Tracking Tybee Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paleozoic Diet Plan

Given the truth that the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) is more awesome than any mythical animal on the Georgia coast (with the possible exception of Altmaha-ha, or “Altie”), it’s no wonder that other animals try to steal its power by eating it, its eggs, or its offspring. For instance, horseshoe-crab (limulid) eggs and hatchlings provide so much sustenance for some species of shorebirds – such as red knots (Calidris canutus) and ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres) – that they have timed their migration routes to coincide with spawning season.

Ravaged-Limulid-SCISomething hunted down, flipped over, and ate this female horseshoe crab while it was still alive. Who did this, what clues did the killer leave, and how would we interpret a similar scenario from the fossil record? Gee, if only we knew some really cool science that involved the study of traces, such as, like, I don’t know, ichnology. (Photograph by Gale Bishop, taken on St. Catherines Island, Georgia, on May 4, 2013.)

Do land-dwelling birds mammals eat adult horseshoe crabs? Yes, and I’ve seen lots of evidence for this on Georgia beaches, but from only three species: feral hogs (Sus crofa) and vultures (Coragyps atratus and Cathartes aura: black vultures and turkey vultures, respectively). In all of these interactions, no horseshoe-crab tracks were next to their bodies, implying they were already dead when consumed; their bodies were probably moved by tides and waves after death, and later deposited on the beach. This supposition is backed up by vulture tracks. I’ve often seen their landing patterns near the horseshoe-crab bodies, which means they probably sniffed the stench of death while flying overhead, and came down to have an al fresco lunch on the beach.

Nonetheless, what I just described is ichnological evidence of scavenging, not predation. So I was shocked last month when Gale Bishop, while he was monitoring for sea-turtle nests on St. Catherines Island (Georgia), witnessed and thoroughly documented an incident in which a raccoon (Procyon lotor) successfully preyed on a live horseshoe crab. Yes, that’s right: that cute little bandit of the maritime forest, going down to a beach, and totally buying into some Paleozoic diet plan, a passing fad that requires eating animals with lineages extending into the Paleozoic Era.

Limulid-Death-Spiral-SCISo what’s the big deal here? Horseshoe crab comes up on beach, gets lost, spirals around while looking for the ocean, and dies in vain, a victim of its own ocean-finding ineptitude: the end. Nope, wrong ending. For one thing, those horseshoe crab tracks are really fresh, meaning their maker was still very much alive, then next thing it knows, its on its back. Seeing that horseshoe crabs are not well equipped to do back-flips or break dance, I wonder how that happened? (Photograph by Gale Bishop, taken on St. Catherines Island, Georgia, and you can see the date and time for yourself.)

Here is part of the field description Gale recorded, which he graciously shared with me (and now you):

“Female Horseshoe Crab at 31.63324; 81.13244 [latitude-longitude] observed Raccoon feeding on upside-down HSC [horseshoe crab] on south margin of McQueen Inlet NO pig tracks. Relatively fresh HSC track. Did this raccoon flip this HSC?”

Raccoon-Tracks-Pee-Limulid-Eaten-SCIWell, well. Looks like we had a little commotion here. Lots of marks made from this horseshoe crab getting pushed against the beach sand, and by something other than itself. And that “something else” left two calling cards: a urination mark (left, middle) and just above that, two tracks. I can tell you the tracks are from a raccoon, and Gale swears the urination mark is not his. (Photograph by Gale Bishop, taken on St. Catherines Island, Georgia, and on May 4, 2013.)

I first saw these photos posted on a Facebook page maintained by Gale Bishop, the St. Catherines Island Sea Turtle Program (you can join it here). This was one of this comments Gale wrote to go with a photo:

GB: “This HSC must have been flipped by the Raccoon; that was NOT observed but the fresh crawlway indicates the HSC was crawling across the beach and then was flipped – only tracks are Rocky’s!”

[Editor’s note: “Rocky” is the nickname Gale gives to all raccoons, usually applied affectionately just before he prevents them from raiding a sea-turtle nest. And by prevent, I mean permanently.]

My reply to this:

AM: “VERY fresh tracks by the HSC, meaning this was predation by the raccoon, not scavenging.”

In our subsequent discussions on Facebook, Gale agreed with this assessment, said this was the first time he had ever seen a raccoon prey on a horseshoe crab, and I told him that it was the same for me. This was a big deal for us. He’s done more “sand time” on St. Catherines Island beaches than anyone I know (every summer for more than 20 years), and in all my wanderings of the Georgia barrier island beaches, I’ve never come across traces showing any such behavior.

(Yes, that’s right, I know you’re all in shock now, and it’s not that this was our first observance of this phenomenon. Instead, it is that we used Facebook for exchanging scientific information, hypotheses, and testing of those hypotheses. In other words it is not just used for political rants, pictures of cats and food, or political rants about photos of cat food. Which are very likely posted by cats.)

Now, here’s where ichnology is a pretty damned cool science. Gale was on the scene and actually saw the raccoon eating the horseshoe crab. He said it then ran away once it spotted him. (“Uh oh, there’s that upright biped with his boom stick who’s been taking out all of my cousins. Later, dudes!”) And even though I trust him completely as a keen observer, excellent scientist, and a very good ichnologist, I didn’t have to take his word for it. His photos of the traces on that Georgia beach laid out all of the evidence for what he saw, and even what happened before he got there and so rudely interrupted “Rocky” from noshing on horseshoe-crab eggs and innards.

Raccoon-Galloping-Limulid-Death-Spiral-Traces-SCIAnother view of the “death spiral” by the horseshoe crab, which we now know was actually a “life spiral” until a raccoon showed up and updated that status. Where’s the evidence of the raccoon? Look in the middle of the photos for whitish marks, grouped in fours, separated by gaps, and each forming a backwards “C” pattern. Those are raccoon tracks, and it was galloping away from the scene of the crime (toward the viewer).

Raccoon-Galloping-Pattern-SCISo you don’t believe me, and need a close-up of that raccoon gallop pattern? Here you go. Both rear feet are left, both front feet are right, and the direction of movement was to the left; when both rear feet exceed the front, that’s a gallop, folks. Notice the straddle (width of the trackway) is a lot narrower than a typical raccoon trackway, which is what happens when it picks up speed. When it’s waddling more like a little bear, its trackway is a lot wider than this. Conclusion: this raccoon was running for its life.

Although this is the only time Gale has documented a raccoon preying on a horseshoe crab – and it is the first time I’ve ever heard of it – we of course now wonder whether this was an exception, or if it is more common that we previously supposed. The horseshoe crab was a gravid female, and was likely on the beach to lay its eggs. Did the raccoon somehow know this, and sought out this limulid so that – like many shorebirds – it could feast on the eggs, too, along with some of the horseshoe crab itself? Or was it opportunistic, in that it was out looking for sea-turtle eggs, saw the horseshoe crab, and thought it’d try something a little different? In other words, had it learned this from experience, or was it a one-time experiment?

All good questions, but when our data set is actually a datum set (n = 1), there’s not much more we can say about this now. But given this new knowledge, set of search patterns, and altered expectations, we’re more likely to see it again. Oh, and now that you know about this, so can you, gentle reader. Let us know if you see any similar story told on the sands of a Georgia beach.

You want one more reason why this was a very cool discovery? It shows how evolutionary lineages and habitats can collide. Horseshoe crabs are marine arthropods descended from a 450-million-year-old lineage, and likely have been coming up on beaches to spawn all through that time. In contrast, raccoons are relative newcomers, coming from a lineage of land-dwelling mammals (Procyonidae) that, at best, only goes back to Oligocene Epoch, about 25 million years ago. When did a horseshoe crab first go onto land and encounter a land-dwelling raccoon ancestor? Trace fossils might tell us someday, especially now that we know what to look for.

So once again, these life traces provided us with a little more novelty, adding another piece to the natural history of the Georgia coast. Moreover, a raccoon preying on a horseshoe crab was another reminder that even experienced people – like Gale, me, and others who have spent much time on the Georgia barrier islands – still have a lot more to learn. Be humble, keep eyes open, and let the traces teach you something new.

(Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Dr. Gale Bishop for again spotting something ichnologically weird on St. Catherines Island, documenting it, and sharing what he has seen during his many forays there.)

Teaching on an Old Friend, Sapelo Island

(This post is the fourth in a series about a spring-break field trip taken last week with my Barrier Islands class, which I teach in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University. The first three posts, in chronological order, tell about our visits to Cumberland Island, Jekyll Island, and Little St. Simons and St. Simons Islands. For the sake of conveying a sense of being in the field with the students, these posts mostly follow the format of a little bit of prose – mostly captions – and a lot of photos.)

