Rewilding a Jurassic World

(Author’s note; The following post is a republished article of mine, originally published on June 12, 2014 by The Conversation and later republished by The New Republic, The Guardian, Quartz, and several other online news sources. However, this post is an embellished version, in which I include a paragraph on dinosaur microbiomes omitted from the original, and it uses my personal photographs and captions to illustrate its points about dinosaur paleoecology. So you might say this is the “director’s cut.” Many thanks to The Conversation editor Nick Lehr for helping turning my rough prose for the original article into one more readable for a general audience.)

Like many moviegoers this summer, I plan to watch Jurassic World. And because I’m a paleontologist, I’ll cheer for the movie’s protagonists (the dinosaurs) and jeer at the villains (the humans). But no matter how thrilling this movie may be, one question will plague me throughout: where are the dung beetles?

Jurassic-Morrison-Landscape-Walters-Kissinger-CarnegieThis mural depicts theropod dinosaurs (foreground) and sauropod dinosaurs (background) as part of a Late Jurassic ecosystem about 150 million years ago. OK, so this ecosystem has some producers (plants), primary consumers (herbivores, the sauropods), and secondary consumers (carnivores, the theropods). What’s missing from this picture that would be needed to make this a real, functioning ecosystem? If you said “Dung!” and “Dung beetles!,” you’re on the right track. (Mural by Robert F. Walters and Tess Kissinger (Walters & Kissinger) at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Dung beetles – which are beetles that eat and breed in dung – would be only one of many ecological necessities for an actual Jurassic World-style theme park. Yes, cloning long-extinct dinosaurs is impossible. But even if dinosaur genomes were available, the animals couldn’t simply be plopped anywhere.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say an extremely wealthy corporation did manage to create a diverse bunch of dinosaurs in a laboratory. The next step in building a Mesozoic version of Busch Gardens would be figuring out how to recreate – and maintain – the dinosaurs’ ecosystems. Accomplishing this goal would require a huge team of scientists, consisting (at minimum) of paleontologists, geologists, ecologists, botanists, zoologists, soil scientists, biochemists and microbiologists.

Such a team then would have to take into account countless interacting factors for the dinosaurs’ recreated habitats. And perhaps they could take a page from rewilding efforts that are currently taking place throughout the world.

In a memorable scene from the original Jurassic Park, paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler examines an impressive heap of an ill Triceratops’s feces to look for digested remains of a toxic plant.

One of my favorite scenes in Jurassic Park (1993), when Dr. Ellie Sattler (played by Laura Dern) affirms her Ph.D. (= “Piled Higher and Deeper”) by unhesitatingly plunging her hands into a massive pile of Triceratops feces. Please note her sensible footwear, suitable for running away from theropods planning to add her to the local food web.

Here, the filmmakers touched on a key challenge for recreating an environment from a different geologic period. Many modern plants have evolved defenses against herbivores, which include toxins that can swiftly impair any animal that hasn’t adapted to them. Consequently, a time-traveling Triceratops would be taking a big risk with every visit to its local salad bar.

Paleobotanists could try to solve this problem by cataloging fossil plants that lived at the same time as plant-eating dinosaurs, before picking out descendants of those plants that are still around today. Still, plant lists will never be good enough to say whether or not a Triceratops, Stegosaurus, or Brachiosaurus ate those plants or if they could eat their descendants.

The same might hold true for carnivorous dinosaurs, which – for all we know – may have been picky eaters. For instance, although some Triceratops bones hold tooth traces of Tyrannosaurus, there’s no way to be sure a genetically engineered Tyrannosaurus would eat an equally inauthentic Triceratops (even if it were organic and free-range).

Triceratops-Tyrannosaur-Toothmarks-2 copyDid tyrannosaurs ever eat Triceratops? Oh yeah, and with gusto. Tooth trace fossils in Triceratops hip bones (red arrows) happen to match the dental records of Tyrannosaurus rex, which lived as the same time (Late Cretaceous, 65-70 million years ago) and place (western North America) as Triceratops. Also think about how much meat was covering that hip bone, which means the Triceratops must have been dead when this tyrannosaur was helping to recycle its body into the ecosystem. (Specimen in Museum of the Rockies and photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Yet another food-related dilemma is that we also are not quite sure how most dinosaurs digested what they ate. For instance, many modern animals – from termites to humans – require a suite of gut bacteria to break down and assimilate nutrients from food. Even if microbiologists somehow successfully recreated the microbiome of a dinosaur, how would you prevent it from acquiring modern gut parasites? Dinosaur coprolites (fossil feces) tell us that some dinosaurs had gut bacteria and parasites: but how to engineer the right bacteria and exclude the wrong parasites?

So despite a century of dinosaur flicks portraying tyrannosaurs and other predatory dinosaurs gratuitously munching humans, one bite of our species – or other sizable mammals – might make them sick. In other words, there’s no accounting for taste.

The lack of dung beetles in that same scene with Dr. Sattler also may have explained why the Triceratops’s feces were piled so high. We know from fossil burrows in dinosaur coprolites that dung beetles fed on dinosaur droppings at least 75 million years ago. Similarly, Late Jurassic dinosaur bones from nearly 150 million years ago hold the traces of carcass-eating insects.

Hadrosaur-Coprolite-Dung-Beetle-BurrowsA large, 75-million-year-old coprolite – attributed to the hadrosaur Maiasaura – filled with digested plant debris, but also with dung-beetle burrows. One burrow is sliced length-wise and runs diagonally (upper right to lower left), and another is in cross section and pointed toward you (upper right). Specimen is from the Museum of the Rockies but was part of a traveling display at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in the late 1990s. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Termite-Borings-Dinosaur-Bone-DNMLate Jurassic (about 150 million-year-old) dinosaur bone with insect borings, which are credited to carcass- and bone-eating insects that used these bones for food or breeding soon after the dinosaur was dead. Specimen on display at Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, Utah. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

This makes sense: wastes, bodies and other forms of stored matter and energy must be recycled in functioning modern ecosystems. Accordingly, to maintain the productivity of these dinosaurs’ ecosystems, animals that perform essential services to the ecosystem would need to be introduced. These include pollinators, such as bees, beetles and butterflies, as well as seed dispersers, like birds and small tree- and ground-dwelling mammals. Thus Masrani Global – the imaginary corporation tasked with creating Jurassic World – should have added entomologists (insect scientists), ornithologists and mammalogists to the career opportunities page on its mock website.

