Looking for Traces in an Ordovician Sea

It might seem a bit strange to consider traveling back 450 million years as a “homecoming.” But geologists time travel often enough to qualify as Time Lord apprentices, regardless of whether we are traveling by phone booth, car, or on foot. What creates this situation is how geologists may experience much of their training, teaching, or research interests in rocks of a certain age, gaining a certain comfort level when dealing with the earth of that time.

Cincinnatian-Outcrop-2“Hey everyone, let’s go to the Ordovician!” “Sounds good to me. Road trip!” You can do this when you live in a place with abundant, fantastically preserved, and freely available fossils. Which incidentally describes the area around Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

For me, my most recent homecoming was to the Ordovician Period, a geologic time span of about 488-444 million years ago. As a geologic period, its life and marine environments are represented quite well by the world-class fossil-bearing limestones and shales in and around the area of Cincinnati, Ohio. This is where I gained my formative training as a paleontologist, as I studied Ordovician rocks and fossils in the area while working on an M.S. degree in geology at Miami University in the mid-1980s. (Incidentally, Miami was a university before Florida was a state, and the rocks around it are much older than any in Florida, too. As a matter of pride, then, I like to inform people that I went to the “real” Miami.)

So last month I was lucky enough to participate in two field trips and a paleontology mini-conference in the region of Cincinnati, Ohio, which felt very much like a homecoming. The field trips and conference were co-sponsored by: the myFOSSIL Project, an NSF-funded initiative working to unite avocational (“amateur”) fossil collectors with professional paleontologists while enhancing STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) through the science of paleontology; The Dry Dredgers, a fossil-collecting club founded in 1942 (!) in Cincinnati, and consisting of some of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic collectors I’ve met anywhere; the Cincinnati Museum Center, which hosted the conference and keynote talk (more on that soon); and the Paleontological Society, which was ably represented at the mini-conference by their current president, past president, and other officers and members.

Cincinnati-Musum-CenterExterior of the Cincinnati Museum Center, which helped to host the Paleontology Mini-Conference, houses a fantastic collection of Ordovician-age fossils, and served as the venue for a keynote talk given by Yours Truly. The museum building originated as the Cincinnati Union Terminal in 1933 and was later converted into the museum in 1990. It’s a very neat place for both its art-deco architecture and its displays, and every visit to the Cincinnati area should include it. Right after having some Skyline Chili and Graeters Ice Cream, that is. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Already I’ve listed many reasons for being there, but the main incentive was as the keynote speaker for the mini-conference, an invitation I received and gratefully accepted late last year. For that, I gave a public lecture at the Cincinnati Museum Center on a Friday night, and on the topic of my most recent book, Dinosaurs Without Bones (2014). I had my usual fun time with the lecture, the audience had a variety of thoughtful questions for me to answer and otherwise discuss, and I happily did a book signing afterwards. We were then given a tour of the museum, which has world-class Ordovician fossils in it and much more.

Sound great? It was. But the real highlight of my journey was seeing the Ordovician rocks and fossils in the area. Hence I had to participate in the pre-meeting and post-meeting field trips to various roadcuts in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio while there. As an ichnologist, I was was also keenly interested in revisiting the trace fossils in these rocks, which I had not seen in a long time (by human standards). Accordingly then, the following photos show some of the people and outcrops we visited, but really focus on the coolest trace fossils I saw, accompanied by my attempts to explain each.

Many thanks to everyone who made the 2016 Cincinnati Paleontology Mini-Conference happen, and much appreciation for taking me back “home” to the Ordovician.

Dry-Dredgers-Carl-BrettThe pre-meeting field trip and part of the post-meeting trip benefited from the presence of the indefatigable Dr. Carl Brett from the University of Cincinnati. I am continually awed by both his knowledge of the Ordovician rocks and fossils and his unrestrained enthusiasm for sharing this knowledge. Even better, he loves trace fossils, which officially makes him my new best friend. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Cincinnatian-Outcrop-1Roadcuts like these, all chock full of Ordovician body fossils and trace fossils, make me and other paleontological connoisseurs very happy. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Rusophycus-CincinnatianCarl Brett found these gorgeous trilobite resting traces at the very first outcrop, which at first made me a little jealous, but I got over it quickly enough after staring at these beauties for a few minutes. These were probably made by a species of Flexicalymene, which burrowed down into a firm mud below, possibly to hide from predators but also as shelter from other problems above. Later, silt and fine sand filled in the depressions, making these natural casts. Be sure to look for the little trilobite tracks, too.

