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!

Horseshoe Crabs Are So Much More Awesome Than Mermaids

Given all of the controversy over a recent cable-TV program, in which its broadcasting channel decided mythical marine animals deserved more air-time than real ones, I thought it was important to highlight one extant animal that never fails to surprise me. This animal’s lineage is more ancient than dinosaurs, reptiles, or even amphibians, with its oldest fossils dating from about 450 million years ago. It is also the largest living marine invertebrate animal you are likely to see on beaches of the eastern U.S. and Gulf Coast. And at this time of year, if you see it crawling around on a beach, it’s because of sex. For the past month or so, this animal has been participating in massive orgies. Pictures of this gamete-laden frenzy somehow made it past prudish censors of Facebook and other social-media sites, titillating prurient invertebrate enthusiasts everywhere and filling them with cockle-warming glee.

Juvenile-Limulid-SapeloBehold, a fine juvenile specimen of the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus)! Although it lives in the ocean, it can walk on land for hours, like some sort of reverse Aquaman, but totally cooler than him. And some day, if this one lives long enough, it will use those legs to walk on land again, but in pursuit of sex. Sounds to me like this animal deserves its own planet. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island, Georgia.)

As you already know from reading the title of this post, I’m talking about horseshoe crabs. More properly known as limulids by real marine biologists and paleontologists, these ultra-cool, über-hip, but totally retro critters are more closely related to spiders than they are to true crabs, but their common name is so, well, common, that scientists just sigh and begrudgingly go along with it for the sake of public communication.

Modern limulids are represented by four species, three of which are in Asia, but the grandest of them all is the Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus. This species is at its largest here in Georgia, which may be a function of the Georgia Bight, an extensive offshore shelf that affords more food and habitat than other areas. How big? I’ve seen some as long as 70 cm (27 in) – tail included – and 40 cm (16 in) wide, big enough to scare both of our cats at home. They grow to these sizes after hatching as little limulids not much bigger than the period on this sentence, an astonishing increase in mass if they make it to adulthood (which most don’t).

Baby-Limulid-TrailThe circuitous trail of a baby limulid, made on a sandflat at low tide. Its body width can be estimated by the width of the interior of the trail, and its body length was slightly more than that, meaning it was smaller than my fingernail. See that central groove? That’s from its tail, but if you want to impress your friends, call it a telson. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island, Georgia.)

Horseshoe crabs are so astounding that I could go on endlessly about all sorts of facts about them. Fortunately for you, gentle reader, other folks have written entire books about them and heaps of popular and scientific articles. (For starters, try going here.) So I don’t want to needlessly duplicate what others have done, and done well. Instead, I’ll focus on my main interest in these animals – their traces – and will regale you with tales of the traces they can make with their tails.

Horseshoe crab tails are spiky projections called telsons. Based on lots of the traces I’ve seen on the Georgia coast and a few direct observations, the main function of a telson is to help a horseshoe crab to get back on its feet after being knocked onto its back. That is, whenever a limulid is upside-down, it immediately start using its telson as a sort of sideways pole vault to lever itself into a less vulnerable position.

Without a telson, an upside-down horseshoe crab is stuck; its legs run furiously, but to no avail. However, with a telson, it can put the pointy end into the sand or mud underneath its body, and push itself up from a surface. This gives a limulid a fighting chance to get back to where it once belonged and start walking. This strategy works best if it turns to its right or left side, as limulids are longer than wide. They may be wonders of nature, but they’re not doing back flips or somersaults.

Limulid-Telson-Windshield-Wiper-TraceA large adult horseshoe crab that was right-side-up when trying to get back to the sea, got tired, and tried to use its telson to move itself along. In this instance, it didn’t work, but the traces made by the telson show its range of motion, working like a windshield wiper. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island, Georgia.)

