Enter The Evolution Underground

It seemed all too fitting that author copies of my new book, The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet (Pegasus Books, 2017) arrived on February 2. In the U.S., this is Groundhog Day, which is named after a burrowing animal and one in which its burrow plays a key role in its mythology. Did it cast a shadow or otherwise predict the weather for the next six weeks? No, but it may enlighten as you travel through geologic time, learning all about how animals and their burrows altered the world, and how animals used burrows to survive the worst the earth (or solar system) could toss at them.

It’s here! After about two years from start to end, The Evolution Underground is out of its literary bunker and into your hands. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Is a book about burrows and burrowing animals too far beneath you to read? Well, as the immortal Kenny Loggins might say: Do what you like, and do it naturally.

The Evolution Underground is my seventh book and the second written overtly for a popular-science audience, following Dinosaurs Without Bones: Revealing Dinosaur Lives through Their Trace Fossils (2014, also by Pegasus Books). Dinosaurs Without Bones was a successful debut for me as a popular writer, with not-bad sales and mostly positive reviews (such as this, this, and this). That book was also my first attempt to make the word “ichnology” (the study of traces) more mainstream, and by using those always-charismatic dinosaurs as a hook. It worked, and I now think the percentage of people confusing ichnology with ichthyology has gone down ever so slightly since that book came out.

It’s ichnology, not ichthyology. Make sure you get it right, because you do not want to be slapped by Batman.

For fans of Dinosaurs Without Bones, I’m happy to report my new book – which is officially published today, February 7, 2017 – includes dinosaurs and it’s about ichnology. But it also includes plenty of paleontology, geology, ecology, and good, old-fashioned natural history throughout. Moreover, this book gave me a chance to introduce readers to a panoply of animals representing the past 550 million years of earth history, while also exploring the big idea that burrowing impacted the evolution of many animals and their ecosystems.

What’s it like to be a gopher tortoise? Kind of like being a subterranean landlord, considering that you might be sharing your burrow with 300-400 other species of animals.(Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on St. Catherines Island, Georgia.)

Along those lines, main themes of the book are expressed in subtitles I considered for it: How Burrows Changed the World and Better Surviving through Burrows. For the former, the mere collective action of burrowing animals – from the deep seafloor to mountaintops – is an essential part of how most ecosystems function. For the latter, burrows were all-natural bunkers enabling animals to escape the worst the Earth (or solar system) could throw at them and allowing their evolution to continue underground. Want to survive a mass extinction? Start digging.

Lungfishes since the Devonian Period (more than 350 million years ago) have burrowed to avoid droughts, and their lineage has survived four mass extinctions. Coincidence? Probably not. (Original illustration by Anthony Martin, in The Evolution Underground (2017).)

Must you buy this book, or at least persuade your local public library to get it? Well, yes, if you insist. Still, just in case you first need to know a bit more about the burrowing animals and geologic times represented in between its front and back covers, here’s a chapter list with brief descriptions of their contents. Thanks in advance, and I hope you and other readers enjoy reading it.

The Evolution Underground: Chapter Titles and Synopses

Chapter 1: The Wondrous World of Burrows – Did you know that alligators make burrows? They do indeed, and they’re awesome burrows. Learn how these body-armored saurians straight out of central casting from the Mesozoic Era provide superb living examples of how many animals use (or used) burrows to survive and thrive, thus symbolizing many of the main themes of the book.

Chapter 2: Beyond “Cavemen”: A Brief History of Humans Underground – Since the time of living in caves, humans have gone beneath the Earth’s surface during times of environmental or societal stress, and we still do. In this chapter, travel to Turkey, China, Russia, Australia, Canada, and the far-off exotic land of Pennsylvania (home of weather-predicting groundhogs) to marvel at how humans, time and time again, have looked below when seeking safety.

One of these is a map of a naked mole rat burrow system, and the other is of an underground city made by humans in central Turkey. Which is which? That might be one of many questions answered by reading my new book. (Original illustration by Anthony Martin, in The Evolution Underground.)

Chapter 3: Kaleidoscopes of Dug-Out Diversity – Gopher tortoises of the southeastern U.S. dig burrows that are both deep and meaningful, as these burrows host underground menageries of many other species, boosting the biodiversity of their ecosystems. How did tortoises and other turtles evolve and survive mass extinctions of the past? If you answered “burrowing,” you’re catching on to what this book is about.

Chapter 4: Hadean Dinosaurs and Birds Underfoot – Although burrowing dinosaurs of the Mesozoic past were apparently rare, a few of their living descendants (birds) evolved to put their nests not in trees, but underground. In this chapter, penguins, puffins, shearwaters, owls, kiwis, bee-eaters, and other birds raising underground families are lauded for their digging family values.

Chapter 5: Bomb Shelters of the Phanerozoic – This chapter opens with a piece of fiction about a Lystrosaurus (or two) embarking on a post-apocalyptic journey. This allegory conveys how burrowing helped their kind and a few other animals to survive the worst mass extinction in the history of life at the end of the Permian Period (about 250 million years ago). This chapter also summarizes other mass extinctions and how burrowing provided an advantage for making it through the worst ecological crises of the geologic past.

