Mom-Then-LaterThe first and last photographs of my mother, when she was three years old (about 1929) and just last month, the latter photo taken by my brother Pat.

My mother died three weeks ago. The first stroke was toward the end of December 2013, and its treatment necessitated her going to a hospital, and then to assisted care. For the next eight months, she had a picture window that looked out onto a courtyard, where she watched the blooms, butterflies, and birds of what would be her last Indiana spring and summer. On August 26, she had a second and more deadly stroke, putting her in a coma that took away all of her speech, thoughts, and memories. After receiving emergency care in Terre Haute, she was evacuated by helicopter to an intensive-care unit in Indianapolis that same night. Six days later, she exhaled for the last time, less than a week shy of her 88th birthday.

Decatur-Book-Festival-Dedication-MomMe giving a talk about my most recent book, Dinosaurs Without Bones (2014) at the Decatur Book Festival last month. At the end of my talk, I dedicated it to my mother. Almost no one in the audience knew she was in a coma at the time, and none of us knew she would die three days later. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

Just before this second stroke, I flew up to Indiana to see her, and we spent some time with our extended family, but also some quiet moments talking together, just mother and son. During this visit, I told her how much I appreciated everything she had done for me. We got to say goodbye to one another. We were lucky.

Today I am a trace of my mother’s and father’s love and care, and a trace of my home and backyard in Terre Haute, Indiana. Given more luck, I’ll be around for a while longer, leaving more traces of my own, and in many more places. Thank you, Dad. Thank you, Mom. You did good.

Mom-Me-Then-LaterFirst and last photos of my mother with me, separated by more than 50 years. As you can see from both pictures, my disposition hasn’t changed much. And thanks to Mom, it probably won’t.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Descent with Modification

At this time last year, Fernbank Museum of Natural History was hosting the Darwin exhibit. On loan from the American Museum of Natural History, this exhibit was a major coup for the museum and the Atlanta area, which has enjoyed a growing culture of celebrating science during the past few years. Along with this exhibit, the museum also planned and concurrently displayed an evolution-themed art show, appropriately titled Selections, which I wrote about then here.*

Descent with Modification (2011), mixed media (colored pencils and ink) on paper, 24″ X 36.” Although this artwork might at first look like a tentacled creature infested with crustaceans and living on a sea bottom, its main form actually mimics a typical burrow system made by ten-legged crustaceans (decapods). Yet it’s also an evolutionary hypothesis. Intrigued? If so, please read on. If not, there are plenty of funny cat-themed Web sites that otherwise require your attention. (Artwork and photograph of the artwork by Anthony Martin.)

One unusual feature of this art show was that five of the eight artists were also scientists (full confession: I was one of them). Furthemore, one of the other artists was married to a scientist (fuller confession: that would be my wife Ruth). The show stayed up for more than three months, which was also as long as the Darwin exhibit resided at Fernbank. Thus we like to think it successfully exposed thousands of museum visitors to the concept that scientists, like many other humans, have artistic inspirations and abilities, neatly refuting the stereotype that not all of us are joyless, left-brained automatons and misanthropes.

Last week I was reminded of this anniversary and further connections between science and art during a campus visit last week by marine biologist and crustacean expert Joel Martin (no relation). Dr. Martin was invited to Emory University to give a public lecture with the provocative title God or Darwin? A Marine Biologist’s Take on the Compatibility of Faith and Evolution. His lecture was the first of several on campus this year about the intersections between matters of faith and science, the Nature of Knowledge Seminar Series. This series was organized as a direct response to the university inviting a commencement speaker this past May who held decidedly strong and publicly expressed anti-science views.

Dr. Martin, who is also an ordained elder in his Presbyterian church and has taught Sunday school to teenagers in his church for more than 20 years, gave an informative, organized, congenial, and otherwise well-delivered presentation to an audience of more than 200 students, staff, faculty, and other people from the Atlanta community. In his talk, Martin effectively explored the false “either-or” choice often presented to Americans who are challenged by those who unknowingly misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent evolutionary theory in favor of their beliefs. Much of what he mentioned, he said, is summarized in a book he wrote for teenagers and their parents, titled The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution is Not a Threat.