Can we learn anything useful from such fanciful reconstructing of long-gone ecosystems, where large animals once roamed? Sure. In so-called “rewilding” projects, imagination meets real science. These projects, which attempt to restore ecosystems by closely mimicking their previous iterations, often include reintroducing locally extinct animals.

Perhaps the most famous and successful of such rewilding projects began just after the release of the original Jurassic Park. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Although admittedly not as exciting as releasing a pack of velociraptors into the woods, the reintroduction of wolves – which had been extirpated from the area earlier in the 20th century – had a dramatic restorative effect.

Wolf-Tracks-Lamar-YellowstoneIf you looked for these tracks in Yellowstone National Park before the original Jurassic Park came out in 1993, you would have been disappointed. They’re from gray wolves (Canis lupus) and are signs of a now-thriving population of these apex predators reintroduced to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1995, which has since caused big changes there. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

After the wolves gorged on elk – which, without predators, had overpopulated the region – riverine foliage grew more lushly. This prevented erosion and expanded floodplains, which gave beavers a better habitat to get to work damming rivers. A similar experiment is taking place in Europe, where increased numbers of large carnivores, such as wolves, bears and lynxes, are reshaping their ecosystems closer to their original states.

Bolstered by these successes, rewilding proponents have even proposed reintroducing elephants, lions, cheetahs and other animals to parts of North America as ecological proxies to mammoths, American lions and American “cheetahs” that lived only a little more than 10,000 years ago in those areas. Given the much shorter elapsed time since their extinction, enough similar species today and no need for genetic engineering, a “Pleistocene Park” – Pleistocene being the geological epoch that was about 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago – would be far easier to achieve than a Jurassic World (while also being more alliterative).

Pleistocene-Park-YellowstoneYou want a “Pleistocene Park”? Here’s a start, with herds of large primary consumers (Bison bison, otherwise known as “bison”) and grasslands in Yellowstone National Park, which overlap in range with secondary consumers wolves and grizzly bears. Now just add some elephants, lions, cheetahs, and a bunch more dung beetles, and you should be set. Wait a minute: you say the National Park Service wouldn’t approve of that? Oh well, one step at a time. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

So to any corporations out there that are thinking of making such a park, do us a big favor: whatever you do, don’t forget to include dung beetles.

Flight of the Quahogs

Let’s try a science-education experiment. Give a child a live clam and ask, “Can this animal fly?” and I predict her or his answer – accompanied by much giggling – will be “No!’ But if you ask, “Can you fly?”, the answer may change, especially if this child has already flown on an aircraft. So of course humans can fly, but to do this, they require machines, paragliders, or other technological aids in order to move through the air and – this is important – arrive on the ground safely.

Shattered-Quahogs-Pier-Jekyll-IslandFor clams that try to fly, they end up with more than shattered dreams. How did these clams (Mercenaria mercenaria, also known as quahogs or “hard clams”) end up doing Humpty-Dumpty impressions on a wooden pier? Please read on. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island, Georgia.)

In a similar way, clams can fly. They just need a little help from other animals that can fly and willingly give them a temporary lift from the earth they and their molluscan relatives have known for all of their evolutionary history. Compared to most of our forays into the air, though, these flights are much more limited. Clam aerial exploits are brief and mostly vertical, with little time for them to appreciate the view from above or otherwise experience unusual sensations. They go up, then they come down, and fast.

Clams do not have landing gear. So they can hit the ground hard, especially if their free fall happened after a lengthy trip up into the air and the ground surface is hard: think of a sandflat at low tide, a paved parking lot, or a wooden boardwalk. A a result, the most common end to clam flights is a shattered shell, which is quickly followed by the demise of the clam as it is consumed by the very same animal that bestowed it with flight, however brief and self-serving.

Impact-Trace-Seagull-Clam-DropTraces of a unidirectional vertically oriented clam flight (otherwise known as “falling”) that did not end well for the clam, but worked perfectly for the flying animal that took it for a ride. Notice the impact trace on the hard sandflat, outlining the ribbed shell of the clam (probably Dinocardium robustum) and bits of shell. Most of the probably-still-alive-but-definitely-dying animal  was dragged off to a nearby spot so that its soft parts could be eaten by the same perpetrator that took it for a ride. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island, Georgia.)

So just what flying animals do such dastardly deeds, taking hapless clams up for a ride, only to drop them to a certain death? By now the gentle reader has probably figured out birds are responsible for this blatant bivalvicide, and some may have already known that seagulls are the most likely culprits. In some coastal areas and during low tides, some seagulls fly over exposed sandflats and mudflats, searching for the outlines of clams buried below the surface. These avian ichnologists then swoop down, land, pick up the clam with their beaks, take off, and then once high enough, they drop them, serving up instant raw clam on the half (or quarter, or eighth) shell. Typically all that is left is a jigsaw puzzle of clamshell pieces and the seagull perpetrator’s footprints, but with the latter only evident on muddy or sandy surfaces amenable to preserving tracks.

Seagull-Tracks-Eaten-ClamIchnological evidence of who killed the clam, provided by the tracks a laughing gull (Larus altricilla).The other half of the shell was broken by its falling onto the sandflat elsewhere, then the gull carried its clam on the half-shell to a more scenic place for its meal. (Photo by Anthony Martin, taken on Little St. Simons Island, Georgia.)

I found this behavior so compelling that I started my book Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (2013) with a story about a laughing gull (Larus altricilla) and the traces of its unwitnessed predation on an Atlantic cockle (Dinocardium robustum), seagull behavior on the Georgia coast. I was not the first person to note this method of clam-smashing by seagulls, as it has been documented by other scientists in parts of the U.S. and abroad, and has been caught on video. Amazingly, though, despite more than 15 years of visiting the Georgia coast, I had never actually witnessed seagulls dropping clams. instead I had only performed post-mortem forensics, in which I would find broken clamshells on hard sandflats accompanied by seagull tracks, telling tales of murder most fowl.

