Rooted in Time

As a paleontologist and geologist, time is always on my mind. Nonetheless, such musings do not always connect with millions or billions of years, the so-called “deep time” that earth scientists love to use whenever shocking people who normally ponder shorter time intervals used when, say, measuring the life of a fruit fly, or the length of a cat-themed video.

Still, sometimes other paleontologists and I also try to interpret brief time spans, such as a few minutes, hours, or years, but ones that elapsed millions of years ago. This is where ichnology comes in handy as a tool, as animal traces in particular – such as tracks or burrows – can give “snapshots” of animal behavior in the context of their original ecosystems. For instance, when I look at a limestone layer that was first laid down 95 million years ago and see burrows in that limestone, I think of it as soft, carbonate-laden mud with many small crustaceans digging into it. This is an instance of where imagination becomes a time machine, helping us to create evidence-based explanations that hopefully can be later honed with further scrutiny and re-imagining. When trace fossils are preserved as an assemblage in the sediments of that past ecosystem, whether it was a soil, lake bottom, or beach, the stories can be told in chronological order.

Throw plants into the mix, though, and they can screw up those linear-time stories to the point where you doubt every earth scientist when they tell a story about an ancient land-based ecosystem. Plants can occupy sediments that are hundreds, thousands, or millions of years old, and if their roots penetrate deep enough into these sediments, they may leave both remnants of their tissues and root traces. These geologically fresh root traces then mix with older animal trace fossils, conjuring the illusion of a contemporaneous community, all living happily together. Only a careful examination of the sediment, and which traces cut across which, would help to unravel the real story.

In the preceding video – taken more than four years ago on Sapelo Island on the Georgia coast – I tell such a cautionary tale of what happens when you assume that the animal and plant traces in an old sediment were made at the same time. (Spoiler alert: You would be wrong.)

For more about this relict marsh and the fascinating lessons we can learn from it, please read Fossils In Progress (which includes a short bibliography) and Teaching on an Old Friend, Sapelo Island. Both posts also discuss how to teach students some of these concepts of interpreting fossilization, paleoecology, and geologic time when in the field.

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.

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.