Tracking Wild Turkeys on the Georgia Coast

Of the many traditions associated with the celebration of Thanksgiving in the U.S., the most commonly mentioned one is the ritual consumption of an avian theropod, Meleagris gallopavo, simply known by most people as “turkey.” The majority of turkeys that people will eat this Thursday, and for much of the week afterwards, are domestically raised. Yet these birds are all descended from wild turkeys native to North America. This is in contrast to chickens (Gallus gallus), which are descended from an Asian species, and various European mammals, such as cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats (Bos taurus, Sus scrofa, Ovis aries, and Capra aegagrus, respectively).

Trackway of a wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) crossing a coastal dune on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Notice how this one, which was likely a big male (“tom”), was meandering between clumps of vegetation and staying in slightly lower areas, its behavior influenced by the landscape. Scale = 20 cm (8 in). (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

American schoolchildren are also sometimes taught that one of the founding fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, even suggested that the wild turkey should be elevated to the status of the national bird, in favor of the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). With an admiring (although I suspect somewhat facetious) tone, he said:

He [the turkey] is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

There are eight of us, and only one of you. Do you really want to mess with us? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Cumberland Island, Georgia.)

Unfortunately, because I live in the metropolitan Atlanta area, I never see turkeys other than the dead packaged ones in grocery stores. Nonetheless, one of the ways I experience turkeys as wild, living animals is to visit the Georgia barrier islands, and the best way for me to learn about wild turkey behavior is to track them. This is also great fun for me as a paleontologist, as their tracks remind me of those made by small theropod dinosaurs from the Mesozoic Era. And of course, as most schoolchildren can tell you, birds are dinosaurs, which they will state much more confidently than anything they might know about Benjamin Franklin.

Compared to most birds, turkeys are relatively easy to track. Their footprints are about 9.5-13 cm (3.7-5 in) long and slightly wider than long, with three long but thick, padded toes in front and one shorter one in the back, pointing rearward. In between these digits is a roundish impression, imparted by a metatarsal. This is a trait of an incumbent foot, in which a metatarsal registers behind digit III because the rear part of that toe is raised off the ground. The short toe is digit I, equivalent to our big toe, but not so big in this bird. Despite the reduction of this toe, its presence shows that turkeys probably descended from tree-dwelling species, as this toe was used for grasping branches. Clawmarks normally show on the ends of each toe impression, and when a turkey is walking slowly, it drags the claw on its middle toe (digit III), thus making a nicely defined linear groove.

Wild turkey tracks made while it was walking slowly up a gentle dune slope, dragging the claw on the middle digit of its right foot, making a long groove. Also notice the bounding tracks of a southern toad (traveling lower right –> upper left), cross-cutting the turkey tracks. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Cumberland Island.)

A normal walking pace (right foot –> left foot, left foot –> right foot) for a turkey is anywhere from 15-40 cm (6-16 in), and its stride (right foot –> right foot, left foot –> left foot) is about twice that, or 30-80 cm (12-32 in), depending on the age and size of the turkey. Their trackways show surprisingly narrow straddles for such wide-bodied birds, only 1.5 times more than track widths. This is because they walk almost as if on a tightrope, with angles between each step approaching 180°; so they still make a diagonal pattern, but nearly define a straight line. However, turkeys meander, stop, or change direction often enough to make things interesting when tracking them. Their flocking behavior also means their tracks commonly overlap with one another or cluster, making it tough to pick out the trackways of individual turkeys. However, in such flocks, the dominant male’s tracks are noticeably larger than those of the females or younger turkeys, so these can be picked out and help with sorting who’s who.

Turkey trackway in which it walked across the wind-rippled surface of a coastal dune on Cumberland Island, meandering while moseying. Same photo scale as before. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

An abrupt right turn recorded by a turkey’s tracks. Check out that beautiful metatarsal  impression in the second track from the right, and how the claw dragmark in the thrid track from the right points in the direction of the next track. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

One of the more remarkable points about these Georgia barrier-island turkeys, though, is how their tracks belie their stereotyped image as forest-only birds. Although they do spend much of their time in the forest, I’ve tracked turkeys through broad swaths of coastal dunes, and sometimes they will stop just short of primary dunes at the beach. So however difficult it might be to think about these birds as marginal-marine vertebrates, their tracks overlap the same places with ghost-crab burrows and shorebird tracks. Geologists and paleontologists take note: this exemplifies the considerable overlap between terrestrial and marginal-marine tracemakers that can happen in coastal environments. This also happened with dinosaurs that strolled onto tidal flats or otherwise passed through marginal-marine ecosystems.