Chapter 6: Terraforming a Planet, One Hole at a Time – When did animals move from the sea to freshwater and then onto land? Burrowing may have helped animals to make transitions from such environmental extremes, which ultimately resulted in their shaping landscapes as we know them today. Featured animals in this chapter include trilobites, horseshoe crabs, lungfish, amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders), lizards, and snakes.

Chapter 7: Playing Hide and Seek for Keeps – For a long time, all animal life was superficial, living either on seafloor surfaces or just underneath. Then about 550-540 million years ago, animals starting plumbing deeper. What caused this downward shift, and how did animals’ churning of oceanic sands and muds forever change the oceans, atmosphere, and the evolution of life? Also, the evolution of predators gave animals yet another reason to burrow: That is, before the predators started burrowing, too, starting an underground “arms race” that continues through today.

Chapter 8: Rulers of the Underworld – What animals are the real ecosystem engineers for our planet? Mostly the small and spineless ones, invertebrates. This chapter starts with those marvelous earthworms that so beguiled Charles Darwin, then pays tribute to the amazing feats of burrowing and animal architectures created by ants, crayfish, crabs, lobsters, and more.

Chapter 9: Viva La Evolución: Change Comes from Within – This chapter starts with the second fictional story in the book, following the exploits of an ecological hero – a pocket gopher – following the 1980 volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. The rest of the concluding chapter of The Evolution Underground looks at burrowing mammals (especially rodents), but also considers the largest burrowing animals of all time. Also, what can we as mammals learn from our fellow furry underground relatives as we head into an uncertain future posed by rapid climate change?

Appendix: Genera and Species Mentioned in The Evolution Underground – A listing of the animals name-dropped in the book, some of which may surprise you.

What are you waiting for? Leave your underground hidey-hole and get my book! P.S. Thanks for reading it. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Decatur, Georgia.)


Darwin, Worm Grunters, and Menacing Moles

In my most recent previous post, I teased readers with the promise of revealing how Charles Darwin used a piano as a scientific tool for studying the behavior of earthworms. Regardless of whether or not you already looked up the answer through The Google, by reading Darwin’s last book (The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on Their Habits), or other means, I will now gladly make connections between the seemingly disparate subjects of Darwin’s musically inclined experimentation, earthworm behavior, and fishermen of the southeastern U.S. catching earthworms as bait.

What makes this earthworm (Diplocardia) run away as fast as its little chetae, mucus, and peristalic movement can carry it through the soil? Let’s just say it’s not picking up good vibrations. Photograph by Bruce A. Snyder, from here, from www.discoverlife.org.

In writing about earthworms and their traces in my upcoming book, I devoted several pages to Mr. Darwin’s fascination with earthworms. In this exploration, I tell how Darwin was on to something when he tried applying sound – which included those made by playing musical instruments – to earthworms he had gathered from the English countryside. These musical performances were not an instance of Darwin trying to entertain these worms, boost their self esteem, or otherwise help them get in touch with their emotions. Rather, he was simply testing whether worms reacted to sound. What happened? Well, instead of me describing his results, I’ll let Darwin’s words inform you directly:

Worms do not possess any sense of hearing. They took not the least notice of the shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them. When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet.

Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on Their Habits (1881), p. 27.

Hence it was with deep appreciation last month when I gazed at the piano in the drawing room of Down House, the former Darwin family home, and thought about these experiments. Smiling, I imagined Darwin carefully watching a container of worms while he or someone else in his family forcefully banged on the keys of this piano. Of course, you also can’t help but wonder what was played “as loudly as possible.” Were these single, random notes, chords, or actual musical compositions? If the last of these, what pieces were played? Ideally, I like to think Mr. Darwin or one of his family members played a sea shanty learned during his days on The Beagle (or perhaps even songs learned from pirates), rather than just pounded random notes up or down a scale.

As conclusive as Darwin’s paragraph might seem about the lack of earthworm reactions to sound, he, like any good storyteller, then injected a dramatic twist when reporting his results. He followed up the preceding paragraph with one describing how earthworms, although deaf, are extremely sensitive to vibrations transmitted through solid media. Here he revealed exactly which notes were played (C on the bass clef, G in the treble clef, C in the treble clef) while two worms were in pots placed on top of the piano.

The vibrations transmitted through solid media – not air – caused the worms to withdraw from the soil surface, presumably hiding from the source of the vibrations. As an extension of this experiment, Darwin also used a fork to agitate the soil underneath other worms, which then provoked them to move up to the surface. Darwin correctly surmised that this stirring activity, like sound, also sent vibrations through the soil, which likewise produced aversive reactions in the earthworms.