Video footage of a western gull (Larus occidentalis) picking up a clam, flying up about 10 meters (> 30 feet), and dropping it onto rocks to crack it open. After this doesn’t work the first time – and after shooing away a potential clam-stealing rival – it tries again, and is presumably successful. It’s almost as if this gull is using a scientific methodology, isn’t it? (The videographer is only credited as ‘Trisera’ on the YouTube page, and I don’t know where it was filmed, but suppose it’s on the western coast of the U.S.)

Seagull-Cockle-Predation-DiagramHere’s the first illustration a reader will see in my book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (2013, Indiana University Press), which I drew to provide a visual forensic analysis of how an Atlantic cockle met its demise at the hands of – er, I mean, wings and bill of – a laughing gull. Part (a) depicts the gull landing after recognizing the outline of the cockle from the air, stopping, and extracting it from the sandflat. Part (b) shows where the cockle was dropped and broken successfully, accompanied by the gull landing and trampling the area as it enjoyed its clam dinner.

This meant I was more than overdue to get visual confirmation of gulls killing clams, which was finally granted just a few weeks ago during a recent trip to Jekyll Island (Georgia). It was the day after I had given an invited talk at the annual meeting of The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island environmental group, and while my wife Ruth and I were relaxing before leaving the island, but of course were also observing whatever nature we could.

In that spirit, and while sitting on a deck on the west side of the island and looking at a mudflat (in between swatting sand gnats), we noticed a seagull flying about 10 meters (>30 feet) above a wooden pier. At one point, it paused its ascent, and we saw an object fall from its mouth and down toward the pier. Thunk! We clearly heard the impact of the object correlate with what we saw, and with much excitement realized that we had just witnessed seagull clam-cracking for the first time.

Jekyll-Island-Mudflat-Dead-Clams A mudflat replete with mud snails (probably Ilyanassa obseleta), grazing away and making gorgeous meandering trails on the western side of Jekyll Island (Georgia). But wait, what are those big white chunks on the same surface?

Dead-Clams-Mudflat-Jekyll-IslandWhy, look at that: hard clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) in an unnatural state, i.e., disarticulated, broken, and dead on the surface of the mudflat. These clams normally burrow into and live under the mud, and usually manage to stay intact if they stay below the surface. The pieces of clams here must have bounced off the wooden pier, which is casting a shadow in the lower right-hand side of the picture. (Both preceding photographs by Anthony Martin and taken on Jekyll Island, Georgia.)

What was most surprising to me about this broken-shell assemblage on the pier was how it was represented only by the hard clam, or quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria). These thick-shelled clams are quite common in sparsely vegetated muddy areas of salt marshes, burrowing into the mud and connecting their siphons to the surface so that they can filter out suspended goodies in the water during high tides. During low tides, however, they become vulnerable to avian predation. Despite being “hidden” in the mud, somehow the seagulls spotted them from the air, landed next to them on the mudflat, and pulled them out of the mud. They then used the nearby pier as an anvil, and the clam’s hard, thick shell unwittingly became its own hammer when they hit the pier after falling from a fatal height.

Shattered-Quahogs-Jekyll-Pier-MartinThe horror, the horror: a clam killing “ground,” thoughtfully supplied by humans for seagulls in the form of a long, hard, wooden pier. (Photograph by Ruth Schowalter and Yours Truly for scale, taken on Jekyll Island, Georgia.)

OK, now it’s time to think about broken clams and deep time. If you found such an assemblage of broken shells of the same species of thick-shelled clams in a geologic deposit, how would you interpret it? Would you think of these broken shells as predation traces, let alone ones made by birds? Which also prompts the question, when did seagulls or other shorebirds start using flight and hard surfaces to open clams? Did it evolve before humans, and if so, was it passed on as a learned behavior over generations as a sort of “seagull culture”?

All of these are good questions paleontologists should ask whenever they look at a concentration of broken fossil bivalves that are all of the same species, and overlapping with the known geologic range of shorebirds. In short, these may not be “just shells,” but evidence of birds using gravity-assisted killing as part of their predation portfolio.

Tales of Trails by Seahorse Tails

I’ve always been a big fan of aquariums. Having grown up in the landlocked Midwest and not seeing an ocean with its bountiful life until I was 20 years old, I am still drawn to the old-school charm of big tanks filled with salt water and populated by exotic fish and other sea critters. These environments, however artificial, never fail to inspire awe and wonder. Even better, they often teach me something new and relevant each time I pay closer attention to what they hold.

Seahorse-Making-Resting-TraceA seahorse, of course, is not a horse. But that’s not the only way seahorses differ from horses, in that they leave trails instead of tracks. Intrigued? Yeah, me too. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken at the UGA Aquarium, Skidaway Island, Georgia.)

Nonetheless, I also have a “problem,” which manifests itself whenever I’m at an aquarium, walking along a beach, sitting on a park bench, driving down a  road, or, well, conscious. As an ichnologist, I’m constantly looking for animal traces. Then once found, I study these traces carefully so that they may inform me whenever I see similar traces in the fossil record. But because I’m a land-dweller and rarely have the opportunity to snorkel or scuba-dive, aquariums come in handy for observing traces of aquatic animals I might not often see. Particularly helpful are aquariums in which the people caring for them were kind enough to include sand on their bottoms (the aquariums, that is).

So last weekend, while leading a class field trip to the Georgia coast and after a wonderful boat ride to Wassaw Island and back, I eagerly joined my students in viewing a salt-water aquarium. This particular venue was the UGA Aquarium (UGA = University of Georgia, Athens) is maintained by the UGA Marine Extension Service (MAREX) on Skidaway Island, Georgia. Our visit was especially satisfying because we were there on a Sunday afternoon, when the aquarium is closed to the public. This luxury afforded us plenty of room and quietude, qualities that are rumored to enhance learning.

Within just a few minutes of entering the main room, one tank to the right caught my eye, and not just because of its pretty colors, but for its denizens and traces on the sandy bottom of that tank. It contained seahorses, fishes that are so odd compared to other fishes, we humans had to compare them to hoofed domesticated mammals. The best part of all, though, was that this tank had lots of intersecting grooves and circular imprints on its sandy surface, which no doubt had been made by the seahorses.

Seahorse-Making-TrailA seahorse (Hippocampus sp.) showing off its lack of swimming skills by moving along the sandy bottom of a tank. Gee, what are all of those meandering and intersecting grooves in the sand and circular imprints? I wonder what made those? Sorry, first guess doesn’t count. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken at the UGA Aquarium, Skidaway Island, Georgia.)