I purposefully won’t mention any of the labels that have been applied to the people and organizations who promote this divisiveness between evolutionary theory and faith. After all, words have power, especially when backed up by Internet search engines. Moreover, it is an old and tired subject, of which I grow weary discussing when there is so much more to learn from the natural world. Better to just say that Martin persuasively conveyed his personal wonder for the insights provided by evolutionary theory, how science informs and melds with his faith, and otherwise showed how science and faith are completely compatible with one another. You know, kind of like science and art.

Previous to his arrival, his host in the Department of Biology asked Emory science faculty via e-mail if any of us would like to have a one-on-one meeting with Dr. Martin during his time here. I leaped at the chance, and was lucky enough to secure a half-hour slot in his schedule. When he and I met in my office, we had an enjoyable chat on a wide range of topics, but mostly on our shared enthusiasm for the evolution of burrowing crustaceans, and particularly marine crustaceans.

Ophiomorpha nodosa, a burrow network in a Pleistocene limestone of San Salvador, Bahamas. In this instance, the burrows were probably made by callianassid shrimp, otherwise known as “ghost shrimp,” and are preserved in what was a sandy patch next to a once-thriving reef from 125,000 years ago. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Interestingly, during this conversation we also touched on on how art and science work together, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Dr. Martin is a talented artist, too. It turns out he has illustrated many of his articles with exquisite line drawings of his beloved subjects, marine crustaceans. Yes, I realize that some artists like to draw a line (get it?) between being an “artist” and an “illustrator,” with the latter being held in some sort of disdain for merely “copying” what is seen in nature. If you’re one of those, sorry, I don’t have the time or inclination to argue about this with you. (Now go back to putting a red dot on a white canvas and leave us alone.)

Cover art of branchiopod Lepidurus packardi from California, drawn by Joel W. Martin, for An Updated Classification of the Recent Crustacea, also co-authored by Joel W. Martin and George E. Davis: No. 39, Science Series, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, California.

During our discussion in my office, I pointed out a enlarged reproduction of a drawing of mine depicting the burrow complex of an Atlantic mud crab (Panopeus herbstii). He immediately recognized it as a crustacean burrow, for which I was glad, because it is an illustration of just that in my upcoming book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast.

Burrow complex made by Atlantic mud crab (Panopeus herbstii), originally credited to a snapping shrimp (Alpheus heterochaelis). Scale = 5 cm (2 in). (Illustration by Anthony Martin, based on epoxy resin cast figured by Basan and Frey (1977).

After his campus visit, though, I realized that an even more appropriate artistic work to have shown him was the following one made for the Selections art exhibit last fall, titled Descent with Modification. This title in honor of the phrase used by Charles Darwin to describe the evolutionary process, but also is a play on words connecting to the evolution of burrowing crustaceans.

Descent with Modification again, but this time look at it as an evolutionary chart, where the burrow junctions in the burrow system reflect divergence points (nodes) from common ancestors. For example, from left to right, the ghost shrimp is more closely related to a mud shrimp, and both of these are more closely related to the ghost crab (middle) than they are to the lobster and freshwater crayfish (right). The main vertical burrow shaft represents their common ancestry from a “first decapod,” which may have been as far back as the Ordovician Period, about 450 million years ago.

The image shows five burrowing crustaceans, or to be more specific, ten-legged crustaceans called decapods. Along with these is a structure, which has a burrow entrance surrounded by a conical mound of excavated and pelleted sediment, a vertical shaft connecting to the main burrow network, and branching tunnels that lead to terminal chambers. A burrowing crustacean occupies each chamber, and these are, from left to right: a ghost shrimp (Callichirus major), a mud shrimp (Upogebia pusilla), a ghost crab (Ocypode quadrata), a marine lobster (Homarus gammarus), and a freshwater crayfish (Procambarus clarkii).