Turkey tracks heading toward the beach, with the open ocean visible just beyond. Is this close enough to consider turkeys as marginal-marine tracemakers? (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Do these turkeys also have an impact on the dunes themselves? Yes, although these effects vary, from trackways disrupting wind ripples to more overt changes to the landscape. For instance, one of the most interesting effects I’ve seen is where they’ve caused small avalanches of sand downslope on dune faces. Interestingly, this same sort of phenomenon was also documented for Early Jurassic dinosaurs that walked across dry sand dunes, which caused grainflows that cascaded downhill with each step onto the sand.

Grainflow structure (arrow), a small avalanche caused by a turkey walking down a dune face. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Close-up of grainflow structure (right) connected to turkey tracks, which become better defined once the turkey reached a more level surface. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Cumberland Island.)

What other traces do turkeys make? A lot, although I’ve only seen their tracks. Other traces include dust baths, feces, and nests. Dust baths, in which turkeys douse themselves with dry sediment to suffocate skin parasites, must be awesome structures. These are described as 50 cm (20 in) wide, 5-15 (1-3 in) deep, semi-circular depressions, and feather impressions show up in those made in finer-grained sediments. Although such structures would have poor preservation potential in the fossil record, I hold out hope that if paleontologists start looking more at modern examples, they are more likely to find a fossil dust bath, whether in Mesozoic or Cenozoic rocks.

Turkey feces, like most droppings from birds, have white caps on one end, but are unusual in that these can tell you the gender of their depositor. Male turkeys tend to make curled cylinders that are about 1 cm wide and as much as 8 cm long (0.4 X 3 in), whereas females make more globular (not gobbular) droppings that are about 1 cm (0.4 in) wide. These distinctive shapes are a result of their having different digestive systems. Turkeys are herbivores, so their scat normally includes plant material, but don’t be surprised to see insects parts in them, too. Still think about how exciting it would be to find a grouping of same-diameter cylindrical and rounded coprolites in the same Mesozoic deposit, yet filled with the same digested material, hinting at gender differences (sexual dimorphism) in the same species of dinosaur maker.

Turkeys normally make nests on the ground by scratching out slight depressions with their feet, but evidently this is a flexible behavior. On at least one of the Georgia barrier islands (Ossabaw), these birds have been documented as building nests in trees. Although this practice seems very odd for a large, ground-dwelling bird, it is an effective strategy against feral hogs, which tend to eat turkey eggs, as well as eggs of nearly every other species of bird or reptile, for that matter. Just to extend this idea to the geologic past, ground nests are documented for several species of dinosaurs, but tree nests are unknown, let alone whether species of ground-nesting dinosaurs were also capable of nesting in trees.

As everyone should know from their favorite WKRP episode, domestic turkeys can’t fly. But wild turkeys can, and use this ability to get into the branches of live oaks (arrow), high above their predators, or even curious ichnologists. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Cumberland Island.)

So whether or not you have tryptophan-fueled dreams while dozing later this week, keep in mind not just the evolutionary heritage of your dinosaurian meal, but also what their traces tell us about this history. Moreover, it is an understanding aided by these magnificent and behaviorally complex birds on the Georgia barrier islands. For this alone, we should be thankful.

Paleontologist Barbie, tracking wild turkeys on the Georgia coast to learn more about how these tracemakers can be used as modern analogs for dinosaur behavior and traces, and once again demonstrating why she is the honey badger of paleontologists. (Yes, photograph by me, and taken on Cumberland Island. P.S. Happy Thanksgiving!)

Further Reading

Dickson,J.G. (editor). 1992. Wild Turkeys: Biology and Management. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: 463 p.

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

Fletcher, W.O., and Parker, W.A. 1994. Tree nesting by wild turkeys on Ossabaw Island, Georgia. The Wilson Bulletin, 106: 562.

Loope, D.B. 2006. Dry-season tracks in dinosaur-triggered grainflows. Palaios, 21: 132-142.

A Mirror Less Distant in Time

(This post is the third in a series about my recent field experiences in Newfoundland, Canada in association with the International Congress on Ichnology meeting (Ichnia 2012) in August, 2012. The first dealt with the unusualness of the Ediacaran Period and the second was about the transition from the Ediacaran to the Cambrian Period for burrowing animals.)