OK, all of the preceding information I already knew. After all, I have: coauthored an edited book chapter about juvenile limulid traces and their close resemblance to trace fossils made by trilobites; coauthored another article on the history of limulid-trace studies (which go back to the 1930s!) that’s now in review; and devoted a lengthy section of a chapter in my book to limulids as tracemakers. So you could say I’ve been feeling pretty cocky about what I knew about these animals as tracemakers. That is, until one horseshoe crab showed me how much I still need to learn about them and what they can make.

The humility-inspiring traces showed up in a photo on a Facebook page I follow (and so should you), the St. Catherines Island Sea Turtle Conservation Program. The program organizers – Gale Bishop and Robert (Kelly) Vance – regularly add photo albums showing sea turtle traces (trackways, body pits, nests), and otherwise report on other facets of natural history they observe on St. Catherines Island beaches. As a result, I live vicariously through these pictures while marooned in the metro-Atlanta area. But they also like to throw me ichnological stunners once in a while, such as the following photo that Kelly posted last week.

Limulid-Telson-Trace-1Who needs made-up animals on TV when traces like these, made by awesome invertebrates like horseshoe crabs, turn up on a Georgia beach? (Photograph by Robert Kelly Vance, taken on St. Catherines Island, Georgia; scale is about 15 cm (6 in) long.)

Kelly found these traces while patrolling the beaches of St. Catherines Island for other traces, namely those of expectant mother sea turtles. Although these distracted briefly from his mission, I was very happy he stopped to document these, as I had never seen anything like them, despite much looking at traces on Georgia beaches.

The holes in the sand, defining a nearly perfect circle, were made by the telson of an adult horseshoe crab that kept on trying to right itself after landing on its back. Each puncture mark shows where it inserted the telson into the sand and then pushed itself up and to its side. Based on the number of holes, direction of sand flung out of each hole, and little “commas” made by extraction of the telson, it tried to flip itself a minimum of 16 times, and all to the right. These separate actions culminated in a 360° clockwise rotation of its body. Also check out the central depression with smaller drag marks; this is where its head shield was in contact with the sand. To imagine the movement represented by these traces, think of a horseshoe crab doing a slow-motion, step-by-step, break-dance backspin.

Seeing the evidence for such persistence was wow-inducing in itself, but in my ichnologically influenced euphoria, I figured the limulid finally succeeded in righting itself. After all, the trackway just to the left of the trace, indicates where it walked away from the scene of its gravitationally challenged situation.

But then I realized there was no “impact mark.” This large horseshoe crab flipping itself onto the sandy surface should have registered an outline of its body before it started walking. Instead, the place where it started walking showed no such impression, meaning it must have made a soft landing, with only its legs and telson digging into the sand. What happened? Did it use mind over matter and levitate itself through telekinesis? Or was it gently picked up and placed on its feet by a merciful mermaid? (Or merman: let’s make sure we’re being inclusive when talking about made-up stuff.)

It turned out that Kelly was the dues ex machina that entered this limulid’s drama, providing divine intervention just when it was needed. When I expressed my puzzlement to Kelly about how this large arthropod finally turned itself over, he confessed to saving it, in which he lifted it and put it back on its feet, where it promptly walked away in a series of tight spirals. The spiraling is something I’ve seen before in their tracks, a method used to find the downslope direction, which normally leads horseshoe crabs to the low-tide mark and the comfort of a watery environment.

Limulid-Telson-Trace-2Another perspective of the “escape” traces made by the limulid’s telson (background), but this time with its tracks, showing how it started spiraling clockwise in an attempt to make its way back to the sea. Check out those telson drag marks in the trackway, doing a little bit of back-and-forth movement as its owner walked. (Photograph by Robert Kelly Vance, taken on St. Catherines Island, Georgia.)

Limulid-Telson-Trace-3OK everyone, start singing “Born Free!” The spiraling helped this limulid (arrow) to find a downslope direction, which took it in the right direction to the sea. But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops for other limulids, some of which are visible in the background, and look like they’re still stuck. Given the tidal range on the Georgia coast – 2.5-3 m (8.2-9.8 ft) – strong wave energy, and wide beaches, lots of big limulids that come in with the flood tide get knocked onto their backs by waves and left behind. It’s almost as if some sort of natural selection is taking place, and something similar might have happened in the geologic past, affecting the evolution of its lineage. (Photograph by Robert Kelly Vance, taken on St. Catherines Island, Georgia.)