When planning a week-long trip to the Georgia barrier islands with my students, I knew that one island – Sapelo – had to be included in our itinerary. Part of my determination for us to visit it was emotionally motivated, as Sapelo was my first barrier island, and you always remember your first. But Sapelo has much else to offer, and because of these many opportunities, it is my favorite as an destination for teaching students about the Georgia coast and its place in the history of science.

Getting to Sapelo Island requires a 15-minute ferry ride, all for the low-low price of $2.50. (It used to cost $1.00 and took 30 minutes. My, how times have changed.) For my students, their enthusiasm about visiting their fourth Georgia barrier island was clearly evident (with perhaps a few visible exceptions), although photobombing may count as a form of enthusiasm, too.

I first left my own traces on Sapelo in 1988 on a class field trip, when I was a graduate student in geology at the University of Georgia. My strongest memory from that trip was witnessing alligator predation of a cocker spaniel in one of the freshwater ponds there. (I suppose that’s another story for another day.) Yet I also recall Sapelo as a fine place to see geology and ecology intertwining, blending, and otherwise becoming indistinguishable from one another. This impression will likely last for the rest of my life, reinforced by subsequent visits to the island. This learning has always been enhanced whenever I’ve brought my own students there, which I have done nearly every year since 1997.

As a result of both teaching and research forays, I’ve spent more time on Sapelo than all of the other Georgia barrier islands combined. Moreover, it is not just my personal history that is pertinent, but also how Sapelo is the unofficial “birthplace” of modern ecology and neoichnology in North America. Lastly, Sapelo inspired most of the field stories I tell at the start of each chapter in my book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. In short, Sapelo Island has been very, very good to me, and continues to give back something new every time I return to it.

So with all of that said, here’s to another learning experience on Sapelo with a new batch of students, even though it was only for a day, before moving on to the next island, St. Catherines.

(All photographs by Anthony Martin and taken on Sapelo Island.)

Next to the University of Georgia Marine Institute is a freshwater wetland, a remnant of an artificial pond created by original landowner R.J. Reynolds, Jr. More importantly, this habitat has been used and modified by alligators for at least as long as the pond has been around. For example, this trail winding through the wetland is almost assuredly made through habitual use by alligators, and not mammals like raccoons and deer, because, you know, alligators.

Photographic evidence that alligators, much like humans prone to wearing clown shoes, will use dens that are far too big for them. This den was along the edge of the ponded area of the wetland, and has been used by generations of alligators, which I have been seeing use it on-and-off since 1988.

An idealized diagram of ecological zones on Sapelo Island, from maritime forest to the subtidal. This sign provided a good field test for my students, as they had already (supposedly) learned about these zones in class, but now could experience the real things for themselves. And yes, this will be on the exam.

When it’s high tide in the salt marsh, marsh periwinkles (Littoraria irrorata) seek higher ground, er, leaves, to avoid predation by crabs, fish, and diamondback terrapins lurking in the water. Here they are on smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), and while there are getting in a meal by grazing on algae on the leaves.

Erosion of a tidal creek bank caused salt cedars (which are actually junipers, Juniperus virginiana) to go for their first and last swim. I have watched this tidal creek migrate through the years, another reminder that even the interiors of barrier islands are always undergoing dynamic change.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: where’s the ichnology? OK, how about these wide, shallow holes exposed in the sandflat at low tide? However tempted you might be to say “sauropod tracks,” these are more likely fish feeding traces, specifically of southern stingrays. Stingrays make these holes by shooting jets of water into the sand, which loosens it and reveals all of the yummy invertebrates that were hiding there, followed by the stingray chowing down. Notice that some wave ripples formed in the bottom of this structure, showing how this stingray fed here at high tide, before waves started affecting the bottom in a significant way.

Here’s more ichnology for you, and even better, traces of shorebirds! I am fairly sure these are the double-probe beak marks of a least sandpiper, which may be backed up by the tracks associated with these (traveling from bottom to top of the photo). But I could be wrong, which has happened once or twice before. If so, an alternative tracemaker would be a sanderling, which also makes tracks similar in size and shape to a sandpiper, although they tend to probe a lot more in one place.

Just in case you can’t get enough ichnology, here’s the lower, eroded shaft of a ghost-shrimp burrow. Check out that burrow wall, reinforced by pellets. Nice fossilization potential, eh? This was a great example to show my students how trace fossils of these can be used as tools for showing where a shoreline was located in the geologic past. And sure enough, these trace fossils were used to identify ancient barrier islands on the Georgia coastal plain.

Understandably, my students got tired of living vicariously through various invertebrate and vertebrate tracemakers of Sapelo, and instead became their own tracemakers. Here they decided to more directly experience the intertidal sands and muds of Cabretta Beach at low tide by ambulating through them. Will their tracks make it into the fossil record? Hard to say, but I’ll bet the memories of their making them will last longer than any given class we’ve had indoors and on the Emory campus. (No offense to those other classes, but I mean, you’re competing with a beach.)

The north end of Cabretta Beach on Sapelo is eroding while other parts of the shoreline are building, and nothing screams “erosion!” as loudly as dead trees from a former maritime forest with their roots exposed on a beach. Also, from an ichnological perspective, the complex horizontal and vertical components of the roots on this dead pine tree could be compared to trace fossils from 40,000 year-old (Pleistocene) deposits on the island. Also note that at this point in the trip, my students had not yet tired of being “scale” in my photographs, which was a good thing for all.

Another student eager about being scale in this view of a live-oak tree root system. See how this tree is dominated by horizontal roots? Now think about how trace fossils made by its roots will differ from those of a pine tree. But don’t think about it too long, because there are a few more photos for you to check out.

Told you so! Here’s a beautifully exposed, 500-year-old relict marsh, formerly buried but now eroding out of the beach. I’ve written about this marsh deposit and its educational value before, so will refrain from covering that ground again. Just go to this link to learn about that.

OK geologists, here’s a puzzler for you. The surface of this 500-year-old relict marsh, with its stubs of long-dead smooth cordgrass and in-place ribbed mussels (Guekensia demissa), also has very-much-live smooth cordgrass living in it and sending its roots down into that old mud. So if you found a mudstone with mussel shells and root traces in it, would you be able to tell the plants were from two generations and separated by 500 years? Yes, I know, arriving at an answer may require more beer.

Although a little tough to see in this photo, my students and I, for the first time since I have gone to this relict marsh, were able to discern the division between the low marsh (right) and high marsh (left). Look for the white dots, which are old ribbed mussels, which live mostly in the high marsh, and not in the low marsh. Grain sizes and burrows were different on each part, too: the high marsh was sandier and had what looked like sand-fiddler crab burrows, whereas the low marsh was muddier and had mud-fiddler burrows. SCIENCE!

At the end of a great day in the field on Sapelo, it was time to do whatever was necessary to get back to our field vehicle, including (gasp!) getting wet. The back-dune meadows, which had been inundated by unusually high tides, presented a high risk that we might experience a temporary non-dry state for our phalanges, tarsals, and metatarsals. Fortunately, my students bravely waded through the water anyway, and sure enough, their feet eventually dried. I was so proud.

So what was our next-to-last stop on this grand ichnologically tainted tour of the Georgia barrier islands? St. Catherines Island, which is just to the north of Sapelo. Would it reveal some secrets to students and educators alike? Would it have some previously unknown traces, awaiting our discovery and description? Would any of our time there also involve close encounters with large reptilian tracemakers? Signs point to yes. Thanks for reading, and look for that next post soon.



A Tale (and Tails) of Two Islands

After visiting Cumberland Island and Jekyll Island, our Barrier Islands class had entered its third day (Monday, March 11), and was now about to embark onto our third and fourth barrier islands of the Georgia coast. These islands were a Pleistocene-Holocene pair – St. Simons and Little St. Simons, respectively – and the latter was our primary goal. After all, Little St. Simons is a privately owned and undeveloped island, one of the few that has not been logged or otherwise majorly altered by those ever-nefarious and industrious post-Enlightenment humans. St Simons, though, had its own lessons to teach us, including a realization I had that ichnological factors (bivalve feces, specifically) had played a role in deciding the fate of European power struggles on the Georgia coast during the 18th century.

Just like the previous two posts, this one will be told through photos and captions, which I hope captures much of what my students and I learned during our times on these two islands. Just watch out for those tails.