The Ordovician Period, a time represented by rocks from 488-443 million years ago, is an old (and I mean, really old) friend of mine. In my master’s thesis, I studied Ordovician fossils from southwestern Ohio, and for my Ph.D. dissertation, I described and interpreted Ordovician trace fossils and strata in Georgia and Tennessee. Thus for the formative years of my academic career, the Ordovician had a strong presence in my life, overshadowing most other geologically inspired opportunities in my adopted home state of Georgia.

Nice outcrop, eh? It’s composed of Lower Ordovician sedimentary rocks, formed more than 450 million years ago, and is on Bell Island, just offshore from St. Johns, Newfoundland (Canada). It’s a place I had never visited before last month, but its trace fossils took me back to Georgia. How? Guess you’ll have to read some more to find out. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

This Ordovician-dominated worldview contrasted with a much later focus on the present-day Georgia barrier islands. Between when I first arrived in Georgia, in 1985 through 1998, my only foray to its coast was a three-day field trip as a graduate student to Sapelo Island in 1988. Fortunately, I’ve been a more regular visitor to Sapelo and other Georgia barrier islands throughout the past 14 years or so, and my geologic perspective has accordingly traveled more than 400 million years forward to study modern plant and animal traces.

However, as I’ve embraced the present and the lessons it offers, what also happened over those years was a personal distancing from the Ordovician. This separation was unfortunate for several reasons. One is that Ordovician body and trace fossils are a mere 1.5-2 hour drive from where I live in the metropolitan Atlanta area, just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In contrast, the Georgia coast takes a minimum of four hours to reach by car.

Granted, northwest Georgia was part of my dissertation field area, so my leaving behind a place already prospected, poked, prodded, and otherwise inspected thoroughly more than 20 years ago is understandable and forgivable. Yet a day trip there with a colleague last spring (March 2011), along with a recent field trip to view Ordovician rocks in Newfoundland, Canada last month, reminded me of what was in my geological backyard, while also provoking new thoughts about the intersections between the Ordovician and the Georgia coast.

So what happened during those 20+ years of not studying the Ordovician rocks close to me in Georgia? Well, I gained lots more experience, went to many places with rocks and trace fossils of varying ages, and thus – I like to think – became a better ichnologist. So that leads to an imperiously pronounced statement, so please read it, take it in, and revel in its truth: Ichnology is a skill-based science.

People who study the earth sciences have an old saying, often stated during field trips to students: “The best geologist is the one who’s seen the most rocks.” The same sentiment might be applied to ichnologists. To excel as an ichnologist, it’s not your publication record (let alone impact factors of journals publishing your work), the number or size of your grants, accolades of your peers, “big-idea” review papers, erudite tomes, or any number of trappings imposed by academia that matter. What really matters in becoming a better ichnologist is how many traces you’ve seen, measured, sketched, journaled, photographed, pondered, argued over, and folded into your consciousness.

Hey, look – it’s ichnologists, trying to learn more by studying trace fossils in the field! (Photograph by Ruth Schowalter, taken on Bell Island, Newfoundland, Canada.)

Sure, peer review from your colleagues is still an important part of this learning process. Otherwise, as a tracking instructor once told me and other nascent trackers, “When you always track by yourself, you’re always right.” You don’t want to be that ichnologist who gets things wrong, then insists every other ichnologist is wrong, while also imagining that they’re teeming with jealousy over your brilliance. You know, the “they laughed at Galileo, too” fallacy.

Behold my genius! Only I can clearly see these are the tracks of an eight-legged river otter. Oh, so you think they’re from two four-legged otters, with one following the other? Dolt! Don’t you know who I am?

So am I the best ichnologist? Not just no, but hell no. The acknowledged master of ichnology is Dolf Seilacher. And the main reason I enthusiastically bestow Dr. Seilacher with a crown of back-filled and spreiten-laden burrows is because of the extraordinary amount of experience he has as an ichnologist. Granted, he’s also done all of that academic-type stuff that persuades far less-accomplished members of tenure-review committees to nod their heads with utmost seriousness and say, “Well, I suppose we can make an exception in this case.” But he also has seen, measured, sketched, journaled, photographed, pondered, argued over many, many trace fossils during his 87 years on this planet. Dolf knows traces.

Dolf Seilacher, the widely hailed master of ichnology in the world. Even when he’s wrong, he’s really good at it. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Krakow, Poland.)