Small-Cruziana-CincinnatianHow about the cutest trace fossil I saw? Here’s a tiny trilobite burrow I found on the bottom of a siltstone bed (my thumb is pointing to it). The dual pathways mark where its little legs pushed down and into the sediment below it; it have been made by a juvenile or full-sized adult that just happened to be really small. It is again preserved as a natural cast, so you’re looking at the bottom of the bed. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Palaeophycus-CincinnatianMost of these trace fossils are compressed and intersecting horizontal burrows, which are  visible because they are filled with a different sediment than the surrounding rock. Notice smaller-diameter and more complicated burrow system to the right, which apparently was made first, as the other burrows cut across it. Both were likely feeding burrows made by worm-like animals. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Diplocraterion-Palaeophycus-CincinnatianAt least four different types of trace fossils are on this slab: the little “pockmarks” that also show some branching; the lined burrow toward the top of the slab (eroded so that it looks like a snail trail); the long, discrete burrow just above the scale, and the “dumbell” one on the lower right. Applying the principle of cross-cutting relations, can you work out the sequence of which burrow came first, second, third, and last? All were likely made by wormy critters and are feeding burrows, although the “dumbell” burrow also served as a home, as we’re looking at the top of a U-shaped burrow. More on that with the next photo… (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Diplocraterion-CincinnatianThe trace fossils on this surface are similar to that of the previous one, but has a lot more “dumbells,” which represent U-shaped burrows that were originally tubular, with the critter – maybe a worm, maybe a crustacean – having its head close to one opening and its rear end close to the other. To visualize these burrows in three dimensions, make a “U” with your thumb and forefinger, turn it so you are looking at the tips of your fingers, and imagined a line of collapsed sediment between the two limbs of the “U.” (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Diplocraterion-Spreite-CincinnatianThese are bottom expressions of the U-shaped burrows, but omitting the tubes. The curved lines inside the linear parts show where the maker of the U-shaped burrow moved its burrow up or down in response to what was happening on the surface. A little confused by that? You’re not alone, and welcome to my world. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Diplocraterion-Cross-Section-CincinnatianHere are partial vertical sections of two U-shaped burrows, with the one on the left also displaying the internal structure made by animal as it moved its burrow up or down, depending on whether it had sediment dumped on top of its burrow (move up!) or the top was eroded (move down!). I think this one went down, but can’t say for sure without seeing the burrow bottom, which is not preserved here. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Chondrities-CincinnatianThis branching burrow, which if reconstructed in three dimensions would look like an upside-down bush, was made by an animal (or several with their burrows overlapping) feeding on the sediment. The branches are from repeated probing into the surrounding sediment, then withdrawing, then probing again. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Dry-Dredgers-1What other trace fossils are in these outcrops of Ordovician limestones and shales? Too many for these people to see them all and study, but clearly they don’t care. And that’s a good thing. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Ichnology in the Beer Garden of Good and Evil

For reasons unfathomable – but ultimately forgivable – I had never talked about my 2013 book Life Traces of the Georgia Coast in the lovely and historic city of Savannah, Georgia. There were many reasons for me to go there, preach the gospel of traces, and otherwise enlighten its citizens about the Holy Trinity of Ichnology (Substrate, Anatomy, and Behavior – amen, brothers and sisters!). For one, Savannah is not only the largest city in Georgia along its coast, but also has inspired many writers as a place. Even better, a good number of people there are keenly interested in the nearby ecosystems and non-human life inhabiting the Georgia coast. So it made sense to visit  and plug my book, which, despite having been out for more than a year, was regrettably unknown to most people in Savannah. Yeah, I know, some other book got in the way during the past year, but still.