Little St. Simons is a privately owned island, but is available for day tours of groups like ours that are led by their knowledgeable and friendly naturalists. Soon after arriving by small boats on the island and being greeted by the naturalists assigned to us, Laura (pictured) and Ben (you’ll see him soon enough). While there, Laura provided a brief introduction to the geological history of Little St. Simons: Holocene (probably only a few thousands years old), and rapidly gaining weight (sediment, that is) each year, supplied by the nearby Altamaha River.

Check out our air-conditioned field vehicles! Seeing that this is a field course, traveling this way was ideal for experiencing the island a bit more directly, yet without descending in a Heart-of-Darkeness or Lord-of-the-Flies sort of mode. Because that would be bad.

Little St. Simons has a healthy number of freshwater wetlands for such a small island (like this one), more closely resembling what used to be on the Georgia barrier islands before a few people decided that plantations and paper mills were great ideas.

Say, isn’t that an all-American bird? Yes, it is, but more importantly, it has a rather prominent trace next to it – a bald eagle nest – that is also occupied by a couple of young eagles. (Here, one is sticking its head out of the nest while being overseen by a protective parent.) Bald eagle nests are among the largest tree nests made by any modern bird, leading me to wonder what tree-dwelling dinosaur nests from the Cretaceous Period must have looked like.

Sorry folks, can’t get enough of bird traces on this island. Many of the tree trunks on Little St. Simons bear the horizontally aligned holes of yellow-bellied sapsuckers. These woodpeckers pierce tree trunks to cause the tree to bleed sap, which attracts insects, which get stuck, which get eaten by the sapsuckers. Sap + insects = tasty treat!

Armadillo tracks on a coastal dune at the north end of the island show just how far-ranging these mammals can get. Having only recently arrived to the Georgia coast since the 1970s, these prolific tracemakers are now on every island.

Near the armadillo tracks, also in the coastal dunes, were these mystery burrows. I had no idea what made these, as they were too small to be mole burrows, too big to be insect burrows, and too horizontal to be mouse burrows. Just a reminder that even the author of a 700-page book about Georgia-coast traces still has a lot more to learn.

Aw, look at this cute little baby alligator, which was near its momma in one of the freshwater ponds on Little St. Simons. I wonder where it came from originally?

Why, there’s where it came from: it’s momma’s nest! The arrow is pointing toward a now mostly collapsed alligator nest, which hatched the little tykes that are now in the nearby wetland. Alligator nests are composed mostly of loose vegetation that the mother collects and piles, enough that it will give off heat to incubate her eggs. Such nests have very poor preservation potential in the fossil record, but it is still very interesting to study how they disintegrate so rapidly.

Alligators (left) and birds (right, with one on her nest) last shared a common ancestor early in the Mesozoic Era, but here they are, working together to their mutual benefit. Great egrets and woodstorks nest on islands, which are guarded by large alligators, who are good deterrents to egg predators. (In a grudge match between an alligator and raccoon, who do you think would win?) As payment for this protection, alligators get an occasional chick falling out of the nest, a small evolutionary price for the birds to pay when compared to an entire clutch of eggs getting munched.

My, what a noisy tail you have! We were delighted to encounter this diamondback rattlesnake on one of the sandy roads of Little St. Simons, which urged us to approach it carefully, using a clearly audible warning and threat postures. (P.S. It worked.)

Our other guide, Ben, had an obviously deep affection for venomous reptiles, expressed first through some impromptu snake-handling. (No, he did not use his hands, nor did he speak in tongues. See that snake-handling device in his right hand?) Following our not-too-close encounter, he expounded on the ecological importance of rattlesnakes to the island, and related some interesting facts about rattlesnake behavior. Gee, you think the students might remember some of this lesson? (Personal note: Bring rattlesnakes into the classroom more often.)

At the south end of Little St. Simons is a very nice beach, and on that beach were – you guessed it – shorebird tracks. Here are some plover tracks, which could be from Wilson’s plovers, semi-palmated plovers, or some other species.

Sadly enough, our tour of Little St. Simons lasted only until 3:00 p.m., so we had some time on St. Simons to do a bit more learning. So I decided we would stop at Fort Frederica National Monument, on the north end of St. Simons Island. It turned out this was a educationally sound decision, especially when one of the rangers on duty – Mr. Ted Johnson (right) – volunteered to give our group a spirited and informative lecture about the former military importance of Fort Frederica. However, judging from the downcast looks on several of the students, I imagine they were already missing alligators, snakes, and shorebirds of Little St. Simons Island, and (of course) their traces.

The most obvious human traces at Fort Frederica are these “footprints” (foundations) of some of the buildings there in the 18th century. Established as a British outpost in Georgia to compete with the Spanish presence to the south, Fort Frederica was a thriving town as long as the military was there.

OK, you’ve no doubt read this far to find out how bivalve feces helped the English to defeat the Spanish in the mid-18th century and consequently gain a permanent foothold in Georgia (until those pesky colonials defeated them later that century, that is). See where the fort is located? Right on a point, facing a tidal channel, and with salt marsh on either side of it. Because the salt marshes are largely composed of feces and similar muddy ejecta of ribbed mussels and other invertebrates, these make for wonderfully gooey substrates. Such substrates tend to discourage rapid movement of ordinance-laden ground troops, which forced the Spanish to try other means for attacking the fort, which failed. Bivalve feces for the win! Traces rule! ¡En la cara, los conquistadores!

As our day neared an end, my students decided that an appropriate way to signal their pleasure with all they had learned was for them to give me the now-official fiddler crab salute, waving their mock claws in unison. We all plan to still use this when greeting on the Emory campus, which should thoroughly mystify other students, faculty, and especially administrators, the latter of whom will wonder if it is some sort of secret-society sign. (Which, in a sense, it will be. Be afraid. Be very afraid)

What island was next on our journey? My old favorite, Sapelo Island, just to the north of Little St. Simons and St. Simons, and as different from these as the preceding islands were from one another. Stay tuned for those photos and comments in just a few days, and get ready to learn.

Doing Field Work on a Developed Barrier Island

The second day of our Barrier Islands class field trip (Sunday, March 10), which is taking place along the Georgia coast all through this week, involved moving one island north of Cumberland (mentioned in this previous post), to Jekyll Island. I’ve been to Jekyll many times, but none of my students had, so they didn’t quite know what to expect other than what I had told them.

For one, I warned the students that Jekyll was not at all like Cumberland, which is under the authority of the U.S. National Park Service as a National Seashore. Consequently, it has a few residents, but is limited to less than 300 visitors a day. In contrast, many more people visit or live on Jekyll, and people have modified it considerably more. For example, Jekyll has a new convention center, regularly sized and miniature golf courses, a water park, restaurants, bars, and other such items absent during most of its Pleistocene-Holocene history. Another difference is that a ferry was need to get onto Cumberland, whereas we could drive onto Jekyll and stay overnight there in a hotel.

So why go there at all with a class that is supposed to emphasize the geology, ecology, and natural history of the Georgia barrier islands? The main reason for why I chose Jekyll as a destination for these students was so they could see for themselves the balance (or imbalance) between preserving natural areas and human development of barrier islands. Jekyll is one of those islands that is “in between,” where much of its land and coastal areas have been modified by people, but patches of it retain potentially valuable natural-history lessons for my students.

So what you’ll see in the following photos will focus on those more natural parts of Jekyll island, with some of the wonders they hold. However, this series of photos will end with one that will shock and horrify all. Actually, you’ll probably just shake your head and sigh with rueful resignation at the occasional folly of mankind, especially when it comes to managing developed barrier islands.

We started our morning like every day should start, with ichnology. Here, tracks of a gray fox, showing direct register (rear foot stepping almost exactly into the front-foot impression) cut between coastal dunes on the south end of Jekyll Island. The presence of gray foxes on Jekyll has caused some curiosity and concern among residents, with the latter emotion evoked because these canids are potential predators of ground-nesting birds, like the Wilson’s plover. Also, people have no idea how many foxes are on the island. If only we had some cost-effective method for detecting their presence, estimating their numbers, and interpreting their behavior. You know, like tracking.

My students show keen interest in the gray fox tracks, especially after I tell them to show keen interest as I take a photo of them. Funny how that works sometimes.