All seahorses are under the genus Hippocampus, which consists of more than fifty species. Evolutionarily speaking, they are ray-finned fish (actinopterygians) and share a common ancestor with pipefish and sea dragons (Sygnathidae). The oldest known fossil seahorses are in Miocene Epoch rocks, from about 13 million years ago. Besides their equine-like profiles, they are well known for their prehensile tails, which can either grasp onto algae, sponges, or corals, or curl up underneath them as they swim.

However, seahorses are never going to inspire bets at underwater race tracks, as they are among the slowest-swimming of fish, propelled mostly by tiny pectoral fins while moving upright. Still, they don’t need to be fast, as they are very successful predators, with about 90% accuracy in nabbing fast-swimming small crustaceans that get too close to their mouths. Seahorses also don’t need to swim away from larger predatory fishes that might wish to pick them from a seafood menu. Whenever seahorses attach to algae and corals, they sway in harmony with their temporary hosts, effectively blending in with their surroundings.

One point I keep in mind whenever visiting an aquarium, zoo, or other such enclosures is how these can alter so-called “normal” behaviors of their animals. In this instance, the smaller space of this tank, combined with little material for attachment, meant these seahorses were more likely to swim along its bottom then they might in an open ocean. Accordingly, they had made lots of traces in the sand: mostly undulating grooves, but a few circular impressions from their curled tails plopping onto one side or the other.

Seahorse-Making-Trail-2A seahorse making tail trails while swimming along the bottom of an aquarium. Notice how the trail would become less linear, wider, and more circular if the tail flops over to one side or another, involving a greater area of the curled end. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken at the UGA Aquarium, Skidaway Island, Georgia.)

Seahorse-TrailsA close-up of those trails left by swimming seahorses dragging their tails along a sandy surface. Also, check out the overlapping circular “plop” traces on the right, made by the curled part of the tail? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken at the UGA Aquarium, Skidaway Island, Georgia.)

What’s the take-home message of these observations for ichnologists, geologists, and paleontologists? That experience matters, as does questioning preconceived notions about what we might observe from the geologic record. Take a look at the preceding photo, and tell me – quite honestly – that your very first interpretation of the tracemakers would have been “fish,” let alone “seahorse.” Instead, I think nearly everyone (yes, me too) would have reached for the easiest answer, which would have been “worm trails,” similar to how geologists reflexively apply “worm burrows to anything small, tubular trace fossil they encounter at an outcrop. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So next time when looking at rocks formed in marine environments – whether from the last 13 million years or much older – and these rocks host lots of “worm trails” on their surfaces, ask yourself who else could have made such trails, and how. Reach beyond easy and ordinary explanations, and imagine. Oh, and when you go to aquariums, don’t just look at their sea-life, but also the traces of the sea-life in them.

Acorns, Mighty Oaks, and Raccoons

Despite more than 15 years of visiting the Georgia coast, studying its traces, and taking students on field trips to its barrier islands, I always marvel at how each trip is different, bestowing new insights and lessons to both me and my students. So a trip there this past weekend was no exception, and perhaps the most intriguing phenomenon I encountered during it was of some “mere” scrapings in a sandy road on Wassaw Island, Georgia.

Raccoon-Scrapings-Acorns-WassawWho needs a Mystery Date when you can have a Mystery Trace? Here we have some enigmatic scrapings in a sandy road on Wassaw Island, Georgia. What could have made these, and why? (Photograph by Anthony Martin; scale in centimeters.)

Wassaw Island is a National Wildlife Refuge, and I’ve mentioned it before as the one island of the Georgia coast that most closely approaches the ideal of “pristine,” a label blithely applied to nearly any Georgia barrier island regardless of how much humans had modified their landscapes. Current estimates are that it Wassaw only about 600 years old, which means that Native Americans had barely populated it by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Thus whenever I teach my biannual Barrier Islands class, I like to include a field trip to Wassaw Island so my students can appreciate the close-to-natural state of its ecosystems. We then contrast their experiences there by visiting overdeveloped Tybee Island on the same weekend, giving my students the opportunity to think about “before and after” conditions of Georgia barrier-island ecosystems.

Even better for my students, our leader for the field trip to Wassaw was not me, but John “(“Crawfish”) Crawford, one of the most knowledgeable naturalists on the Georgia coast. Employed by the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service on Skidaway Island, John regularly takes groups on an open boat to Wassaw Island for day trips. These trips never disappoint for the sheer variety and richness of natural history learned along the way, whether on the boat trip there and back, or on the island itself. I’ve been to Wassaw four times with John as a guide, and each time with him have seen something novel there. (I mean, how often do you see a decapitated seagull?)

Wassaw-Interior-HikingInto the Woods, Wassaw Island style! With our intrepid guide (John “Crawfish” Crawford) leading the way into the maritime forest of Wassaw, my students were in for a world of discovery on this beautiful Georgia barrier island. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Just one example from this most recent trip I’d like to share are traces I have never before seen, or, more likely, never before noticed. We encountered it while walking down a sandy road on Wassaw used more often by deer and alligators than humans. The traces were systematic and widespread scrapings of the top few centimeters of the road, some of which resolved themselves as curved to linear features with finer grooves in their interiors. Because they did not match the feeding traces of feral hogs (Sus scrofa) or nine-banded armadillos (Dasypus novemcinctus), I was intrigued. Who made these, and why?

Raccoon-Scrapings-Acorns-WassawJust in case you missed it the first time, here’s that photo again. Yes, this will be on the exam: why do you even ask?

A closer look revealed the traces were overlapping sets pf five evenly spaced grooves, corresponding with five thin-fingered hands. These could only belong to the most dextrous, industrious, and resourceful denizens of maritime forests and other environments on the Georgia coast, raccoons (Procyon lotor). When I queried John about these traces, he confirmed that not only were they made by raccoons, but also were a result of their “mining” the sand. The raccoons, using their front paws, methodically raked the loose sand to expose shallowly buried acorns dropped by the many old and mighty oaks lining the road, indulging in an all-you-can-eat acorn feast.