Here’s the cool part (or at least I think so): this burrow system also serves as an evolutionary chart – kind of a cladogram – depicting the ancestral relationships of these modern burrowing decapods. For example, lobsters and crayfish are more closely related to one another (share a more recent common ancestor) than lobsters are related to crabs. Mud shrimp are more closely related to crabs than ghost shrimp. Accordingly, the burrow junctions show where these decapod lineages diverged. So the title of the artwork is a double entendre with reference to Darwin’s phrase describing evolution as a process of “descent with modification,” along with burrowing decapods undergoing change through time as they descend in the sediment.

Modern decapod burrows and trace fossils of probable decapod burrows support both the science and the artwork, too. Here are a few examples to whet your ichnological and aesthetic appetites:

Thalassinoides, a trace fossil of horizontally oriented and branching burrow systems made by decapods in Early Cretaceous rocks (about 115 mya) of Victoria, Australia. In this case, these burrows were likely by freshwater decapods, such as crayfish, which had probably diverged from a common ancestor with marine lobsters more than 100 million years before then. Scale = 10 cm (4 in). (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Thalassinoides again, but this time in limestones formed originally in marine environments, from the Miocene of Argentina. Note the convergence in forms of the burrows with those of the freshwater crayfish ones in Australia. Think that might be related to some sort of evolutionary heritage? Scale = 15 cm (6 in). (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Horizontally oriented burrow junction of a modern ghost shrimp – probably made by a Carolina ghost shrimp (Callichirus major) – exposed along the shoreline of Sapelo Island, Georgia. Note the pelleted exterior, which is also visible on the burrow networks of the fossil ones in the Bahamas, pictured earlier. So if fossilized, this would be classified as the trace fossil Ophiomorpha nodosa. Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Two ghost-shrimp burrow entrances on a beach of Sapelo Island, Georgia, with the one on the right showing evidence of its occupant expelling water from its burrow. No scale, but burrow mound on right is about 5 cm (2 in) wide. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Burrow entrance and conical, pelleted mound made by a freshwater crayfish (probably a species of Procambarus) in the interior of Jekyll Island, Georgia. Scale = 1 cm (0.4 in). (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

So the take-away message of all of these musings and visual depictions is that evolution, faith, science, art, trace fossils, modern burrows, and burrowing decapods can all co-exist and be celebrated, regardless of whether we sing Kumbaya or not. So let’s stop dividing one another, get out there, and learn.

*I’m also proud to say that my post from October 17, 2011, Georgia Life Traces as Art and Science, was nominated for possible inclusion in Open Laboratory 2013. Thank you!

Further Reading

Basan, P.B., and Frey, R.W. 1977. Actual-palaeontology and neoichnology of salt marshes near Sapelo Island, Georgia. In Crimes, T.P., and Harper, J.C. (editors), Trace Fossils 2. Liverpool, Seel House Press: 41-70.

Martin, A.J. In press. Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN: 680 p.

Martin, A.J., Rich, T.H., Poore, G.C.B., Schultz, M.B., Austin, C.M., Kool, L., and Vickers-Rich, P. 2008. Fossil evidence from Australia for oldest known freshwater crayfish in Gondwana. Gondwana Research, 14: 287-296.

Martin, J.W. 2010. The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution is Not a Threat. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD: 192 p.

Martin, J.W., and Davis. G.E. 2001. An Updated Classification of the Recent Crustacea, No. 39, Science Series, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, California: 132 p.


Life Traces as Cover Art

I’ve been a long-time admirer of the artistic appeal of tracks, trails, burrows, nests, and other traces of animal behavior. My fondness for the beauty of traces also no doubt contributes to my science: after all, the longer I look at a trace, the more I learn about it. This sentiment accords with a long-time principle of paleontology, botany, and other facets of natural history, which is, “If you draw it, you know it,” with the added benefit of expressing your appreciation of natural objects to others through visual depictions.