So let’s go back to the Ordovician, and how it relates to Dolf and my claim about the importance of experience in ichnology. In 1997, I invited Dolf to visit Emory University as a distinguished speaker in an evolutionary biology lecture series we had then (since gone defunct, like many things at Emory). Because he had never before visited Georgia, he insisted that we also arrange a field trip for him to see some trace fossils here. So with my friend and colleague, Andy Rindsberg, we organized a day trip to an outcrop near Ringgold, Georgia to look at the Ordovician trace fossils there. Andy had done his master’s thesis on the Ordovician and Silurian trace fossils in that area, and as mentioned earlier, I had done my Ph.D. dissertation about the Ordovician rocks, in which I interpreted them mostly through an ichnological lens.

Dolf Seilacher in Georgia (USA) for the first time in November 1997, coffee in one hand and a trilobite burrow in the other. See all of those Ordovician rocks in the background? Even though he’d never been there before, he noticed trace fossils in them in less time than most of us take to read a Huffington Post headline. Gee, you think it had anything to do with his experience? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia. And just so you know, no paleontologists were “Dolfed” in this photo.)

Andy and I knew the rocks and their trace fossils at this outcrop better than anyone in the world. Yet within five minutes of arriving at the outcrop, Dolf laid his hand on a large slab of Ordovician rock and began talking matter-of-factly about the trilobite burrows in it. Andy and I looked at each other, and said (almost simultaneously), “Trilobite burrows?”

Dolf was right. This rock and many others there were filled with circular, back-filled burrows, which were made by small trilobites that burrowed into mudflats more than 400 million years ago. During a futile attempt to disprove him the following year, Andy and I  found these burrows connected to trackways, and one even ended in a resting trace, perfectly outlining the body of a small trilobite. (Did I mention Dolf was right?)

Burrow (upper right, circular structure) connected to tracks made by little legs from a little trilobite. Trace fossils are on the bottom of a sandstone from the Upper Ordovician Sequatchie Formation of northwest Georgia. Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Later on that same day, we looked more carefully at some other fossil burrows at the outcrop. These broad, banana-shaped trace fossils were ones that Andy and I had noted in our respective studies, called Trichophycus. Dolf continued his trilobite–tracemaker theme, insisting that these were also trilobite burrows. This idea was supported by scratchmarks on the burrow walls, which linked the burrows to the small legs of whichever arthropod lived in the burrows. Again, trilobites made sense as the tracemakers, and we haven’t yet found a reason why this would be wrong.

Trusted field assistant Paleontologist Barbie, pointing to a cluster of Trichophycus (interpreted as trilobite burrows) in the Sequatchie Formation of northwest Georgia. She is pointing to some scratchmarks on the burrow walls, which are preserved in natural casts of the burrows. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Almost 13 years later, in March 2011, Andy and I went back to this same Ringgold outcrop to re-study the trace fossils there, done in preparation for a presentation he gave the next month at a regional Geological Society of America meeting (abstract here). He and I were surprised at how much the outcrop had changed since we last visited. Vegetation, particularly of the thorny variety, covered the ground and impeded our progress. Nonetheless, we found many excellent examples of trilobite burrows (Trichophycus), a beautiful trilobite resting trace (Rusophycus), and, for the first time for either of us, a sea-star resting trace.

Resting trace of a trilobite (Rusophycus), with a small part of its trackway leading to the trace, in the Upper Ordovician Sequatchie Formation of northwest Georgia. These trace fossils are preserved as natural casts on the bottom of a sandstone, so you’re seeing the underside of where the trilobite hunkered down more than 400 million years ago. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Resting trace of a sea star (Asteriacites) in the Upper Ordovician Sequatchie Formation of northwest Georgia. This trace fossil, like that of the trilobite resting trace, is also preserved as natural casts on the bottom of a sandstone, so you’re looking underneath where the sea star moved into the mud. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Our discovery of the latter two trace fossils – the trilobite and sea-star resting traces – took me from the Ordovician to the Georgia coast and back again. Throughout the late 1980s, I recall my Ph.D. advisor, Robert (“Bob”) Frey placing many of his articles in my graduate-student mailbox, all of which dealt with the traces of the modern Georgia coast. That’s odd, I thought. What did the traces of the modern Georgia coast have to do with these 440-million-year-old rocks?

In my limited worldview at the time, I did not see that the Georgia barrier islands and their traces composed a mirror, however removed by time, for looking into that Ordovician past. But eventually, given enough articles read, field work done, and trace fossils examined at these Ordovician outcrops, I slowly realized these 440-million-year-old rocks had been formed in estuaries, similar to those along the Georgia coast. When I first published an article about these rocks and their trace fossils in 1993 (link here), these strata represented the oldest known estuary deposits in the world, and some of the trace fossils could be readily compared to those on the Georgia coast. The beauty of this realization was that Frey, a master ichnologist in his own right and a contemporary of Seilacher, had allowed me to discover it for myself: he just provided the clues.