DSCN4416Close-up of the same mystery trace seen in the previous photo, but this time more groovy. Check out the curving, parallel set of five grooves (left) and the partial track (right), telling us that a masked bandit left its mark. (Photograph by Anthony Martin; scale in centimeters.)

Although raccoons are infamously omnivorous, in winter months they depend on acorns for much of their diet. Thus considering that the Georgia coast was still in winter, and that a sub-freezing cold front had just passed through the area a few days before, it was not surprising to see this evidence of extensive acorn foraging.

OK, time to replace my floppy coastal-geologist hat with my more stylish paleontologist hat to ask this question: Would such traces preserve in the geologic record, and if so, would they be recognizable for both the tracemaker (raccoon) and behavior (foraging)? Probably not for both, as the loose quartz-rich sand in a maritime forest would have few chances of being buried intact and cemented in a way that would “freeze” the details needed to discern both tracemaker and its intent. Yet these traces would lend some insights to interpreting disturbed zones in the upper parts of fossil soils, especially those that might have preserved acorns or other nuts in them.

So next time you’re in a maritime forest during the winter and come across some odd scrapings in the road, take a closer look and ask yourself a few questions about them. Who made them? Why did they make them? How do these traces relate to the broader ecology of the area? Would they be preserved in the fossil record, and if so, could we properly interpret them? Then ask yourself what you’ll find next time you go to the same place and look just a little bit closer.

Jurassic World’s Trailer Traces

One of the most momentous events of the post-Jurassic world happened last week with the online release of the official trailer for the upcoming movie Jurassic World. Yet within mere hours of its release, a great wailing and gnashing of teeth arose from dinosaur nerdom, as professional paleontologists and fervent paleo-fangirls and paleo-fanboys alike jumped onto it like a ravenous pack of naked, oversized, bunny-handed velociraptors (or deinonychosaurs: whatever).

Jurassic-World-ToothOwen (Chris Pratt): “Looks like a large theropod dinosaur tooth.” Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard): “That’s not going to tell us anything. Why don’t you look at its toothmarks right next to you?” That’s just one small sample of how I would rewrite the Jurassic World script from an ichnological perspective, neatly repairing its reputation as a scientifically accurate film while retaining blockbuster entertainment value. (This still image and all others in this post were stolen shamelessly from the Jurassic World trailer.)

You see, this trailer – which lasted for all of 161 seconds – contained 257 scientific inaccuracies, which comes out to about 1.6 errors/second. OK, maybe I just made up that number, much like how some people make up movie plots, scripts, and characters. Nonetheless, the trailer had scenes depicting featherless theropods, elephant-skinned sauropods, and a non-dinosaur mosasaur that was far too big, had a frill on its back, and a non-forked tongue. It’s almost as if these were genetically recreated monsters, and not the original animals from the Mesozoic Era. Oh, the waste! Oh, the humanity!

Anyway, let’s talk about something that really matters, like traces. As far as I know – and like many others on the Internet, I plan to stay ignorant of anything that might add to my present knowledge – not one of those paleo-critics, or even the critics of the paleo-critics, mentioned the totally awesome and epic traces shown in this trailer. This egregious oversight once again reinforces my oft-asserted point that ichnology is the Rodney Dangerfield of paleontology.

So that’s why I’m here, to enlighten the masses and convert y’all to the Church of Ichnology, where there’s no tithing, dancing and drinking are required, and you can leave the church any time you feel like it. I’ve also covered this beat before, having reviewed the ichnology of Jurassic Park, which was an entire movie, not just a trailer. Even better, I know a little bit about dinosaur ichnology, having just written a book on that topic (Dinosaurs Without Bones, if you must know).

What traces in are in the trailer, you ask? The first ones shown are at 1:39, revealed with a shot panning up a concrete wall. There on the wall are sets of three more-or-less parallel scratches, some straight and some curved. The scratches vary in lengths, and a few cross-cut each another. In one set the scratches are not parallel, but form more of a fan pattern.

Jurassic-World-Wall-Scratches-1I knew it was worth sitting through the first 1:30 of this trailer – check out those scratch patterns!

Of course, the preceding picture means little to an ichnologist unless it has a scale. I mean, were these from Compsognathus, or something a lot bigger? Fortunately, at 1:47, Chris Pratt provides a means of comparison by placing his hand on one of the scratches, and it looks like his three middle fingers approximate the width of that mark.

So let’s assume his hand proportions are about 1.4 times the size of mine, a supposition that can only be tested by the two of us having a beer together. (Hey, it could happen.) Accordingly, we will name this conversion factor the Chris Pratt Manual Ratio™ (CPMR). My three middle fingers bunched together are 5 cm (2 in) wide, which, after multiplying it by the CPMR, would make this scraping about 7 cm (2.75 in) wide. The spaces between the scratches seem to be about twice as wide, or 15 cm (5.5 in). This would make the entire set – three scratches and the two spaces between them – 51 cm (20 in) wide. These are twice as wide as some of the biggest known theropod dinosaur tracks. Or, as I like to say whenever I encounter grizzly-bear scratches on trees: “That ain’t no squirrel.”

Jurassic-World-Wall-Scratches-3Put your hands on the traces, and feel their healing power and redemption! Repeat the Holy Trinity of the Church of Ichnology with me: Substrate, Anatomy, and Behavior! Amen, brothers and sisters!

Based on my detailed study of these traces for at least two minutes (perhaps less), as well as Chris Pratt’s concerned gaze following these scracthes up the wall, I am interpreting them as traces made by three claws on the feet and hands of its tracemaker, with the wider sets coming from feet and the narrower ones from hands. Overall, these traces would be anatomically appropriate for theropod dinosaurs, many of which had three digits on its feet and hands with sharp claws. Moreover, this would have been a theropod dinosaur with impressively endowed forelimbs, sufficient for helping to pull it up a wall (sorry, T. rex).

Big-Three-Toed-Foot-With-Claws-Jurassic-WorldWhy, that looks like an enormous three-toed foot with robust claws on their ends, and in motion as it chases the presumed protagonist of Jurassic World. Who could’ve predicted that, based on mere ichnologically based foreshadowing?