Here it is: the cover for my upcoming book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals! The book is scheduled to be published by Indiana University Press in the fall of 2012, so be watching out for it then. But in the meantime, look at the beautiful cover art. Who created it, what inspired it, and what science lies behind its aesthetically pleasing composition? Please read on to find out.

My thinking about traces as objects of art is not very original, though, and in fact has been preceded by most of humanity. For example, animal tracks and other traces were common subjects of rock art extending back to the Pleistocene Epoch. Whether made as pictographs or petroglyphs, these traces of traces are in Australia, southern Africa, Australia, and Europe, with some tens of thousands of years old. Based on this tantalizing evidence, one could reasonably propose that the representation of animal traces through art composes an intrinsic part of our heritage as a species. Yes, I know, that’s a tough hypothesis to pursue any further. So I’ll leave it to my paleoanthropologist colleagues to work out (or not).

Petroglyphs that likely represent bird tracks, etched in Triassic sandstone by Native Americans hundreds of years ago (sorry, I’m a paleontologist, not an archaeologist). The pair of marks on the right is similar to the tracks made by a perching bird with three forward pointing toes and one rearward-pointing toe – such as an eagle – whereas those to the right may be like those of a roadrunner, which has an X-shaped foot. Petroglyphs are in northeastern Arizona, near Petrified Forest National Park.

Much more recently, trace fossils similarly inspired renowned ichnologist Dolf Seilacher, who also saw these vestiges of past behavior as lovely objects that fill us with wonder. As a result, in the mid-1990s, he conceived of a traveling exhibit and book showcasing tableaus of trace fossils and other sedimentary structures, titled Fossil Art. For this show – embraced by natural-history venues but mostly rejected by art museums – Seilacher prepared it by: (1) making latex molds of sedimentary rock surfaces; (2) pouring epoxy resin into the molds to make casts mimicking the original bedding planes; and (3) using indirect lighting to enhance details; and (4) assigning creative titles to each piece as if they were works of art.

So these artificial slabs are not human-made art in the traditional sense, but nonetheless invoke marvel, project splendor, and otherwise make us think, engaging the same senses and thought processes that accompany an appreciation of art. Moreover, the slim book Seilacher authored for the exhibit contains explanatory text about each of the objects, illuminated further by his marvelous illustrations and visual interpretations. I remember first seeing a version of this exhibit in Holzmaden, Germany in 1995, near Seilacher’s home in Tubingen, and most lately enjoyed strolling through it with other many ichnologists – and Seilacher himself – in Krakow, Poland in 2008.

World-renowned ichnologist and (oh yeah) Crafoord Prize winner, Dolf Seilacher, lecturing about the planning and execution of Fossil Art as an exhibit while it was showing at the Geological Museum of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland in September 2008. Photograph by Anthony Martin.

A close-up of Wrong Sided Hands, one of the pieces displayed in Fossil Art, cast from a latex mold of a sample from Lower Triassic Buntsandstein of Germany. The piece is so-called because the false appearance of a “thumb” on the outside of the tracks originally led to the mistaken idea that the animal awkwardly crossed its own path with each step. This turned out to be wrong. Also, check out the mudcracks! Photograph by Anthony Martin.

Another close-up of a piece from Fossil Art, titled Shrimp Burrow Jungle (helpfully translated into Polish here). This one is based on burrow systems made by crustaceans during the Late Triassic in Italy, which became densely populated over time and hence contributed to overlapping systems. Photograph by Anthony Martin.

Hence during my writing of a book about the modern traces of the Georgia barrier islands, I was well aware of how some of these traces could likewise lend to artistic expression. Some of this mindfulness was applied to a collaborative artwork done with my wife, Ruth Schowalter, in which we took an illustration of mine from the book and used it as the inspiration for a large watercolor painting depicting traces that would form with rising sea level along the Georgia coast (discussed in detail here).