Beer-Science-Sign-Anthony-Martin-Moon-RiverWho could resist the winning combination of science and beer? Here’s the sign we put out at Moon River Brewing Company in Savannah, Georgia as a siren call to those who might have wandered by. Lettering by Savannah artist Betsy Cain and trace fossil icons (theropod track on the left and a U-shaped burrow on the right) by me. (This photograph and all but the last were taken by Ruth Schowalter.)

With the help of well-connected friends there (who I hereby dub The Hartzell Power Couple™), we arranged for a book-related event in Savannah at a downtown microbrewery – Moon River Brewing Company – and placed it in their new outdoor beer garden. (Sorry bookstores, museums, and universities, you just can’t compete with that.) A local independent bookstore, The Book Lady Bookstore, helped out by selling my more recent (and much more reasonably priced) dinosaurian-themed book. But I also brought copies of Life Traces of the Georgia Coast for anyone interested in getting it for a bargain  from the author. Major bonus: all conventional author traces in these books (otherwise known as “autographs”) are always accompanied by my original drawing of a trace.

Geologists-Having-Beer-Science-BooksChatting with the locals, including (left to right), environmental activist Ann Hartzell, my two most recent books, me, and an anonymous geologist (right) who stopped by to talk about geology and paleontology. How can you tell he’s a geologist? Note the voluminous but mostly empty stein just behind him.

Advance publicity for the event was excellent, too, exceeding the expectations of most authors who wistfully hope that more than five people hear about their book-related event. For instance, Leslie Moses, a reporter for the local newspaper (the Savannah Morning News) wrote an article about my book, which included a nice photo of me standing (appropriately enough) on the Georgia coast. A reporter for the free weekly paper (Savannah Connect), Jessica Leigh Lobos, also conducted a delightful interview with me, in which I got to connect (get it?) both Life Traces of the Georgia Coast and Dinosaurs Without Bones via their common theme of ichnology enriching our otherwise mundane lives. Yet another reporter, Mary Landers (again for the Savannah Morning News) wrote a fun announcement about the event in which she alluded to my recent blog post about Godzilla’s tracemaking abilities. So let’s just say I felt loved by the local media, and the Hartzell Power Couple™ were able to bring in lots of their environmental-artistic-cool friends to attend the event, too.

Beer-Science-Sign-Moon-River-Betsy-CainSavannah environmental artist Betsy Cain graciously offered her calligraphy skills for the sign advertising the event, to which I later added my artistic depictions of trace fossils (see the photo at top for our finished masterpiece). In the background, The Hartzell Power Couple™ set up the much-needed-and-appreciated sound system I later used to project ichnological bon mots.

My talk at the beer garden wasn’t the usual formal slide show (i.e., Death by Powerpoint) we academics are expected to give almost by reflex nowadays. Instead, it was a totally different format adapted to the given circumstances. A lack of screen and projector, along with the outdoor setting and a nearby busy (and loud) city street, ensured that this would not be like any other talk I’d given about either book. Fortunately, at the urging of my ever-so-wise wife Ruth and the amazing resourcefulness of The Hartzell Power Couple™, I was able to get a microphone and speaker to speak over the urban din. But what to say, and how to say it without the support of pictures and oh-so-mesmerizing-and-persuasive bullet points?

Moon-River-Beer-Garden-ScienceA good example of how science education is wherever you take it: Thursday evening at the Moon River Brewing Company beer garden in Savannah, Georgia.

Thus I decided to make this book presentation more of a lively piece of performance science, rather than a lecture. It was part informative – with “elevator speeches” about each book on why they mattered, punctuated by brief (less than two minutes) readings – and part interactive. The latter was mostly improv, in which I asked audience members to shout out the name of their favorite Georgia-coast animal, followed by my acting out that animal’s tracemaking behavior, then describing what traces they would make from such behaviors. Alligator! Ghost crab! Sandhill crane! Fiddler crab!

Behold-My-Mighty-Claw-Fiddler-Crab-Dance“Look at my claw!” There’s nothing like a good fiddler-crab dance to warm up a crowd.

Preaching-Church-Ichnology-Moon-River-2Science authors, if you’re going to talk about your book in public, always make sure you have one as a prop so you can hold it up and say, “Have you heard the good news?”