A Wilson’s plover! At least, I think it is.( Birders of the world, please correct me if this is wrong. And I know you will.) We spotted a pair of these birds traveling together on the south end of the island, causing much excitement among the photographers in our group blessed with adequate zoom capabilities on their cameras. Wilson’s plovers are ground-nesting birds, and with both gray foxes and feral cats on the island, their chicks are at risk from these predators. Again, if only we had some cost-effective method for discerning plover-cat-fox interactions. Tracking, maybe?

Here’s a little secret for shorebird lovers visiting Jekyll Island. Walk around the southwest corner of the island, and you are almost assured of seeing some cool-looking shorebirds along the, well, shore, such as these American oystercatchers, looking coy while synchronizing their head turns. These three were part of a flock of about twenty oystercatchers all traveling together, which I had never seen before on any of the islands. If you go walking on Jekyll, and know where to walk, you’ll see some amazing sights like this.

You were probably all wondering what American oystercatcher tracks look like, especially those made by ones that are just standing still. Guess this is your lucky day. Also notice the right foot was draped over the left one, causing an incomplete toe impression on the right-foot one. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a trace fossil just like this?

Black skimmers! We didn’t get to see them skim, but we still marveled at this flock of gorgeous shorebirds. These were in front of the oystercatchers, with an occasional royal tern slipping into the party, uninvited but seemingly tolerated.

Yeah, I know, you also wanted to know what black skimmer tracks look like. So here they are. Now you don’t need to use a bird book to identify this species: just look at their tracks instead!

You think you’re bored? Try being driftwood, with marine clams out there adapted for drilling into your dead, woody tissue. This beach example prompted a nice little lesson in how this ecological niche for clams has been around since at least the Jurassic Period, which we know thanks to ichnology. You’re welcome (again).

Beach erosion at the southernmost end of Jekyll gave us an opportunity to see the root systems of the main tree species there, such as this salt cedar (actually, it’s a juniper, not a cedar, but that’s why scientists use those fancy Latinized names, such as Juniperus virginiana). My students are also happily learning to become the scale in my photos, although I suspect they will soon tire of this.

Look at this beautiful maritime forest! This is what I’m talking about when I say “…patches of it [Jekyll Island] retain potentially valuable lessons in natural history.” This is on the south end of the island, and this view is made possible by walking just a few minutes on a trail into the interior.

Few modern predators, invertebrate or vertebrate, provoke as much pure unadulterated giddiness in me as mantis shrimp. So imagine how I felt when, through sheer coincidence, a couple walked into the 4-H Tidelands Nature Center on Jekyll, while I was there with my class, and asked if I identify this animal they found on a local beach. The following are direct quotations from me: “Wow – that’s a mantis shrimp!! Squilla empusa!! It’s incredible!!” I had never seen a live one on the Georgia coast, and it was a pleasure to share my enthusiasm for this badass little critter with my students (P.S. It makes great burrows, too.)

A stop at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll was important for my students to learn about the role of the Georgia barrier islands as places for sea turtles to nest. But I had been there enough times that I had to find a way to get excited about being there yet again. Which is why I took a photo of their cast of the Late Cretaceous Archelon, the largest known sea turtle. I never get tired thinking about the size of the nests and crawlways this turtle must have made during the Cretaceous Period, perhaps while watched by nareby dinosaurs.

At the north end of Jekyll, shoreline erosion has caused the beach and maritime forest to meet, and the forest is losing to the beach. This has caused the forest to become what is often nicknamed a “tree boneyard,” in which trees die and either stay upright or fall in the same spot where they once practiced their photosynthetic ways.

Quantify it! Whenever we encountered dead trees with root systems exposed, I asked the students to measure the vertical distance from beach surface to the topmost horizontal roots. This gave an estimate of the minimum amount of erosion that took place along the beach.

Perhaps a more personal way to convey the amount of beach erosion that happened here was to see how it related to the students’ heights. It was a great teaching method, well worth the risk of being photobombed.

Are you ready? Here it is, in three parts, what was without a doubt the traces of the day. Start from the lower left with that collapsed burrow, follow the tracks from left to right, and look at that raised area on the right.

A close-up of the raised area shows a chevron-like pattern, implying that this was an animal that had legs, and knew how to use them. Wait, is that a small part of its tail sticking out of the left side?

Violá! It was a ghost shrimp! I almost never see these magnificent burrowers alive and outside of their burrows, and just the day before on Cumberland Island, the students had just learned about their prodigious burrowing abilities (the ghost shrimp, that is, not the students). I had also never before seen a ghost shrimp trackway, let alone one connected to a shallow tunnel on a beach. An epic win for ichnology!

This may look like soft-serve ice cream, but I suspect that it’s not nearly as tasty. It’s the fecal casting of an acorn worm (Balanoglossus sp.), and is composed mostly of quartz sand, but still. These piles were common on the same beach at the north end of Jekyll, but apparently absent from the south-end beach. Why? I’m guessing there was more food (organics) provided by a nearby tidal creek at the north end. But I’d appreciate all of those experts on acorn worms out there to augment or modify that hypothesis.

This is how dunes normally form on Georgia barrier-island beaches: start with a rackline of dead smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), then windblown sand begins to accumulate in, on, and around these. Throw in a few windblown seeds of sea oats and a few other dune-loving species of plants, and next thing you know, you got dunes. Dude.

In contrast, here is how not to form dunes on Georgia barrier-islands beaches. Build a concrete seawall on the middle part of the island, truck in thousands of tons of metamorphic rock from the Piedmont province of Georgia, place the rocks in front of the seawall, and watch the beach shrink. So sad to see all of that dune-building smooth cordgrass going to waste. Anyway, the contrast and comparison you just saw is also what my students experienced by standing in both places the same day.

Jekyll Island gave us many lessons, but we only had a day there. Which islands were next? St. Simons and Little St. Simons, with emphasis on the latter. So look for those photos in a couple of days, in between new exploits and learning opportunities.





Trace Evidence for New Book

This past Friday, I very happily received the first complimentary copy of my new book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast from Indiana University Press. After years of field observations, photographing, writing, editing, drawing, teaching, and speaking about the plant and animal traces described in this book, it was immensely satisfying to hold a physical copy in my hands, feeling its heft and admiring its textures and smells in a way that e-books will never replace. So for any doubters out there (and I don’t blame you for that), here is a photograph of the book:

A photograph, purportedly documenting the publication of at least one copy of my new book Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. Photo scale (bottom) in centimeters.

Still, given that a photograph of the book only constitutes one line of evidence supporting its existence, I knew that more data were needed. So of course, I turned to ichnology for help. After all, a 692-page hard-cover book should also make an easily definable resting trace. Here is that trace, formed by the book in the same spot shown previously.

Ichnological evidence supporting the existence of my new book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. Using the “holy trinity” of ichnology – substrate, anatomy, and behavior – as guides for understanding it better: the substrate is a bedspread; the “anatomy” is the 6 X 9″ outline of the book, with depth of the trace reflecting its thickness (and mass); and the behavior was mine, consisting of placing the book on the bedspread and removing it. E-book versions of the book should make similarly shaped rectangular traces, although these will vary in dimensions according to the reading device hosting the book.

However, I also admit that hard-core skeptics may claim that such photos could have been faked, whether through the manipulative use of image-processing software, or slipping the cover jacket onto a copy of Danielle Steel’s latest oeuvre. As a result, the best and perhaps only way to test such a hypothesis is for you and everyone you know to buy the book (which you can do here, here, or here). Or, better yet, ask your your local bookstore to carry copies of it, which will also help to ensure the continuing existence of those bookstores for future book-purchasing and ichnological experiments, including books of other science-book authors.

Lastly, just to make this experiment statistically significant, I suggest a sample size of at least n = 10,000, which should account for inadvertent mishaps that may prevent deliveries of the book, such as lightning strikes, volcanic eruptions, or meteorite impacts. Only then will you be able to assess, with any degree of certainty, whether the book is real or not.

Thank you in advance for your “citizen science,” and I look forward to discussing these research results with you soon.

Suggested Further Reading

Martin, A.J. 2012. Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana: 692 p.


A Sneak Peek at a Book Jacket (with Traces)

After returning from a two-week vacation in California with my wife Ruth, we noticed a cardboard tube awaiting us at home. Intriguingly, the mystery package, which was only about 60 cm (24 in) long and 8 cm (3 in) wide, had been sent by Indiana University Press, the publisher of my new book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. We were a little puzzled by it, considering that it couldn’t possibly contain complimentary copies of the book. (As of this writing, I still have not held a corporeal representation of the book, hence my continuing skepticism that it is really published.) What was in this mystery tube?