Nonetheless, it was especially important to think about traces as art when considering a potential cover for the book. Book authors know all too well that a well-designed, attractive cover is essential for grabbing the attention of a potential reader, so I had that practical consideration in mind. But I also wanted a cover that pleased me personally, sharing my love of beautiful traces with others, especially those varied and wondrous tracks, burrows, and trails I had seen and studied on the Georgia barrier islands during the past 15 years.

In such an endeavor, I also faced the added pressure of precedence set by my publisher, Indiana University Press. My book is part of a series by IU Press, called Life of the Past, which is widely admired not only for its comprehensive coverage of paleontological topics, but also for its fine cover art, showcasing works done by a veritable “who’s who” of “paleoartists,” So I knew the cover art for my book needed to both conform to this legacy of artistic excellence, but also stand out from other books in the series because of its unique themes. After all, this would be first book in Life of the Past focusing specifically on ichnology. Moreover, the book is more concerned on modern tracemakers and their environments, rather than plants and animals of pre-human worlds. This was done with the intention of demonstrating how our knowledge of modern traces helps us to better understand life from the geologic past, an intrinsic principle of geology called uniformitarianism.

Ideally, as an ichnological purist, I would have had a cover devoid of any animals, and just shown environments of the Georgia of the Georgia coast with their traces. Indeed, I did just that in some of my illustrations in the book, in which I purposefully omitted animals and left only their traces. This “ichno-centric” mindset actually serves a pedagogical purpose, in that it would echo the truism that many sedimentary rocks are devoid of body fossils, yet are teeming with trace fossils.

Figure 1.3 from Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, conveying a sense of the variety and abundance of traces on a typical Georgia barrier island, from maritime forest (left) to shallow intertidal (right). I purposefully drew this illustration using a more cartoonish technique to introduce broad search images of traces for people who may not ordinarily think about these. But also notice what’s missing from the figure: the animal tracemakers. Instead, only immobile plants are depicted. Would this make for good cover art? No and no, especially if you’ve seen the typical covers done for Indiana University Press books. Illustration by Anthony Martin.

Realistically, though, I also knew that modern traces, particularly those made in places as easy to visit as parts of the Georgia coast, would be more eye-catching if accompanied by some of their charismatic tracemakers in a beautiful, natural setting. After all, the Georgia coast has lengthy sandy beaches, dunes, maritime forests, and salt marshes, inhabited by a wide variety of animals, such as sea turtles, shorebirds, alligators, horseshoe crabs, ghost crabs, and many others.

I also knew that a paleoartist would not be as well suited to the task of creating a cover as someone who works more with modern environments. A better pick would be someone who was familiar with the landscapes, plants, and animals of the Georgia barrier islands, but also a fine artist. I briefly toyed with the idea of doing it myself, but already felt like far too much of the book had been “DIY,” and was not confident enough in my skills to put together a compelling cover in enough time before the book came together. An artfully done photograph was another possibility, so I sent several prospective examples to the editors for their appraisal, but these were all shot down for not having enough aesthetic elements for an attention-getting cover (i.e., traces + landscapes + sky + water = very difficult to get into a single photo).

Fortunately, through social connections that still happen despite the Internet and its incentives for becoming increasingly introverted, I met Alan Campbell through mutual friends in December 2008 at a dinner party on the Georgia coast. Fortuitously enough, our meeting was also just before Ruth and I did three weeks of field work on the barrier islands for the book. It was only fitting, then, that our first meeting was spent dining with both of us facing a Georgia salt marsh, filled with fiddler crab burrows and other such traces. Alan is a Georgia artist with much life experience along its coast, he has often portrayed its environments through gorgeous watercolors, and he has worked with scientists in the field.