The behavior of the tracemaker can also be interpreted by looking for where the “feet” traces cross-cut the “hand” traces on the wall. This pattern would have been made by an upward movement of the tracemaker as it climbed the vertical surface. In short, these are escape traces, and they were made by a very large theropod-like dinosaur. To his credit, Chris Pratt’s character (“Owen”) totally got this.

Jurassic-World-BonesChris Pratt isn’t just a Guardian of the Galaxy and a dinosaur handler: he’s also an ichnologist. (By the way: what’s with the bones behind him that don’t have any toothmarks on them? And why aren’t my paleontologist friends outraged about that unforgivable error?)

Any other traces in the trailer? Oh yeah, and it’s a good one. At 1:51, Bryce Dallas Howard (“Claire”) picks up a hardhat that clearly was not hard enough to prevent serious brain leakage in its former wearer. The trace is a sharply defined gouge that nearly cleaves the hardhat into two half-hats. This trace is either from a claw or tooth, but because it’s by itself, I’m going to surmise it was from a single strategically employed claw. How wide was the claw? We can figure that out by using the Bryce Dallas Howard Pollex Ratio™ (BDHPR) of 1.0, which assumes her thumb is the same width as mine, 2.2 cm (0.9 in). (Yes, I have petite thumbs. You have a problem with that?)

Based on this unit of measurement, the split seems to be at least three times her thumb width, or minimally 6.6 cm (2.6 in) wide. Which, incidentally, is about the same width as the scratches left on the concrete wall, which I also interpreted as coming from claws, and which neatly connects the escaped “dinosaur” to this heinous act committed on what was no doubt an out-sourced employee who did not have health insurance. Coincidence? No, it’s ichnology!

Jurassic-World-Hardhat-PunctureHey, this hardhat is defective! Let’s check the warranty. Yup, sure enough: “Does not cover hybrid dinosaur attacks.” But at least we got a cool trace out of it.

So despite all of the problems my paleontological colleagues justifiably noted for the dinosauroid animals depicted in the trailer, I am encouraged that Jurassic World will have enough ichnology in it to persuade me to leave a buttock-shaped impression on my theater seat in June 2015. But there had better be tracks, nests and feces in it, otherwise you’ll see my footprints going straight out of the theater.

(For other “ichnology at the movies” posts by Yours Truly, also check out The Ichnology of Pacific Rim and The Ichnology of Godzilla.)

Groovy Trace Fossils at the SVP

After an undramatic (but still tiring) trip from Atlanta, Georgia to Berlin, Germany, I’m happy to be attending the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting (SVP) in Berlin. The meeting – with talks, posters, and various social events – officially begins today (Wednesday, November 5) and continues through Saturday, November 9, but like all good paleontology meetings, it also has field trips before and afterwards.

Aside from my being with more than a thousand other paleontologists, exchanging information about the latest research, and enjoying good German beer while learning about this research (all of these are connected, I assure you), one of the main reasons why I am so far from Georgia is to present some of my research, too. It’s very much in the preliminary stages, but my coauthors and I thought it would be good to put this work out for other paleontologists to examine, poke, prod, and otherwise leave their impressions on it before we present it in a formal, peer-reviewed paper. I’ll be providing pictures and words expressing our work in a poster session today.

Groovy-Trace-Fossils-Cedar-Mountain-FormationSeries of small grooves in an Early Cretaceous (about 100 million-year-old) sandstone in Arches National Park, Utah (USA). Notice how they make radiating patterns, too. Do you wonder what made these trace fossils? If so, join the club. My coauthors and I take a semi-educated guess, which is just below for your reading pleasure. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in June 2012; scale in centimeters.)

The following abstract summarizes the work, but the preceding picture might help, as does this one-sentence summary at the start of the poster:

Linear grooves in Early Cretaceous sandstone beds of the Early Cretaceous (Aptian-Albian) Cedar Mountain Formation are likely feeding trace fossils made by a beaked vertebrate, such as a pterosaur or bird.

VERTEBRATE FEEDING TRACE FOSSILS IN THE CEDAR MOUNTAIN FORMATION (LOWER CRETACEOUS), ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UTA (USA): BIRD, PTEROSAUR, OR UNKNOWN TRACEMAKER?

MARTIN, Anthony J., Emory University, Atlanta, GA, USA, 30322; KIRKLAND, James I., Utah Geological Survey, Salt Lake City, UT, USA; MILNER, Andrew R.C., St George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, St. George, UT, USA; SANTUCCI, Vincent L., National Park Service, Washington, DC, USA.

ABSTRACT

Abundant linear grooves on sandstone bedding planes of the Ruby Ranch Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation (Lower Cretaceous) in Arches National Park (Utah, USA) are interpreted as feeding traces made by a beaked vertebrate, such as a bird or pterosaur. These grooves have regular lengths (15.7 ± 2.0 mm), widths (3.4 ± 0.3 mm), and depths (1.5 ± 0.7 mm; n = 30), indicating a common origin related to the behavior and anatomy of their tracemakers. The trace fossils are either: solitary, bundled together as parallel groups of 4-8 grooves, or form semi-circular to circular patterns of 35-70. Bundles forming arc-like patterns are 13-15 cm wide. Grooves are on the same surface with runzelmarken, invertebrate trails, tridactyl theropod tracks, and a didactyl dromaeosaurid track. Forms and patterns of these features do not correspond to any known inorganic structures or invertebrate traces, nor traces made by fish. Thus they are considered as trace fossils made by either birds or pterosaurs. Runzelmarken and laminations imply that algal films bound sedimentary surfaces and helped to preserve these trace fossils and their associated theropod tracks. Hence the grooves may have been grazing traces, in which tracemakers gouged just underneath and parallel to algal films by using hard body parts, such as beaks. If so, beaks would have been 3-4 mm wide and groove lengths would have been linked to beak length and neck movement. The diameter of the semicircular and circular patterns suggests that the tracemakers were relatively small vertebrates. Arc-like patterns of clustered grooves could have been made by the tracemaker standing in one spot or shifting laterally to systematically mine the surface. However, no pes tracks were observed in direct association with these grooves. Hence the traces also may have been formed.

Many thanks to my coauthors – Jim Kirkland, Andrew Milner, and Vincent Santucci – for their help on this research, which hopefully will get a little bit of the attention it deserves here in Berlin. Stay tuned this week for more ichnologically related posts, which I’ll try to write and publish in between all of the aforementioned enjoyable exchanges and German beer.