Front cover and spine of my new book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals (Indiana University Press). The book, newly released this month, is not yet in stores, but supposedly on its way to those places and to people who were kind enough to pre-order it. But if you didn’t pre-order it, that’s OK: you can get it right here, right now.

Upon opening it, we were delighted to find that it held ten life-sized prints of the book jacket: front cover, spine, back cover, and front-back inside flaps. The cover art, done by Georgia artist Alan Campbell, looked gorgeous, and had reduced well to the 16 X 25 cm (6 X 9″) format, retaining details of traces and tracemakers, but also conveying a nice aesthetic sense. I was also amused to see the spine had the title (of course) but also said “Martin” and “Indiana.” Although I’ve lived in Georgia for more than 27 years, I was born and raised in Indiana, so it somehow seemed fitting in a circle-of-life sort of way to see this put so simply on the book.

Back cover of Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, highlighting a few of the tracemakers mentioned in the book – sea oats, sandhill crane, sand fiddler crab, and sea star – while also providing a pretty sunset view of primary dunes, beach, and subtidal environments on Sapelo Island. (P.S. I love that it says “Science” and “Nature” at the top, too.)

I had no idea what the back cover might be like until seeing these prints, but I thought it was well designed, bearing a fair representative sample of tracemakers of the Georgia barrier islands: sea oats (Uniola paniculata), a sandhill crane (Grus canadensis), sand fiddler crab (Uca pugilator), and lined sea star (Luidia clathrata), as well as a scenic view of some coastal environments. I had taken all of these photos, so it was exciting to see these arranged in such a pleasing way. My only scientifically based objection is that I would have like to see it include photos of insects, worms, amphibians, reptiles, or mammals (these and much more are covered in the book), as well as a few more tracks, trails, or burrows. Granted, I suppose they only had so much room for that 6 X 9″ space, and thus I understood how they couldn’t use this space to better represent the biodiversity of Georgia-coast tracemakers and their traces. (Oh well: guess you’ll have to read the book to learn about all that.)

Inside front and back flap material for Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, which also includes a summary of the book (written by me) and a rare photo of me (taken by Ruth Schowalter) in my natural habitat, which in this instance was on St. Catherines Island, Georgia.

I had written the summary of the book on the inside flap nearly a year ago, so it was fun to look at it with fresh eyes, almost as if someone else had written it for me. Fortunately, I banished my inner critic while reading it, and just enjoyed the sense that it likely achieved its goal, which was to tell people about the book and provoke their interest in it.

In short, this cover jacket symbolizes a next-to-last step toward the book being real in my mind. Now, like any good scientist, all I need is some independently verifiable evidence in the form of tactile data, such as a physical book in my hands. Stay tuned for that update, which I’ll be sure to share once it happens. In the meantime, many thanks to all of the staff at Indiana University Press – who I’ll mention by name next time – for their essential role in making the book happen and promoting it in this new year.

Information about the Book, from Indiana University Press

Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals, Anthony J. Martin

Have you ever wondered what left behind those prints and tracks on the seashore, or what made those marks or dug those holes in the dunes? Life Traces of the Georgia Coast is an up-close look at these traces of life and the animals and plants that made them. It tells about the how the tracemakers lived and how they interacted with their environments. This is a book about ichnology (the study of such traces), a wonderful way to learn about the behavior of organisms, living and long extinct. Life Traces presents an overview of the traces left by modern animals and plants in this biologically rich region; shows how life traces relate to the environments, natural history, and behaviors of their tracemakers; and applies that knowledge toward a better understanding of the fossilized traces that ancient life left in the geologic record. Augmented by numerous illustrations of traces made by both ancient and modern organisms, the book shows how ancient trace fossils directly relate to modern traces and tracemakers, among them, insects, grasses, crabs, shorebirds, alligators, and sea turtles. The result is an aesthetically appealing and scientifically accurate book that will serve as both a source book for scientists and for anyone interested in the natural history of the Georgia coast.

Life of the Past – Science/Paleontology

692 pp., 34 color illus., 137 b&w illus.
cloth 978-0-253-00602-8 $60.00
ebook 978-0-253-00609-7 $51.99

More information at: ]

Most Intriguing Traces of the Georgia Coast, 2012

The end of another revolution of the earth around the sun brings with it many “best,” “most,” “worst,” “sexiest,” or other such lists associated with that 365-day cycle. Tragically, though, none of these lists have involved traces or trace fossils. So seeing that the end of 2012 also coincides with the release of my book (Life Traces of the Georgia Coast), I thought that now might be a good time to start the first of what I hope will be an annual series highlighting the most interesting traces I encountered on the Georgia barrier islands during the year.

In 2012, I visited three islands at three separate times: Cumberland Island in February, St. Catherines Island in March, and Jekyll Island in November. As usual, despite having done field work on these islands multiple times, each of these most recent visits in 2012 taught me something new and inspired posts that I shared through this blog.

For the Cumberland Island visit, it was seeing many coquina clams (Donax variabilis) in the beach sands there at low tide, and marveling at their remarkable ability to “listen” to and move with the waves. With St. Catherines Island, it was to start describing and mapping the alligator dens there, using these as models for similar large reptile burrows in the fossil record. Later in the year, I presented the preliminary results of this research at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. For the Jekyll trip, which was primarily for a Thanksgiving-break vacation with my wife Ruth, two types of traces grabbed my attention, deer tracks on a beach and freshwater crayfish burrows in a forested wetland. So despite all of the field work I had done previously on the Georgia coast, these three trips in 2012 were still instrumental in teaching me just a little more I didn’t know about these islands, which deserve to be scrutinized with fresh eyes each time I step foot on them and leave my own marks.

For this review, I picked out three photos of traces from each island that I thought were provocatively educational, imparting what I hope are new lessons to everyone, from casual observers of nature to experienced ichnologists.

Cumberland Island

Coyote tracks – Coyotes (Canis latrans) used to be rare tracemakers on the Georgia barrier islands, but apparently have made it onto nearly all of the islands in just the past ten years or so. On Cumberland, despite its high numbers of visitors, people almost never see these wild canines. This means we have to rely on their tracks, scat, and other sign to discern their presence, where they’re going, and what they’re doing. I saw these coyote tracks while walking with my students along a trail between the coastal dunes, and they made for good in-the-field lessons on “What was this animal?” and “What was it doing?” Because Cumberland is designated as a National Seashore and thus is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. National Park Service, I’m  interested in watching how they’ll handle the apparent self-introduction of this “new” predator to island ecosystems, which may begin competing with the bobcats (Lynx rufus) there for the same food resources.

Ghost Shrimp Burrows, Pellets and Buried Whelk – Sometimes the traces on the beaches at low tide are subtle in what they tell us, and the traces in this photo qualify as ones that could be easily overlooked. The three little holes in the photo are the tops of ghost shrimp burrows. Scattered about on the beach surface are fecal pellets made by the same animals; ghost shrimp are responsible for most of the mud deposition on the sandy beaches of Georgia. The triangular “trap door” in the middle of the photo is from a knobbed whelk (Busycon carica), which has buried itself directly under the sand surface. The ghost shrimp are perhaps as deep as 1-2 meters (3.3-6.6 ft) below the surface, and are feeding on organics in their subterranean homes. These homes are complex, branching burrow systems, reinforced by pelleted walls. Hence these animals and their traces provide a study in contrasts of adaptations, tiering, and fossilization potential. The whelk trace is ephemeral, and could be wiped out with the next high tide, especially if the waiting whelk emerges and its shallow burrow collapses behind it. On the other hand, only the top parts of the ghost shrimp burrows are susceptible to erosion, meaning their lower parts are much more likely to win in the fossilization sweepstakes.

Feral Horse Grazing and Trampling Traces – Probably the most controversial subject related to any so-called “wild” Georgia barrier islands is the feral horses of Cumberland Island, and what to do about their impacts on island ecosystems there. A year ago, I wrote a post about these tracemakers as invasive species, and discussed this same topic with students before we visited in February. But nothing said “impact” better to these students than this view of a salt marsh, overgrazed and trampled along its edges by horses. This is a example of how the cumulative effects of traces made by a single invasive species can dramatically alter an ecosystem, rendering it a less complete version of its original self.