Consequently, I kept Alan in mind as a potential cover artist for the next few years, and after I had finished the text and all figures for the book, I contacted him last year about my idea, while simultaneously suggesting him to the editors at IU Press. After much back-and-forth negotiations, with me in the middle, both parties finally came to an agreement, and Alan had a contract to do the artwork for the cover by December 2011.

To help Alan in researching his task, I sent him all of my illustrations and photos used in the book so that he would have an extensive library of trace images on hand for reference. He also had this blog as a source, in which I regularly write about Georgia-coast traces, explanations that are always accompanied by photographs and an occasional illustration. We also exchanged many e-mails and talked on the phone whenever needed. I told Alan my preferred cover would feature a coastal scene, but one filled with traces. He voiced a concern that the painting might become too “busy,” and the details might be lost in reduction of the image to the size

Alan’s contract specified that he would have preliminary study sketches would be done by February 1, and the final cover art was to be finished by March 30. He was only a little late with the study sketches (delayed by a minor operation), and I was delighted to see the following sketch in mid-February.

Study sketch by Alan Campbell for the cover of Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. Reprinted with his permission, and anyone else who want to use it, you have to ask him, too. By the way, every time you use original artwork without permission, a little kitten dies.

After a little bit of feedback from both me and graphic designers at IU Press, Alan went back to the drawing board (so to speak), and came up with the following watercolor painting.

Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, 2012, watercolor on paper, 14” X 18” by Alan Campbell. Again, if you want to use it, you have to ask him first and get permission. Remember those kittens? They’re alive now, but there’s no guarantee they’re going to stay that way.

I gave this artwork a big thumbs up, as did the people at IU Press. So once approved and the scan was sent to IU Press, it was up to the graphic designers there to pick out the typeface, color of the type for the main title, subtitle, author name, and placement of type without covering up the main composition of the painting. I had no say in this, and that’s a good thing, because they really knew what they were doing. It is a very nicely designed cover, and the only thing that would please me more is if they had produced a holographic image of it. (Maybe next year.)

The final cover art for Life Traces of the Georgia Coast revisited. Does it look a little different, now that you know more about how it came about?

I won’t spoil the fun for potential readers, scientists, and art appreciators by explaining in detail all of the ichnological, ecological, and geological elements incorporated into the cover. After all, I’d like to sell a few copies of the book, while also letting readers make their own personal discoveries. But hopefully all of you now have a better appreciation for how traces made by animals, our recognition and admiration for these, and artistic expression of them can all combine to contribute to a book that can be accurately judged by its cover.

Further Reading

Leigh, J., Kilgo, J., and Campbell, A. 2004. Ossabaw: Evocations of an Island. University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia.

Martin, A.J., in press. Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.

Morwood, M.J. 2002. Visions from the Past: The Archaeology of Australian Aboriginal Art. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, Australia.

Seilacher, A. 2008. Fossil Art: An Exhibition of the Geologisches Institut. Tubingen University, Tubingen, Germany.

Tomaselli, K.G. 2001. Rock art, the art of tracking, and cybertracking: Demystifying the “Bushmen” in the information age. Visual Anthropology, 14: 77-82.


Georgia Life Traces as Art and Science

This past Friday evening (October 14), Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia hosted the official opening of Selections, a visual-art show themed on evolution, especially as it relates to Charles Darwin. Many other art shows or other creative ventures have revolved around evolutionary themes, especially in 2009, which marked the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and the 200th of Darwin’s birth. But two aspects of this display make it distinctive: (1) it was planned more than two years in advance to accompany the traveling exhibit Darwin, on loan at Fernbank from the American Museum of Natural History; and (2) five of the eight participating artists, all local to the Atlanta area, are also scientists.

Other than once again disproving the notion that artists and scientists live in divergent intellectual realms, once lamented by C.P. Snow in 1969 (for a few other examples of how this false dichotomy is becoming less and less defensible, look here, here, here, here, and here), I am pleased to share that my wife Ruth Schowalter and I are two of the artists in this show. Seven drawings and paintings of ours are on display, with three of those collaborative works, in which we freely mixed scientific concepts with our respective artistic expressions.