Traces of the Red Queen

The seagull looked peaceful on that beach, lying on its left side with its eyes closed. Yet it was a permanent quietude, as only its head was there.

This disembodied head stuck out as a white spot with a red edge, perched on top of a pile of dull-brown, dead cordgrass. The torso so recently connected to this head was nowhere to be seen, and I could find no tracks belonging to the gull or any other animal nearby. It looked as if it had been placed there as an object of art, ready for erudite admirers – wine glasses in hand – to comment on its broader themes and nuanced metaphors. To a ichnologist, though, it also spoke of a sudden death, and one likely dealt by a aerial predator.

Seagull-Head-Decapitated-WassawThe place where I saw this gruesome sign was on Wassaw Island, Georgia. Wassaw is the only island on the Georgia coast that was never logged or otherwise developed by European or Americans, hence it retains a more primitive feel compared to most other Georgia islands. You can only get there by boat, and in this instance our boat captain and guide – John Crawford – had taken our field-trip group there to learn about its unique natural history. Because of its intact environments and general lack of human influence on the landscape, I was not surprised to see something new on Wassaw. However, I haven’t seen anything like this since.

Within minutes of arriving on the island, this beheaded seagull presented a little mystery for us. As mentioned before, tracks and the rest of the body were not visible, nor were any droplets of blood around its head, either. Moreover, its dry feathers and the freshness of its fatal wound – a clean severing of its neck vertebrate – also meant it had not washed up on shore. Where did it die, and how did it get there?

After ruling out the land and sea, we looked above the beach, and realized that the attack must have been delivered up there, in the air. We then imagined what could have possessed the bulk, ferocity, and other means to chop through a seagull’s neck while in flight. The list of suspects was a short one, and we quickly narrowed it down to one: a bald eagle.

Our hypothesis was not so far-fetched, as bald eagles don’t just eat fish, but also kill and eat other birds, including gulls. This meant the seagull head we saw that morning was very likely a result of bird-on-bird predation. Extending this a bit further into the evolutionary pasts of these birds, it reflected a time when when their non-avian dinosaur ancestors killed and were killed by similar behaviors, but on the ground.

How did birds evolve flight from non-flighted theropod ancestors? No doubt one of many selection pressures exerted on non-avian dinosaurs was predation. Any means for increasing the likelihood of escape from predators also bestowed a greater probability for passing on genes coding for that “escaping trait” to the next generation of not-quite-flighted dinosaurs.

Of course, flight has evolved for many uses in birds. Nevertheless, making a quick getaway from mortal peril is still one of them. Yet flight has also been used as a means for enhancing predation in the birds that kill other birds, exerting new and different selection pressures on prey. This example of an evolutionary back-and-forth “arms race” between predators and prey is often nicknamed the Red Queen hypothesis, named after Lewis Carroll’s character in Alice in Wonderland. Only now I will change her line (said to a fleeing Alice) about running in place:

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.

to a more avian-appropriate one:

Now, here, you see, it takes all the flying you can do to keep in the same place.

Still, In this Georgia-coast example, a more appropriate literary allusion would have been to the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, a decapitating character famous for uttering the line, “Off with their heads!” In this sense, the Red Queen and Queen of Hearts meet in the arms race between predators and prey.

Will this “Red Queen of Hearts” scenario happen again during eagle and seagull conflicts? Yes: that is, unless the seagulls’ descendants adapt, which may be followed by the eagles’ descendants adapting to these changes. And on it goes, this evolution of the now blending with the then, a reminder that these days of the dead affect those of the living, as well as those not yet alive.

Slow Worms at Wormsloe

Every time I visit the Georgia coast, traces that have been there all along make themselves apparent to me for the first time. One would think these personal discoveries would stop happening after more than fifteen years (on and off) of going to that coast and studying its traces, especially after writing a 700-page book about them (Life Traces of the Georgia Coast). Nevertheless, they happen, and when they do, these insights underscore the importance of doing regular field work in the same places. However familiar it might seem, there’s always something different you missed previously while there. So before each trip to the Georgia coast, I make sure to become wide-eyed and expectant, rather than jaded and bored.

Intersecting-Worm-Trails-Wormsloe-1Mysterious trails in a sandy road, crossing and re-crossing paths. What could have made them? And why so many? If curious, read on. If not, I’ve heard there are some Web sites with pictures of cats that require your viewing. (Photo by Anthony Martin, taken at Wormsloe Historic Site, Georgia.)

The latest example of this exercise in place-based humility happened just a little more than a week ago during a short time at Wormsloe Historic Site, south of Savannah, Georgia. Sarah Ross, the President and Director of the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History, invited me there to give a nature walk and talk to guests at a private event on the evening of Saturday, October 11. After the walk and talk (which was a big success), we all watched lovely and enlightening story-telling by a local Gullah/Saltwater Geechee performance group (The Saltwata Players), had a delicious dinner, partook in great conversations fueled by nice wine, and I got to sell and sign copies of the book I mentioned earlier. In short, the proverbial good time was had by all.

My wife Ruth and I stayed in a guest cabin on the grounds of the former plantation that night; in morning, I got up just before dawn to start tracking and otherwise looking for traces. In the dimness, only a few raccoon and deer tracks stood out on the sandy roads, as well as a pile of scat that had been inside a feral hog only a few hours before. A nearby salt marsh beckoned, and because the low tide had exposed its banks, I walked out onto a nearby dock for better views of its exposed surfaces. The dark mud was pockmarked by thousands of holes, most belonging to mud-fiddler crabs and other burrowing invertebrates that call this place home.

Salt-Marsh-WormsloeA small part of the salt marsh at Wormsloe Historic site where it abuts the maritime forest, and during low tide. See all of those holes in the foreground? I wonder what those might be?

Salt-Marsh-Wormsloe-BurrowsEach and every one of these holes is the burrow of a small marine-adapted animal – fiddler crabs, polychaete worms, and more. In other words, an ichnologist’s dream come true. (Photos by Anthony Martin.)

Less than a hundred meters from this dock is the home of Craig and Diana Barrow. Mr. Barrow is the ninth-generation heir of Wormsloe, but donated its grounds to the state of Georgia so that it could become a natural laboratory for researchers studying its environmental history. Ruth and I were acquainted with the Barrows from two previous visits to Wormsloe, and Craig – a great outdoors enthusiast – had eagerly given us personal tours of the woods, fields, and marshes on the property.