St. Catherines Island

Suspended Bird Nest – I don’t know what species of bird made this exquisitely woven and suspended little nest, but I imagine it is was a wren, and one related to the long-billed marsh wren (Telmatodytes palustris), which also makes suspended nests in the salt marshes. This nest was next to one of several artificial ponds with islands constructed on St. Catherines with the intent of helping larger birds, such as egrets, herons, and wood storks, so that they can use the islands as rookeries. These ponds are also inhabited by alligators, which had left plenty of tracks, tail dragmarks, and other sign along the banks. With virtually no chance of being preserved in the fossil record, this nest was a humbling reminder of what we still don’t know from ichnology, such as when this specialized type of nest building evolved, or whether this behavior happened first in arboreal non-avian dinosaurs or birds.

Ant Nest in Storm-Washover Deposit – As you can see, the aperture of this ant nest, as well as the small pile of sand outside of it, did not exactly scream out for attention and demand that its picture be taken. But its location was significant, in that it was on a freshly made storm-washover deposit next to the beach. This “starter nest” gives a glimpse of how ants and other terrestrial insects can quickly colonize sediments dumped by marine processes, such as storm waves. These sometimes-thick storm deposits can cause locally elevated areas above what used to be muddy salt marshes. This means insects and other animals that normally would never burrow into or traverse these marshes move into the neighborhood and set up shop, blissfully unaware that the sediments of a recently buried marginal-marine environment are below them. Ant nests also have the potential to reach deep down to those marine sediments, causing a disjunctive mixing of the traces of marine and terrestrial animals that would surely confuse most geologists looking at similar deposits in the geologic record.

Alligator Tracks in a Salt Marsh – These alligator tracks, which are of the left-side front and rear feet, along with a tail dragmark (right) surprised me for several reasons. One was their size: the rear foot (pes) was about 20 cm (8 in) long, one of the largest I’ve seen on any of the islands. (As my Australian friends might say, it was bloody huge, mate.) This trackway also was unusual because it was on a salt pan, a sandy part of a marsh that lacks vegetation because of its high concentration of salt in its sediments. (According to conventional wisdom, alligators prefer fresh-water environments, not salt marshes.) Yet another oddity was the preservation of scale impressions in the footprints, which I normally only see in firm mud. Finally, the trackway was crosscut by trails of grazing snails and burrows of sand-fiddler crabs (Uca pugilator). This helped me to age the tracks – probably less than 24 hours old, and not so fresh that I should have reason to get worried. (Although I did pay closer attention to my surroundings after finding them.) Overall, this also made for a neat assemblage of vertebrate and invertebrate traces, one I would be delighted to find in the fossil record from the Mesozoic Era.

Jekyll Island

Grackle Tracks and Obstacle Avoidance – These tracks from a boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus major), spotted just after sunrise on a coastal dune of Jekyll Island, are beautifully expressed, but also tell a little story, and one we might not understand unless we put ourselves down on its level. Why did it jog slightly to the right and then meander to the left, before curving off to the right again? I suspect it was because the small strands of bitter panic grass (Panicum amarum), sticking up out of the dune sand, got in its way. Similar to how we might avoid small saplings while walking through an otherwise open area, this grackle chose the path of least resistance, which involved walking around these obstacles, rather than following a straight line. If we didn’t know about this from such modern examples, but we found a fossil bird trackway like this but didn’t look for nearby root traces, how else might we interpret it?

Acorn Worm Burrow, Funnels and Pile – When I came across the top of this acorn-worm burrow, which was probably from the golden acorn worm (Balanoglossus aurantiactus), and on a beach at the north end of Jekyll, I realized I was looking at a two-dimensional expression of a three-dimensional structure. Acorn worms make deep and wide U-shaped vertical burrows, in which they quite sensibly place their mouth at one end and their anus at the other. These burrows usually have a small funnel at the top of one arm of the “U,” which is the “mouth end.” The “anus end” is denoted by a pile of what looks like soft-serve ice cream, which it most assuredly is not, as this is its fecal casting, squirted out of the burrow. What was interesting about this burrow is the nearby presence of a second funnel. This signifies that the worm shifted its mouth end laterally by adding a new burrow shaft to the previous one, superimposing a little “Y” to that part of the U-shaped burrow.

Ghost Crab Dragging Its Claw – As ubiquitous and prolific tracemakers in coastal dunes of the Georgia barrier islands, and as many times as I have studied their traces, I can always depend on ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrata) to leave me signs telling of some nuanced variations in their behavior. In this instance, I saw the finely sculpted, parallel, wavy grooves toward the upper middle of its trackway, made while the crab walked sideways from left to right. A count of the leg impressions in the trackway yielded “eight,” which is the number of its walking legs. This means the fine grooves could only come from some appendage other than its walking legs: namely, one of its claws. Why was it dragging its claw? I like to think that it might have been doing something really cool, like acoustical signaling, but it also might have just been a little tired, having spent too much time outside of its burrow.

So now you know a little more about who left their marks on the Georgia barrier islands in 2012. What will 2013 bring? Let’s find out, with open eyes and minds.


How Did Freshwater Crayfish Get on a Barrier Island?

Two weeks ago, during an all-too-brief visit to Jekyll Island (Georgia) over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I decided to check in on some old friends. When I was first introduced to them about four years ago (2008), their presence on Jekyll was a big surprise for me. But thanks to their distinctive traces and a little bit of detective work, I now know they’re on other Georgia barrier islands, too.

Why look, miniature volcanoes in the middle of a maritime forest on Jekyll Island! Or, could they be something else? (In science, that’s what we like to call an “alternative hypothesis.”) Photo scale (left) in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

These “friends” were conical towers, which look like small lumpy volcanoes (stratovolcanoes, that is, not shield volcanoes), were the traces of freshwater crayfish. A few of the structures, composed of piled balls of sandy mud, also had circular holes in their centers, and they had all seemingly popped out of the forest floor along the edge of a pool of fresh water. All I needed to do to find them was look in the same place where I was first introduced to them, which was by a Jekyll Island resident who knew about their whereabouts.

The towers were 10-25 cm (4-6 in) wide at their bases, 7-10 cm (3-4 in) tall, and each of the rounded, oval balls of sediment was about 1-1.5 cm (0.4-0.6 in) wide. The overall appearance of the towers said “still fresh,” having not been appreciably weathered, and all that I saw in the area looked about the same age. Knowing a little bit about crayfish behavior, I figure they were made just after the last rainfall on Jekyll, maybe a week or so before I spotted them.

Close-up of a crayfish tower, with a circular hole in the center (that’s the burrow). Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island, Georgia.)

Crayfish that dig burrows adjust their depth according to the water table, which they must do to stay alive because they have gills. If the water table drops, they burrow deeper, but if the water table rises, they move their burrows up. For example, where I live here in the metro Atlanta area, crayfish towers often pop up in people’s backyards the day after a hard rain. (This also means that these people need to get flood insurance, because their backyards are on a floodplain. Thus also demonstrating yet another practical reason to know a little basic ichnology.)

Burrowing was (and still is) accomplished by crayfish using their prominent claws (chelipeds) as spades, rolling up the balls of sediment and placing them outside of the burrow entrance, and thus building up towers. But they also smooth out burrow interiors with their bodies through up-and-down and back-and-forth movement, resulting in their burrows having near-perfect circular cross sections. Crayfish burrow systems can be complicated, with vertical shafts connecting the surface with the below-ground parts, which can consist of branching horizontal tunnels and chambers; the last of these can even be occupied by multiple crayfish.

When I first saw these these towers and burrow cross-sections on Jekyll Island in 2008, I immediately knew they were from crayfish. My certainty was because such traces had been described in loving detail by crayfish researchers and ichnologists, linking these directly to their crustacean makers. In fact, just a few months ago, I saw an example of this connection between traces and tracemakers in my home of Decatur, Georgia, where the drying of a human-made pond there caused the crayfish to burrow into the former pond bottom and move about on its sediments in a desperate attempt to stay wet.

A high density of crayfish burrows in a recently drained human-made pond in Decatur, Georgia. Note the similarity of the towers, circular burrow cross-sections, and rounded balls of sediment to those of the Jekyll Island crayfish burrows. Scale with centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

“Are you looking at me?” Crayfish, about 5 cm (2 in) across, and probably a species of Procambarus, copping an attitude while guarding its burrow entrance. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Decatur, Georgia.)

With about 70 species documented in the state, Georgia is quite rich in crayfish diversity, qualifying it and bordering states in the southeastern U.S as a “biodiversity hotspot” for these animals. Freshwater crayfish are also geographically widespread – occurring in North and South America, Europe, Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea – a direct result of plate tectonics, which spread and isolated populations from one another during their evolutionary history.