In the last photograph, I was glad to see how the story told by these traces promised a happy ending for this limulid that had so stubbornly tried to put itself back on its feet. Yet when you also notice how many of its compatriots did not make it back into the life-nourishing sea, it also serves as a sobering reminder that storybook endings don’t always happen in nature, and what we wish to be true sometimes isn’t.

In this instance, I don’t know whether this horseshoe crab made it back into the sea to live another day or not. Still, the lesson it left for us in the sand lives on, and I am now slightly more confident that if any limulids were stuck on their backs at any point in their 450-million-year history, made similar traces with their tails, and these marks were preserved as trace fossils, we just might recognize them for what they are. For that alone, I am grateful. Thank you, horseshoe crabs, for being real, making traces, and continuing to share this planet with us today.

(Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Drs. Robert Kelly Vance and Gale Bishop for being my ichno-scouts on St. Catherines Island, and feeding my mind with such tasty treats while I am landlocked.)

Further Reading

Brockmann, H.J. 1990. Mating behavior of horseshoe crabs, Limulus polyphemus. Behaviour, 114: 206-220.

Martin, A.J. Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 692 p.

Martin, A.J., and Rindsberg, A.K. 2007. Arthropod tracemakers of Nereites? Neoichnological observations of juvenile limulids and their paleoichnological applications. In Miller, W.M., III (editor), Trace Fossils: Concepts, Problems, Prospects, Elsevier, Amsterdam: 478-491.

Shuster, C.N., Jr., Barlow, P.B., and Brockmann, H.J. (editors). 2003. The American Horseshoe Crab. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts: 427 p.

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: ]

Shorebirds Helping Shorebirds, One Whelk at a Time

How might the traces of animal behavior influence and lead to changes in the behavior of other animals, or even help other animals? The sands and the muds of the Georgia barrier islands answer this, offering lessons in how seemingly inert tracks, trails, burrows, and other traces can sway decisions, impinging on individual lives and entire ecosystems, and encourage seemingly unlikely partnerships in those ecosystems. Along those lines, we will learn about how the traces made by laughing gulls (Larus altricilla) and knobbed whelks (Busycon carica) aided sanderlings (Calidris alba) in their search for food in the sandy beaches of Jekyll Island.

A roughly triangular depression in a beach sand on Jekyll Island, Georgia, blurred by hundreds of tracks and beak-probe marks of many small shorebirds, all of which were sanderlings (Calidris alba). What is the depression, how was it made, and how did it attract the attention of the sanderlings? Scale = size 8 ½ (men’s), which is about 15 cm (6 in) wide. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Last week, we learned how knobbed whelks (Busycon carica), merely through their making trails and burrows in the sandy beaches of Jekyll Island, unwittingly led to the deaths of dwarf surf clams (Mulinia lateralis), the latter eaten by voracious sanderlings. Just to summarize, the dwarf surf clams preferentially burrowed around areas where whelks had disturbed the beach sand because the burrowing was easier. Yet instead of avoiding sanderling predation, the clustering of these clams around the whelks made it easier for these shorebirds to eat more of them in one sitting. Even better, this scenario, which was pieced together through tracks, burrows, and trails, was later verified by: catching whelks in the act of burying themselves; seeing clams burrow into the wakes of whelk trails; and watching sanderlings stop to mine these whelk-created motherlodes of molluscan goodness.

Before and after photos, showing how the burrowing of a knobbed whelk caused dwarf surf clams to burrow in the same small area (top), which in turn provided a feast for sanderlings (bottom); the latter is evident from the numerous tracks, peak-probe marks, and clam-shaped holes marking where these hapless bivalves formerly resided. (Both photographs by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island, Georgia.)