Here I will focus on just one of those works, a collaborative piece titled Abstractions of a Rising Sea (2011). My reason for taking a closer look at this one exclusively is because of its having been visually inspired by plant and animal traces of the Georgia barrier islands. Also, in keeping with a Darwinian theme, it depicts how changing environments – in this case, rising sea level – can likewise impact the survival of species, thus affecting the types of traces that are formed and preserved in a given place.

Abstractions of a Rising Sea (2011), by Ruth Schowalter and Anthony Martin: watercolor on paper, 66 X 101 cm (26” X 40”), on display at Fernbank Museum of Natural History until January 1, 2012. But this isn’t just abstract art: it’s also a scientific hypothesis. How so? Please read on. (Photograph taken by Anthony Martin.)

Although this painting may look abstract to most viewers, given its strange, funky shapes and patterns expressed with a colorful palette, its basic elements actually embody an evidence-based prediction. The artwork design, shown below, originated as a conceptual drawing I made for my upcoming book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast; in fact, it will be the last illustration in the book. The drawing, which I later scanned and modified slightly with Adobe Photoshop™, portrays a vertical sequence of traces made by plants and animals on a typical Georgia shoreline, but considerably altered as sea level went up along that shoreline. In short, it reflects my prognosis of how a coastal dune will become inundated by the sea over the next few decades, with traces of marine animals succeeding those of terrestrial plants and animals.

The original illustration that inspired the artwork, which I drew to portray the sequence of traces that would be made in a given place on the Georgia coast as sea level goes up in the next few hundred years. (Illustration by Anthony Martin.)

So if you’ll bear with me for a few minutes, here’s a more detailed explanation. The traces at the bottom of the illustration represent those of a coastal dune, with plant-root traces, insect burrows, and sea-turtle nests. Just above, those traces are replaced by the burrows of ghost crabs, which are semi-terrestrial animals, but dependent on the sea. A typical Y-shaped burrow of a ghost crab (Ocypode quadrata), viewed in longitudinal section in the eroded face of a coastal dune on Sapelo Island, Georgia. This formerly open burrow was filled from above by sand of a slightly different composition, making it easier to spot. But also note that it cuts across the layering (bedding) of the dune, showing that the crab burrow is relatively younger than the dune deposit. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Next are burrows made by marine invertebrates that live in the intertidal and shallow subtidal areas of a beach, such as polychaete worms, sea cucumbers, and acorn worms.

A variety of abandoned polychaete worm burrows, all washed out of their original places by a vigorous waves and tides and found along a beach on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Although each burrow is distinctive, what they share are behavioral adaptations to living in sandy environments dominated by the surf, shown by their reinforced walls. All four species of worms also orient their burrows vertically, which helps prevent too-frequent exhumation. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Accompanying these is a snail shell (lower third, center) with a drillhole, a cannibalism trace made when a moon snail preyed on its own kind.

Drillhole in the shell of a common moon snail (Neverita duplicata) caused by another moon snail, a trace of both predation and cannibalism: Sapelo Island, Georgia (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

A broken clam shell to the right of the snail is a likewise a predation trace, but attributable to a seagull. (The bird flew up with the clam in its beak, dropped it onto a hard-packed beach sand at low tide, and dined on its freshly killed contents.)

Broken shell of the giant Atlantic cockle (Dinocardium robustum), caused by a sea gull that picked it up, flew with it, and dropped it onto a sandflat at low tide on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

The upper half of the figure is then dominated by traces of marine invertebrates that live fully submerged offshore, such as ghost shrimp and other crustaceans, other polychaete worms, sea urchins, and brittle stars.

Labeled version of the illustration, depicting an overall progression from onshore traces (bottom) to offshore traces (above). If this sequence of sand and mud were to fossilize, this is how paleontologists and geologists would interpret it. (Illustration by Anthony Martin.)