In terms of that history, these crustaceans (decapods, more specifically) split from a common ancestor with marine lobsters about 240 million years ago, an age based on molecular clocks, which have been integrated with fossil evidence. I’ve also seen trace fossils that look very much like crayfish burrows in Late Triassic rocks, from about 210 million years ago, which suggests that burrowing began in this lineage early in the Mesozoic Era.

In a 2008 article I co-authored and published with six other scientists – three paleontologists and three zoologists – we described fossil burrows in rocks from the Early Cretaceous Period (about 115-105 million years ago) of Australia, and named what is still the oldest fossil crayfish in the Southern Hemisphere, Palaeoechinastacus australanus. In this article, we pointed out how burrowing was an adaptation that likely helped these crayfish survive polar winters in Australia during the Cretaceous, but also how burrowing abilities in general have given crayfish an upper claw, er, hand in making it past environmental crises in the geologic past.

Here’s the oldest known fossil freshwater crayfish in Australia and the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, Palaeoechinastacus australanus (= “ancient spiny crayfish of Australia”), found in 105-million-year-old rocks (Early Cretaceous) of southern Victoria. Not everything is there, but you can see most of its tail to the left and the right-side legs. Specimen is Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

And here’s a bedding plane (horizontal) view of trace fossils attributed to freshwater crayfish burrows, preserved in 115-million-year-old rocks (also Early Cretaceous) near Inverloch, Victoria (Australia). The burrows were filled with sand originally, which cemented differently from the surrounding sediment, making them stand out in positive relief as they weather on the outcrop. Scale = 10 cm (4 in). (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

So how did these crayfish get onto the Georgia barrier islands? Before answering that, I can tell you how they did not get there, which was from people. Because these are burrowing (infaunal) crayfish, and not ones that hang out on lake or stream bottoms (also known as epibenthic), it’s not very likely that humans purposefully introduced them on the islands for aquaculture. Let’s just say that digging up each crayfish burrow, which may or may not contain a crayfish, would require too much work to make crayfish etoufee worth the effort, no matter how good your recipe might be.

Mmmmm, flavorful freshwater decapod concoction [drooling sounds]. But first imagine having to dig up every single crayfish for this dish. Just to prevent this from happening, your recipe should have some qualifying statement, such as, “Make sure to use epibenthic crayfish, not infaunal ones!” (Original image, modified slightly by me, from Wikipedia Commons here.)

Another point to remember about crayfish is that they are freshwater-only animals, incapable of tolerating salt-water immersion, let alone swimming kilometers through marine-flavored waters to reach offshore islands. Yet I’ve seen their traces on Jekyll and two other Georgia barrier islands, and crayfish species have been reported from two additional islands. (For now I won’t say which other islands or identify the probable species of these crayfish until they’ve been properly studied. Sorry.)

What might seem strange to most people, though, is that I still haven’t seen a single living crayfish on any of the Georgia barrier islands. Nonetheless, seeing and documenting their traces is good enough for me to know where they’re living and how they’re behaving. This again demonstrates one of the many advantages of ichnology: you don’t actually have to see an animal to know it’s there, just as long as it leaves lots of identifiable traces.

Oh yeah: almost forgot about the title of this post. What’s my explanation for how the crayfish got to the islands, including Jekyll? I think they lived on the islands before they were islands. In other words, present-day crayfish on the islands descended from ones that originally lived on the mainland part of Georgia, but these were cut off from their original homeland by the last major sea-level rise (well before the current one, that is). This rise started as long as 11,000 years ago, when the last great ice age of the Pleistocene ended, shedding water from continental glaciers and expanding the seas.

So think of a salty moat filling in the low areas between what are now the Georgia barrier islands and the rest of Georgia, with crayfish on either side of it, metaphorically waving goodbye to one another with their claws. In this scenario, the crayfish of the Georgia barrier islands may represent relics left behind and isolated from their ancestral populations. They may have even undergone genetic drift and became new species, or are well on their way to reproductive isolation from their mainland relatives. But that’s just speculation on my part right now. Like I said, these critters need to be studied before anything can be said about them.

All of this neatly illustrates how our knowledge of the geological past ties in with the present, as well as how ichnology can be applied to conservation biology. With regard to the latter, these little muddy crayfish towers exemplify one of the dangers associated with any rapid, careless development of the Georgia barrier islands. What if most people aren’t aware of the unique plants and animals on the islands because at least some of this biodiversity lies below their feet? Without such knowledge, unheeded development may very well wipe out rare or previously unknown species that have been part of the ecological legacy of the Georgia coast for the past 10,000 years.

This is one of many reasons why environmental protection of the islands is still needed, even on semi-developed one like Jekyll. Fortunately, motivated people are working toward such protection on Jekyll, and most other Georgia barrier islands are under some sort of state or federal protection, or privately owned as preserves.

Nice maritime forest you got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

What’s also happened on Jekyll Island is increased ecotourism, highlighted by the success of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. The center, which opened in 2007, has a rehabilitation center for injured turtles, educates the public about sea turtles nesting on the Georgia coast, and helps to monitor turtle nests on Jekyll during the nesting season. And just how is this monitoring done? By looking for tracks of the nesting mothers on the beaches of Jekyll during nesting season, of course. (Say, didn’t I say something previously about using ichnology in conservation biology?)

So can a Jekyll Island Crayfish Center be far behind? Um, no. Still, it’s time to start thinking of species on the Georgia barrier islands and their traces as assets, bragging points that can be used to bolster ecotourism on the coast. Barrier-island biodiversity is an economic resource that will continue to pay off as long as the species survive and their habitats are protected, while simultaneously feeding our sense of wonder at how these species, including burrowing freshwater crayfish, got to the islands in the first place.

Further Reading

Breinholt, J., Ada, M. P.-L., and Crandall, K.A. 2009. The timing of the diversification of the freshwater crayfish. In Martin, J.W., Crandall, K.A., and Felder, D.L. (editors), Decapod Crustacean Phylogenetics, CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida: 343-355.

Hobbs, H.H., Jr. 1981. The Crayfishes of Georgia. Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington, D.C.: 549 p.

Hobbs, H.H., Jr. 1988. Crayfish distribution, adaptive radiation and evolution. In: Holdich, D.M., Lowery, R.S. (editors), Freshwater Crayfish: Biology, Management and Exploitation. Croom Helm, London: 52-82.

Martin, A.J. 2011. Ichnology in a time of climate change: predicted effects of rising sea level and temperatures on organismal traces of the Georgia coast. Geological Society of America, Abstracts with Programs, 43(2): 86. Link here.

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.

P.S. So you’d like to hear more details on the crayfish of the Georgia barrier islands? Well, then you’re going to have to read my book, which starts out Chapter 5 (on terrestrial invertebrate traces) with a section titled The Crayfish of Jekyll Island. Yes, that’s a sales pitch, but you can also request your public library to get it, or borrow a copy from a friend. Which makes this more of a “knowledge pitch.”

Deer on a Beach

In the southeastern U.S., the most common large herbivorous mammal native to this region is the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Accordingly, deer traces, such as their tracks, trails, scat, and chew sign are abundant, easy to identify, and interpret. Some of these traces I discuss in my upcoming book, which has, like, you know, the same title as this blog. (Oh, all right, here’s the link.) But since writing the book, I’ve encountered many more examples of deer traces that surprise me, with implications for better understanding the behavioral flexibility of these mammals.

Yours Truly taking a break from biking to look at some deer tracks on a beach. Yes, that’s right: deer on a beach. Which I’ll take any day over, say, snakes on a plane. (Photograph by Ruth Schowalter, taken on Jekyll Island, Georgia.)

The ecology and ichnology of deer is a big subject, and I began writing a much longer post addressing just that, explored in exquisite detail, with stunningly brilliant insights and witty bon mots sprinkled throughout. Fortunately for all of us, I realized I was being a typical perfectionist (and pedantic) academic, instead of just getting to the point of this post. Thus the gentle reader will be spared such a tome for now, and instead I’ll talk about the cool deer traces my wife Ruth and I encountered while on Jekyll Island (Georgia) last week.

For the past four years, Ruth and I have traveled to Jekyll during our Thanksgiving break for a much–needed escape from teaching, grading, and urban environments of Atlanta, trading these in for wide beaches, beautiful salt marshes, fresh air, and exercise. Like previous years, we took our bicycles with us and spent several days there riding on its plentiful bike trails, or on the beaches at low tide.