Was this the only trace-enhanced form of predation taking place on that beach? By no means, and it wasn’t even the only one involving whelks and their traces, as well as sanderlings getting a good meal from someone else’s traces. This is where a new character – the laughing gull (Larus altricilla) – and a cast of thousands represented by the small crustaceans – mostly amphipods – enter the picture. How these all come together through the life habits and traces these animals leave behind is yet another example of how the Georgia coast offers lessons in how the products of behavior are just as important as the behavior itself.

Considering that knobbed whelks are among the largest marine gastropods in the eastern U.S., it only makes sense that some larger animal would want to eat one whenever it washes up onto a beach. For example, seagulls, which don’t need much encouragement to eat anything, have knobbed whelks on their lengthy menus.

So when a gull flying over a beach sees a whelk doing a poor job of playing “hide-and-seek” during low tide, it will land, walk up to the whelk, and pull it out of its resting spot. From there, the gull will either consume the whelk on the spot, fly away with it to eat elsewhere (“take-out”), or reject it, leaving it high and dry next to its resting trace. An additional trace caused by gull predation might be formed when gulls carry the whelk through the air, drop them onto hard surfaces – such as a firmly packed beach sand – which effectively cracks open their shells and reveals their yummy interiors.

Paired gull tracks in front of a knobbed whelk resting trace, with the whelk tracemaker at the bottom of the photo. Based on size and form, these tracks were made by laughing gulls (Larus altricilla). The one on the left is likely the one that plucked the whelk from its resting trace, as its feet were perfectly positioned to pick up the narrow end of the whelk with its beak. The second gull might have seen what the first was doing and arrived on the scene soon afterwards, hoping to steal this potential meal for itself. For some reason, though, neither one ate it; instead, they discarded their object of desire there on the sandflat. For those of you who wondered if I then just walked away after taking the photo, I assure you that I threw the whelk back into water. At the same time, though, I acknowledged that the same sort of predation and rejection might happen again to that whelk with the next tidal cycle. Other shorebird tracks in the photo are from willets and sanderlings. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

Sure enough, on the same Jekyll Island beach where we saw the whelk-surf clam-sanderling interactions mentioned last week, and on the same day, my wife Ruth Schowalter and I noticed impressions where whelks had incompletely buried themselves at low tide, only to be pried out by laughing gulls. Although we did not actually witness gulls doing performing, we knew it had happened because their paired tracks were in front of triangular depressions, followed by more tracks with an occasional discarded (but still live) whelk bearing the same dimensions as the impression.

My wife Ruth aptly demonstrates how to document seagull and whelk traces (foreground) while on bicycle, no easy feat for anyone, but a cinch for her.  Labels are: GT = gull tracks; WRT = whelk resting trace; KW = knobbed whelk; SU = spousal unit; and LCEFV = low-carbon-emission field vehicle. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island, Georgia.)

With this search image of a whelk resting trace in mind, we then figured out what had happened in a few places when we saw much more vaguely defined triangular impressions. These were also whelk resting traces, but they were nearly obliterated by sanderling tracks and beak marks; there was no sign of gulls having been there, nor any whelk bodies. Hence these must have been instances of where the gulls flew away with their successfully acquired whelks to drop them and eat them somewhere else. But why did the sanderlings follow the gulls with the shorebird equivalent of having a big party in a small place?

Yeah, I did it: so what? A laughing gull, looking utterly guiltless, stands casually on a Jekyll Island beach, unaware of how its going after knobbed whelks also might be helping its little sanderling cousins find amphipods. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Although many people may not know this, when they walk hand-in-hand along a sandy Georgia beach, a shorebird smorgasbord lies under their feet in the form of small bivalves and crustaceans. The latter are mostly amphipods (“sand fleas”), which through sheer number of individuals can compose nearly 95% of the animals living in Georgia beach sands. Amphipods normally spend their time burrowing through beach sands and eating algae between sand grains or on their surfaces.