Having hunted for most of his life, Craig is a good tracker, and we’ve had in-depth discussions on animal-track forms, trackway patterns, aging of tracks, scat, and related topics. I find these conversations refreshing. Academic hierarchies, journal articles, impact factors, grant amounts, and other dull concerns become meaningless when you’re in the field with experienced naturalists. Here are some traces. Let’s learn.

Thus as the dawn light started to illuminate the maritime forest, I was not surprised to see Craig already outside his home, and to have him enthusiastically invite me to hop onto a golf cart with him to go look for tracks. He had already been out earlier on one of the sandy roads near his house and spotted three red foxes, so he wanted to check on whether their tracks were there, too. Within minutes, we arrived at the spot where he saw the foxes, and we quickly confirmed his sighting by identifying their fresh tracks in the loose sand on the road.

That was also about when Craig asked me a question that I answered wrong at first, then corrected once I gathered more data. You know, like any good scientist should. His question was “What’s this?”, and he was referring to a thin, shallow, and meandering groove in the sand. “Beetle trackway,” I answered instantly, without looking too closely. Then I squatted to show him the tiny tracks that would be on each side of the groove, where I imagined the beetle had dragged its abdomen.

Worm-Trail-Wormsloe-4Oh look, a beetle trackway, and right next to the tracks of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes)! How exciting! Gee whiz, I gosh-darn love science! Isn’t it neat? Wait a minute: what’s that earthworm doing at the end of a beetle trackway? (Photo by Anthony Martin, taken at Wormsloe Historic Site.)

That’s when I realized there were no tracks on either side of the groove. This was a trail made by a legless animal. “Wait a minute, this isn’t from a beetle,” I said. “Maybe a worm?” And by “worm,” I meant earthworm, but my small amount of experience with identifying earthworm traces made me a little uncomfortable with elaborating further on that idea. After all, I didn’t want to appear too ignorant about such common animals, and ones I had written about in both my book and on this blog (Of Darwin, Earthworms, and Backyard Science and Darwin, Worm Grunters, and Menacing Moles).

Fortunately, an earthworm saved me from further embarrassment by having the decency to be at the end of one of these trails, moving and otherwise actively demonstrating how these traces had been made. With our eyes and brains properly (and instantly) trained by this association between trace and tracemaker, Craig and I glanced around us. We were rewarded for looking, and promptly became astonished. The road was criss-crossed with hundreds of earthworm trails for as far as we could see, and most of them had living worms at their ends.

Even better, a few of these trails connected to open, small-diameter vertical burrows. My second insect-biased mistake of the morning was to initially identify these burrows as the shafts of halictid bee burrows. However, too many earthworm trails connected directly to these holes. Again, like any good scientist should in the face of contradictory evidence, I changed my mind. These traces were also from earthworms, and showed where the earthworms exited their subterranean homes.

Vertical-Burrow-Worm-WormsloeEarthworm burrow marking exactly where it left its home for the surface world, and intersecting a trail. (Photo by Anthony Martin, taken at Wormsloe Historic Site.)

What really surprised me, though, was the length and complexity of the trails. These were not simple meandering paths, but complicated records of earthworm decision making. These worms may have been slow, but their traces certainly weren’t dull.

Worm-Trail-Wormsloe-2This trail was made by one earthworm that moved from right to left. The pointed grooves on either side of the main trail are from where its “head” and “tail” ends probed the sand.

Worm-Turning-Wormsloe-1Here’s an earthworm in action, moving from right to left. Compare this to the next photo to see how movement of both its forward and rear ends changes the trail, putting newer traces on top of the previously made ones.

Worm-Turning-Wormsloe-2See what I mean? Small but multiple movements from both ends of a worm – as well as its middle – make this much, much more than just a “worm trail.” So don’t be calling it that. (Photos by Anthony Martin, taken at Wormsloe Historic Site.)

Yes, I know, there’s a bigger question that looms over all of this ichnological minutiae: Why were so many worms on top of the ground, instead of in it? What could have caused hundreds of them to leave their homes and risk the perils of dehydration and predation at the surface?

I speculated aloud that their mass stranding might have been related to vibrations imparted to the road. After all, Charles Darwin had noted how earthworms reacted like this to subsurface vibrations, associating these with their mortal enemies, burrowing moles. This was independently verified by “worm grunters” of the Appalachians, who took advantage of earthworm-mole co-evolution to get bait for their fishing. Craig backed up my idea by saying that he had grated the road the previous day. So perhaps the vibrations from his vehicle and activities had persuaded the earthworms to come up and out of the ground.

Later, though, I wondered whether another much larger stimulus had invoked such aversive reactions in the earthworms, one that persisted for more than a day after the road had been grated. What else could have done this, impelling these earthworms to flee, much like urban hipsters sensing the first few notes of a nearby Justin Bieber concert, and leaving spilled PBR’s in their wake?

Then it came to me. A full moon that weekend had caused higher tides than normal in the area, ranging from 2.6 to 2.9 m (8.5-9.6 ft). As a result, saltwater probably crept high enough in the soil profile to trigger a collective reaction in the earthworms, which do not fare well once salty water starts filling their homes. Yes, that would do it.

Salt-Marsh-WormsloeHi, terrestrial earthworms. Remember me? I’m a salt marsh with 2.5-3 m high tides, right next to where you live.

Assuming this hypothesis is correct, what we saw there on that sandy road of Wormsloe Historic site was a great example of a marine ecosystem forcing animals living in a terrestrial ecosystem to drastically change their behaviors. Best of all, these animals made a suite of traces that reflected this sudden change in their behaviors. If preserved in the fossil record, such trails and burrows might even be recognizable to geologists and paleontologists, some of whom are quite fond of calling every invertebrate trace fossil a “worm burrow” anyway.

All in all, this field experience at Wormsloe taught me a lesson about keeping my senses open to noticing and wondering about traces wherever I go, as should you, gentle readers. Look for those moments when the worm has turned: they will teach you something new.

Worm-Trail-Wormsloe-1

Fossil Visions in the Two Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Burrowing Wasps and Baby Dinosaurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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