Jekyll, unlike most other Georgia barrier islands, is partially developed, with about a thousand residents, and is amenable to tourists staying on the island. This made it convenient for us to pull up on Thursday, check into a hotel, saddle up, and start riding. Of course, we don’t just ride our bikes, but we also look for traces and other interesting tidbits of natural history while speeding along Jekyll’s beaches. For example, last year while riding there, we discovered interesting interactions happening between small burrowing clams, whelks, and shorebirds (links to those here and here), a phenomenon we had never noticed before on other Georgia barrier islands.

This year, on a gorgeous Friday morning on the south beach of Jekyll, we breezed past thousands of human and dog tracks, but grew bored with the ichnological homogeneity wrought by these two tracemakers. But then, something different popped out in the midst of these ordinary, domestically produced ones, prompting us to stop and look more closely. These were deer tracks, and from two deer walking together in the intertidal zone of the beach, where a dropping tide had cleaned the beach surface.

A broad expanse of sandy beach on the south end of Jekyll Island, exposed at low tide, and with two sets of deer tracks pointing downslope and then parallel to the shoreline. Note how these trackways are more-or-less equally spaced from one another, implying that the deer were next to one another and maintained their respective “personal spaces” at this point. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

We had seen deer tracks on Georgia barrier-island beaches before, but these are typically in the upper parts of Georgia beaches, closer to the dunes and above the high tide mark. Hence these trackways were unusual for us, showing an unexpected foray into a habitat that was not life-sustaining at all for these deer: no food, no cover, no bedding material, or other creature comforts provided by the forests and back-dune meadows. Just open beach.

Still, there they were, so we enjoyed this opportunity to figure out what they were doing while there. For one, we wondered exactly when they were on the beach. Fortunately, this was relatively easy to answer, as one of the nicer aspects of tracking animals in intertidal zones of beaches (other than being on a beach, of course) is that their tracks can be aged accurately in accordance with the tides. In this instance, high tide was in the early morning, at 3:43 a.m., and the low tide was at 10:18 a.m. We spotted the tracks at about 11:30 a.m., so it was still low tide then, but rising. The furthest down-beach extent of the deer tracks was in the middle of the intertidal zone. This implied that about three hours had elapsed after the high tide receded sufficiently to allow the deer to travel this far down the beach slope: so at 6:45-7:00 a.m. Dawn that morning was at 7:00 a.m., so their presence in this area just before dawn also synched well with the well-known crepuscular movements of deer.

Two sets of deer tracks, showing them moving downslope from above the high-tide mark (look at the rackline in the bottom third of the photo), and heading toward a runnel before turning to the left and paralleling the surf zone. You may have also noticed where their trackways cross over further down the beach. Say, looks like there’s some differences in their trackway patterns. I wonder why? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

Further evidence of the freshness of these tracks was the moistness of the fine-grained sand, still holding their shape. The morning sunlight had dried them slightly along the edges, and especially the plates or ridges (pressure-release structures) outside of the tracks. The ocean breeze coming out of the east, though, was too gentle to have eroded the tracks, so they looked as if they had been made only a few hours before. Which they had.

Tracking deer doesn’t get much easier than this, folks. Fine-grained and well-packed sand, still moist enough to hold the shape of the tracks and pressure-release structures, gentle wind, and fresh tracks, only about four hours old. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

We backtracked the deer to their entry point on the beach, which was from the eroded scarp of the primary dunes. One deer must have been following the other, as their tracks came together at this point. The lead deer made the decision to step down onto the beach, a drop of a little more than a meter (3.3 ft), and then the second one followed it down.

The decision point, where one of two deer took the lead and stepped down from the primary dunes to the beach (indicated by tracks at top and bottom of the photo). Note the ghost-crab burrow in the middle-right part of the photo, just above the photo scale. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

What was really interesting for me, as an ichnologist and just a plain ol’ tracker, was to see the differences in how they stepped down and moved once both deer were on the beach. Based on the trackway patterns, the lead deer simply took a big step down, landed with little drama, and began moving in a normal (baseline) gait for a deer, which is a diagonal pattern with indirect and direct register (rear-foot track on top of front-foot track on the same side). In contrast, the second deer leaped nearly two meters from the dune scarp to the beach, landed heavily, and broke into a gallop, denoted by a set of four tracks – both rear footprints ahead of both front footprints – followed by a space, then another set of four tracks.

Me taking a closer look at the tracks of the “jumper,” whose first tracks show up just behind me, whereas the other deer preceding it simply took a big step down. (Photograph by Ruth Schowalter, taken on Jekyll Island.)

A contrast in trackway patterns by deer on a beach: one that made a normal, diagonal-walking pattern with direct or indirect register (rear foot registering totally or partially on the front-foot impression), and the other galloping, in which front feet landed, then were exceeded by both rear feet, followed by a suspension phase. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

A close-up of those tracks, in which Deer #1 (right) was strolling relaxedly, not kicking up so much sand, whereas Deer #2 (left) was taking sand with it as it forcefully punched through and extracted its feet from the sand while galloping. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

This stark difference in their gait patterns led me to ask a simple question: why? This is where a bit of intuition came into play, in which I imagined the following scenario:

  • The first deer arrived at the dune scarp first, surveyed the scene, saw no threats in the immediate area, stepped down onto the beach, and walked normally.
  • The second deer, following behind the first, must have temporarily lost sight of the first deer once it stepped off the dune scarp. Not wanting to be left behind, it quickened its pace up to the scarp edge, spied its companion walking nonchalantly down the beach, and jumped.
  • The best way to catch up with its companion from there was to gallop, which it did.

With this hypothesis in mind – that maybe one deer was trying to catch up with the first one to join it – I had to be a good scientist and test it further. Looking down the beach, we saw how the tracks of the walking and the galloping deer eventually crossed one another, with the walking one crossing left, and the galloping one crossing right. Aha! I could use the old tried-and-true method used by generations of geologists, cross-cutting relations! This principle states that whatever cross-cuts another medium (say, a fault cross-cutting bedrock) is the younger of the two events. In this instance, I tracked the galloping deer to where it crossed and stepped on the tracks of the walking deer. Hence it came afterwards, but perhaps only a few minutes later, as the preservational quality of its tracks were identical to the first deer’s tracks. So it was very likely following and trying to catch up with its companion.

Close-up of the where Deer #2 stepped on the tracks of Deer #1 as it tried to catch up. This cross-over point is also where Deer #2 started going to the right of Deer #1, and was on the ocean side of it once they started traveling together, side-by-side. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

Close-up of where Deer #2 stepped on the tracks of Deer #1 as it crossed its trackway, eventually traveling to the right of Deer #1. Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

The tracks went down-slope for a distance further, and at some point turned to the left (north), showing where they walked next to one another, about 1.5 m (5 ft) apart and paralleling the surf zone. Where did they go from there? We don’t know, but I suspect they soon went back up into the dunes and back-dune meadows, just in time to avoid all of the humans and dogs who would be on the beach in the next few hours following sunrise. Still, the tracks conjured a beautiful image, of two white-tailed deer walking down the beach together, side-by-side, as the sun came up over the ocean to their right.

Not wanting to spend our entire morning tracking these two deer, we said, “OK, that was neat,” and got back on our bikes for more riding. Later, though, while reflecting on this lesson imparted by the deer tracks in a paleontological sense, I extended their range back into prehistory. How might such tracks from terrestrial mammals have been preserved in ancient beach sediments?  If they did get preserved, how would we would recognize them for what they were, or would we just assume they must be traces from some marine-dwelling animal (probably an invertebrate)? And even if we did realize these traces came from big terrestrial mammals, would we have the skills to interpret how two or more animals were affecting each others’ behaviors, which we did so easily with modern, fresh tracks directly in front of us, and knowledge of the daily tides and sunrise? This is the power of ichnology, in which these life traces motivate us to move mentally from the present, to the past, and back again.

As it was, we ended up not seeing a deer during the four days we spent on Jekyll. Nevertheless, we came away with a good story of at least two deer, knowing about their almost-secret trip to the beach, just a few hours before our own.

Further Reading

Elbroch, M. 2003. Mammal Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: 779 p.

Halls, L.K. 1984. White-tailed Deer: Ecology and Management. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: 864 p.

Hewitt, D.G. (editor). 2011. Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer. Taylor & Francis, Oxon, U.K.: 674 p.

Webb, S.L., et al. 2010. Measuring fine-scale white-tailed deer movements and environmental influences using GPS collars. International Journal of Ecology, Article ID 459610, doi:10.1155/2010/459610: 12 p.