Babies-Dig-IchnologyBabies dig ichnology.

Based on feedback from those there and my own perceptions of audience reactions, I thought the event went great. Not only did I have a good time, we even sold a few books. But something else that happened, and it was something that advocates of public-science outreach might note. I witnessed a subtle transformation in the people who were there at the beer garden just to have dinner, chat, and drink beer (and not necessarily in that order). First they ignored the “show” going on beside them, but soon they ended up listening, getting interested, and next thing you knew, they were (gasp) learning science.

Future-Paleontologist-Reading-BooksAfterwards, two science enthusiasts (mother and son) check out my books. One of those books went home with them, and may have later contributed to even more sciency goodness.

Ultimately, I hope my example introduced the Savannah community to the concept of a science tavern, which has been fantastically successful in Atlanta and is being adopted in several other U.S. cities. A key component of the Atlanta Science Tavern’s success, though, is making sure scientists are on board with being clear, lively, original, and fun with their science. As much as this paleontologist hates to admit, beer can only take you so far.

Goldfinch-Foot-Martin-Moon-RiverSomehow a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch ended up in the same box holding copies of my book Dinosaurs Without Bones. Seizing a teaching moment, I explain with my hand how this literary juxtaposition was completely appropriate, because goldfinches are dinosaurs, and their feet (and hence their tracks) show this ancestor-descendant relationship.

So for all of you science authors out there who love public outreach about the science and the beer you love, please flatter me through imitation and try this on for yourself, then let the rest of the world know how it went. Think of it as an experiment that requires much repeating. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it again. If it mostly works, then revise it based on suggestions by your peers (the audience, that is). It it works fantastically, do that again. Repeat until science is shared and beer mugs run dry. Good luck!

Hartzell-Power-Couple-Ruth-TonyMany thanks to: Ann and Andrew Hartzell (left) for hosting Ruth and me (right) during our fun time in Savannah; Ruth for all of her expert photographic documentation and loving support; Joni Saxon-Giusti and Chris of The Book Lady Bookstore; Brandi Cockram of the Moon River Brewing Company; Savannah reporters Jessica Leigh Lobos, Leslie Moss, and Mary Landers; Betsy Cain; Robin Gunn; Sarah Ross; Craig Barrow; and all of those folks in the beer garden who didn’t expect to get some science on a Thursday night out in Savannah. Hope it happens again to you soon.

Speaking of Life Traces…

With the much-awaited publication of my new book (Life Traces of the Georgia Coast), it’s now time to talk about it. Fortunately, I’ve had plenty of time to prepare for this part of the launching of the book, which is one advantage gained from its publication taking longer than originally anticipated. (I’m not complaining, just saying.)

A brief preview of my book, which I gave to my peers in August as a 20-minute talk at the International Congress on Ichnology meeting (Ichnia 2012) in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. Please note that all subsequent talks about the book will not involve audience members to be screeched in, although folks attending my talk to the Atlanta Science Tavern event on January 26 might be tempted. (Photograph by Ruth Schowalter.)

But what’s been most exciting about this process is the overwhelmingly positive reception to my inquiries about giving talks. Amazingly, no one (so far) has said “no” when I asked if I could speak. This is a lesson for other authors who might be organizing public presentations on your own, without the financial or logistical support of a trade-book publisher: pick what you think are the right venues for speaking about your book, then ask. Until then, you never know who will agree that having you speak about your book would be a fine idea.

I am also blessed with a very good infrastructure for giving talks here in Georgia, particularly in the metro Atlanta area. Despite all of the tired jokes about banjo music – along with urging participants to accompany this music with porcine sounds  – Atlanta has a thriving scene of science and natural history enthusiasts. This intellectual richness is exemplified the Atlanta Science Tavern, which was even noticed by some out-of-town newspaper for its “Mars Landing Party” last July.

Lastly, the subject of the book is of great interest to many people in Georgia, especially those who have been to its barrier islands. More than a million visitors are estimated to visit the Georgia coast each year, with many of those driving the 4+ hours from Atlanta to get there. Of these million people, at least a few walk along a beach or marsh, or hike through a maritime forest, and see traces made by the animals that live there on the islands, prompting  them to ask, “I wonder what made that?” For those folks and more, these talks are for you.