Remember that small, circular trilobite burrow with tracks connecting to it? Now compare it to the same sort of traces made by a modern beach mole crab (Albunea paretii), which left its burrow on the right, walked to the left, and is here rapidly burying itself in the sand. Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island, Georgia.)

Resting trace and attached trackway of a juvenile horseshoe crab (or limulid, specifically Limulus polyphemus). So think about a similarly sized trilobite making this, and what the bottom of the trace would like like, then compare it to the Ordovician trilobite resting trace fossil shown earlier. Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island, Georgia.)

Resting trace of a lined sea star (Luidia clathrata), with the original tracemaker just below its trace. This sea star was stuck above the high tide mark, burrowed into the underlying moist sand, but then tried to move to a better place once its spot started to dry out. Now compare this resting trace to the Ordovician trace fossil shown before. No scale, but sea star is about 8-10 cm wide. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on Sapelo Island, Georgia.)

The following year and only a month ago (August 2012), Andy and I had another Ordovician learning opportunity presented to us, but this time in Newfoundland, Canada. A day trip to see Ordovician rocks and trace fossils on Bell Island, just a 30-minute ferry ride from St. Johns, Newfoundland, was a welcome break from the butt-numbing sessions of the previous two days of the Ichnia 2012 conference at Memorial University.

In our first few minutes at the outcrop and its numerous boulders – spoil piles from an iron-ore mine – we realized that one of the dislodged slabs in front of me was loaded with specimens of Trichophycus. It was a pleasant surprise to get reacquainted with this trace fossil, and in a place far away both geographically and experientially from Georgia.

Multiple specimens of Trichophycus in Lower Ordovician rocks of Newfoundland, Canada, preserved as natural casts of the burrows. See all of those scratchmarks on the burrow walls? These were also made by trilobites, but probably different ones from those in Georgia. Scale in centimeters (and that ain’t no real maple leaf.) (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Multiple specimens of Trichophycus in the Upper Ordovician Sequatchie Formation of Georgia, USA, also preserved as natural casts of the burrows and showing some scratchmarks on the walls. Do they look familiar to you, too? If so, welcome to the Ordovician. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Here’s that trilobite resting trace (Rusophycus) from Georgia that I showed earlier. Now take a gander at the one below…

Why, that seems to be a trilobite resting trace (Rusophycus), too, but in Lower Ordovician rocks of Newfoundland. Surprise, surprise, surprise! Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Suddenly, much of Andy’s and my previous experience with the Ordovician rocks of Georgia came back to us. We were, paradoxically, home, only in this instance, “home” was a time, not a place. Ichnological colleagues who had no idea Andy and I had worked with Ordovician trace fossils stared at us quizzically (and skeptically) as we excitedly discussed the burrows. But once we informed them that we had seen these trace fossils before, our experience was recognized, egos were set aside, and learning was enhanced. Funny how that works sometimes.

So with our trip to Newfoundland, we went from the alien world of the Ediacaran Period, with its trace fossils unlike anything I had seen before, to the more familiar and accommodating Ordovician Period rocks and their trace fossils. What I learned from this trip, combined with many others to Ordovician rocks elsewhere, as well as the modern sediments of the Georgia coast, was that the mirror was not so foggy after all, and that more field experiences can only further clarify these connections between life traces from the present and the not-so-distant past.

Further Reading

Buatois, L.A., Gingras, M.K., MacEachern, J., Mángano, M.G., Zonneveld, J.-P, Pemberton, S.G., Netto, R.G., and Martin, A.J. 2005. Colonization of brackish-water systems through time: Evidence from the trace-fossil record. Palaios, 20: 321-347.

Eldredge, N., 1970. Observations on burrowing behavior in Limulus polyphemus (Chelicerata, Merostomata), with implications on the functional anatomy of trilobites. American Museum Novitates, 2436: 17 p.

Fillion, D. and Pickerill, R.K. 1990. Ichnology of the Lower Ordovician Bell Island and Wabana Groups of eastern Newfoundland. Palaeontographica Canadiana, 7: 1-119.

Martin, A.J. 1993. Semiquantitative and statistical analysis of bioturbate textures, sequatchie formation (upper ordovician), Georgia and Tennessee, USA. Ichnos, 2: 117-136.

Seilacher, A. 2007. Trace Fossil Analysis. Springer, Berlin: 240 p.