Close-up view of the amphipod Acanthohaustorius millsi, one of about six species of amphipods and billions of individuals living in the beach sands of the Georgia barrier islands, all of which are practically begging small shorebirds to eat them. Photo from here, borrowed from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – a very good use of U.S. taxpayer money, thank you very much) and linked to a site about Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, which is about 30 km (18 mi) east of Sapelo Island, Georgia.

Because amphipods are exceedingly abundant and just below the beach surface, they represent a rich source of protein for small shorebirds. But if you really want to make it easier for these shorebirds to get at this food, just kick your feet as you walk down the beach. This will expose these crustaceans to see the light of day, and the shorebirds will snap them up as these little arthropods desperately try to burrow back into the sand. This, I think, is also what happened with the gulls pulling whelks off the beach surface. Through the seemingly simple, one-on-one predator-prey act of a gull picking up a whelk, it exposed enough amphipods to attract sanderlings, which then set off a predator-prey interaction between the sanderlings and amphipods, all centered on the resting trace of the whelk.

Two whelks near one another resulted in two resting traces, and now both are missing, which likely means they were taken by laughing gulls. Notice how all of the sanderling trampling and beak marks have erased any evidence of the gulls having been there. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Jekyll Island.)

So as a paleontologist, I always ask myself, how would this look if I found something similar in the fossil record, and how would I interpret it? What I might see would be a dense accumulation of small, overlapping three-toed tracks – with only a few clearly defined – and an otherwise irregular surface riddled by shallow holes. The triangular depression marking the former position by a large snail, obscured by hundreds of tracks and beak marks, might stay unnoticed, or if seen, could be disregarded as an errant scour mark. The large gull tracks would be gone, overprinted by the many tracks and beak marks of the smaller birds.

Take a look again at the scene shown in the first photograph, and imagine it fossilized. Could you piece together the entire story of what happened, even with what you now know from the modern examples? I’m sure that I couldn’t. Scale bar = 15 cm (6 in). (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Hence the role of the instigator for this chain of events, the gull or its paleontological doppelganger, as well as its large prey item, would remain both unknown and unknowable. It’s a humbling thought, and exemplary of how geologist or paleontologist should stop to wonder how much they are missing when they recreate ancient worlds from what evidence is there.

Cast (reproduction) of a dense accumulation of small shorebird-like tracks from Late Triassic-Early Jurassic rocks (about 210 million years old) of Patagonia, Argentina. These tracks are probably not from birds, but from small bird-like dinosaurs, and they were formed along a lake shoreline, rather than a seashore. Nonetheless, the tracemaker behaviors may have been similar to those of modern shorebirds. Why were these animals there, and what were they eating? Can we ever know for sure about what other animals preceded them on this small patch of land, what these predecessors eating, and how their traces might have influenced the behavior of the trackmakers? (Photograph by Anthony Martin; cast on display at Museo de Paleontológica, Trelew, Argentina.)

Another parting lesson that came out of these bits of ichnological musings is that all of the observations and ideas in this week’s and last week’s posts blossomed from one morning’s bicycle ride on a Georgia-coast beach. Even more noteworthy, these interpretations of natural history were made on an island that some scientists might write off as “too developed” to study, its biota and their ecological relationships somehow sullied or tainted by a constantly abundant and nearby human presence. So whenever you are on a Georgia barrier island, just take a look at the life traces around you, whether you are the only person on that island or one of thousands, and prepare to be awed.

Further Reading

Croker, R.A. 1968. Distribution and abundance of some intertidal sand beach amphipods accompanying the passage of two hurricanes. Chesapeake Science, 9: 157-162.

Elbroch, M., and Marks, E. 2001. Bird Tracks and Sign of North America. Stackpole Books. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: 456 p.

Grant, J. 1981. A bioenergetic model of shorebird predation on infaunal amphipods. Oikos, 37: 53-62.

Melchor, R. N., S. de Valais, and J. F. Genise. 2002. The oldest bird-like fossil footprints. Nature, 417:936938.

Wilson, J. 2011. Common Birds of Coastal Georgia. University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia: 219 p.