These responses made sense in an evolutionary way, and show how Mr. Darwin was applying his principle of natural selection to the predator-prey relationships that had evolved between earthworms and moles. The behaviors he observed would have favored the survival of earthworms that associated vibrations with their most feared predators, and reacting accordingly, which is to say, fleeing in terror. And just what were their aversion-inducing predators? They were not robins or other species of birds – early, punctual, or otherwise timed – but the earthworm version of graboids: burrowing moles.

Eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus) emerging from its burrow, seeking earthworms and other fresh food. Photograph by Kenneth Catania, from Fairfax County Schools.

Graboid emerging from its burrow, seeking humans and other prey. Note the eerie resemblance of its behavior to that of an eastern mole, albeit orders of magnitude larger and accompanied by a keen interest in large, surface-dwelling, bipedal prey. Photo from Wikipedia, but originally taken from the greatest ichnologically inspired horror film of all time, Tremors.

So you didn’t know about graboids, those burrowing predators of the underworld? Fortunately, this educational video provides all of the details you need to know. But if you’re interested in studying their neoichnology, be careful, and stay on the pavement.

As yet another example of ‘backyard science,” Darwin observed many traces of the European mole (Talpa europaea) in the fields just outside Down House, most of which were their mounds, or “molehills.” Indeed, last month as I admired one of Darwin’s original wormstones in the pasture behind Down House, I also noticed a good number of molehills on the grounds. Rather stupidly, I neglected to take a photo of one of these. (I mean, how cool would it have been to share images of the traces of moles that descended from those whose traces Darwin noticed?) Nonetheless, some of my photos of the grassy area near the wormstone show 20-30 cm wide bare patches in this otherwise meticulously maintained lawn. These spots, I suspect, are traces of the Down House groundskeepers, who probably level molehills as quickly as they appear, an ichnological version of “whack a mole.”

The pasture just behind Down House (Charles Darwin’s former home), with a “wormstone” in the lower right, and a few bare patches of ground just to the left. Could the latter mark recent sites of mole tunnels and molehills leveled by Down House groundskeepers, or are these just places where grass did not grow, and hence the products of an ichnologist’s overactive imagination? Anyway, I did see molehills out there, but don’t blame y’all for being a bunch of skeptical scientists and wanting more evidence than my just saying so.

OK, now how does all of this wonderfully elucidated Victorian-era science relate to the ecosystems and biota of the southeastern United States? Enter the “worm grunters.” Worm grunters are people who, independently of Darwin, figured out the same adaptive responses of earthworms to underground vibrations. Through their own experiments, worm grunters, who were interested in efficiently gathering many worms in a short time for putting on fishhooks (or making money selling earthworms to people who put them on hooks), rubbed steel slabs across the top of wooden posts stuck in the ground. Much later, researchers interested in finding out how this technique worked calculated frequencies of the seismic vibrations that caused earthworms to flee upward away from perceived predators.

The southeastern U.S., including the Georgia barrier islands, not only has its own species of earthworms (Diplocardia mississippiensis), but also has its own species of moles: the eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus) and the less common star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata). Both types of moles no doubt strike fear in the multiple hearts of earthworms, and natural selection being how it is, the fastest burrowing moles (who are most likely to catch worms) also cause considerable vibrations from their digging. This accordingly means the earthworms that detect and escape these vibrations live long enough to reproduce and pass on whatever genes that aided in such perceptions.

In getting caught by this mole, this earthworm may have just won the worm equivalent of a Darwin Award, depending on whether it had reproduced or not. (Which it probably did, considering earthworm hermaphroditism means they are at least twice as likely to get lucky.) Photo from University of Illinois Extension; Home, Yard, and Garden Pests Newsletter, here.

Thus a visit to Down House in southern England and consideration of Darwin’s contributions to ichnology and behavioral ecology are not so far removed conceptually from the practical knowledge gained by some people in parts of the southeastern U.S. Moreover, many of these same people are of English, Irish, or Scottish descent, and effectively applied the same knowledge surmised by Darwin about worms and moles, which is kind of neat in a heritage sort of way.

Would all of these findings count as applied science, despite its historical lack of Ph.D.-bearing investigators, grant funding, publications, and press conferences announcing the results? Yup. After all, science is about its methods.

So next week, we’ll take a closer look at the traces moles make on the Georgia barrier islands. Do these moles just go after earthworms in the forests and meadows of those islands? Nope. After all, science is not just about its methods, but also surprises.

Further Reading

Darwin, C. 1881. The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits. John Murray, London, U.K.: 326 p.

Edwards, C.A., and Bohlen, P.J. 1996. Biology and Ecology of Earthworms (3rd Edition). Springer, Berlin: 426 p.

Gorman, M.L., and Stone, R.D. 1990. The Natural History of Moles. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois: 138 p.

Hendrix, P.F. 1995. Earthworm Ecology and Biogeography in North America. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida: 244 p.

Mitra, O., Callaham, M.A., Jr., and Yack, J.E. 2009. Grunting for worms: seismic vibrations cause Diplocardia earthworms to emerge from the soil. Biology Letters, 2009: 16-19.