The preceding artistic-scientific deconstruction should also help a viewer to better understand how geologists think when they look at a vertical sequence of sedimentary rock. For example, geologists follow several basic principles when trying to figure out the relative timing of different events in the geologic past.

One of these is called superposition, in which the effects of the oldest (first occurring) event in a given sequence of sedimentary rock are at the bottom, and the effects of subsequent events are recorded in progressively younger rocks toward the top.

The second principle is cross-cutting relationships, in that whatever is cutting across a previously existing structure must be younger than it. Think about how an animal burrow may cut across burrows made by previous generations of animals, and how you could unravel the sequence of “burrowing events” by simply observing which intersects which burrow.

A third principle is Walther’s Law, named after German geologist Johannes Walther (1960-1937) which states (more-or-less) that laterally adjacent environments succeed one another vertically. In other words, where a maritime forest and coastal dune are next to one another today on the Georgia coast, a drop in sea level means that coastal dunes might by succeeded vertically by the forest. Conversely, sea level going up implies that sediments of offshore environments, which are currently next to the beach and dunes, will some day overlie those of the dune.

Hence the illustration shows all three principles at play with a rising sea. For example, ghost-crab burrows cut across a sea-turtle nest from above, vertical burrows of a polychaete worm in turn dissect ghost-crab burrows below them, and a ghost-shrimp burrow from above interrupts one limb of a U-shaped acorn-worm burrow. Even better, a trained ichnologist can look at this sequence of traces and discern the environmental change that happened over the time represented by the sediments.

You can test this supposition by showing the illustration to other ichnologists, and I predict they will say, “Looks like sea level went up.” As a result, seemingly abstract patterns can become meaningful as we apply these images within the context of time passing, a concept we think Darwin – as a geologist and biologist – would have appreciated.

When I first showed this illustration to Ruth, she was quite taken by its forms and compositions, and she imagined what it would look like made much larger and in color. So we got to work on it, purposefully choosing a large piece of watercolor paper, onto which I drew the ichnological design. She then composed the color scheme, using a combination of water-color pencils and brushes, and I painted in a few details here and there, but most of the hard work was hers.

Ruth and my artistic styles are quite different – she’s a visionary artist, whereas I’m a more of a surrealist – but we both agree that meaningful art should provoke thought. So we very much like how this artwork also addresses and combines two contentious issues in American society: evolutionary theory and global-climate change. In Georgia, as in many other places in the U.S., scientists and science-educators still encounter resistance to the teaching of evolution, despite its extensive testing during the past 150 years and its consequent acceptance by virtually all scientists worldwide. Likewise, in recent years, so-called “global-warming deniers” have put much effort into rebuffing, ignoring, or otherwise downplaying the effects of human-caused climate change – despite near-universal scientific consensus – resulting in the twisting of scientists’ words or outright censorship.

For the plants, animals, and people who live on the Georgia coast, politically charged arguments become pointless as the shoreline moves up and over the land. As global climate continues to change and sea level goes up along the Georgia coast, how will life respond to these changes, especially if the sea rises faster than most organisms can adapt? This is a question we could have put to Charles Darwin, and one we attempt to pose through this synthesis of art and science.

(Acknowledgements to my wife and art-science collaborator, Ruth Schowalter, for her invaluable input on this post: thank you! Selections, featuring the artwork discussed here as well as others by us and six other artists, will be showing at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, Georgia until January 1, 2012. Admission to the museum includes viewing of the artwork, permanent exhibits, and the Darwin exhibit.)

Further Reading

Pilkey, O.H., and Fraser, M.E., 2005. A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands. Columbia University Press, New York: 400 p.

Purcell, W.S., and Gould, S.J., 2000. Crossing Over: Where Art and Science Meet. Three Rivers Press, New York: 159 p.

Trusler, P., Vickers-Rich, P., and Rich, T.H., 2010. The Artist and the Scientists: Bringing Prehistory to Life. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.: 320 p.