Here’s my current schedule of appearances for the next few months, but be sure to check in once in a while on this Web site for updates. Hope to see you at one or more of these events!

Wednesday, January 23, 4:00 p.m., Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Talk title: Big Burrows through Ecospace and Time. This talk is part of the Department of Environmental Studies Seminar Series for the spring semester, 2013; all seminars are in Math & Sciences Building, Room N304. Free and open to the public.

Saturday, January 26, 7:00 p.m. – Atlanta Science Tavern, at Manuel’s Tavern, Atlanta, Georgia. Talk title: Exploring Tracks and Prints, Marks and Holes on Georgia’s Barrier Islands. Preregistration required, $3 suggested donation. This event is currently FULL, but you can put your name on the waiting list through the preceding link.

Tuesday, February 5, 7:00 p.m. – Georgia Center for the Book, DeKalb Public Library, Decatur, Georgia. Talk title: Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. Free and open to the public

Saturday, February 16, 5:30 p.m. – Jekyll Island Green Screen Event, Jekyll Island Convention Center, Jekyll Island, Georgia. Poster presentation (along with other presenters) summarizing some of my latest research on the Georgia barrier islands (exact title of poster to be updated later). Free and open to the public.

Sunday, February 24, 3:00 p.m. – Andalusia, home of author Flannery O’Connor, in Milledgeville, Georgia. Tentative talk title: Tracks and Traces of Flannery O’Connor’s Favorite Birds. Free and open to the public.

Sunday, March 24, 2:30 p.m. – Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Atlanta, Georgia. Tentative talk title: Tracking Exotic Mammals on the Georgia Coast. Admission fee applies if you’re not a member of the museum, but the lecture is free with admission.

P.S. Bookstores, just remember, if you invite me to speak in your store, I will bring your employees this. Consider yourselves bribed.

Public Outreach via Ichnology: From “K to Gray”

(This post is the third in a series discussing academic scientists and public outreach of their science, but with a focus on my recent experiences in using ichnology and paleontology for public outreach. The first of the series, introducing science outreach in general and some of its challenges for academic scientists, is here, and the second, giving an example of how I did public outreach with kids at a local natural history museum, is here.)

During this past week, one of the lessons reinforced from doing public outreach of my science is that, before doing any public event, you first have to ask yourself a very important question: “Who is my audience?” You might think this is a basic question to ask, but it sometimes is not, simply because it takes a lot of courage to change old habits, especially if those habits are constantly rewarded.

Most academic scientists, including paleontologists, are trained to deliver professional talks to their peers, and their peers only. These are formal presentations, using PowerPoint or similar presentation software, which are either 15-20 minutes long (a talk at a professional conference) or a little less than an hour (a talk in a university seminar). In such talks, speakers take full advantage of jargon specific to their field and other verbal accouterments that are intended to set us apart from mere mortals and elevate us among our peers. This sort of presentation style is already a little scary for a lot of us scientists – many of whom are quite introverted – but that’s the standard, and we are rewarded for doing it just like that.

So I understand how doing something different for a presentation, and one not delivered to peers in your scientific field, might seem even scarier. And to depart from this basic model means you could be heading into unknown territory with all sorts of intellectually frightening prospects, of which most paramount is: what if people don’t understand what I’m saying?

Just before giving a public talk at Georgia College and State University this past April, my host, paleobotanist Dr. Melanie DeVore, introduces me, then we perform a ritual greeting with one another as if we are fiddler crabs. Most people in academia would consider this as a non-standard way to start a presentation. (Photograph by Ruth Schowalter, taken at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.)

Like many people who pay attention to science communication, I’ve seen a full spectrum of presentation styles with scientists who do public events. Some of these scientists were fantastically successful in communicating their passions, and I think their success was largely because they really seemed to knew who was there. Here’s also what I’ve seen them do:

  • They used a right tone throughout, respectful of the audience, yet confident in conveying their authority on a topic, while throwing in occasional humorous asides.
  • They were enthusiastic while remaining coherent.
  • They used language appropriate for their audience, applying simpler and less syllabic words in place of multisyllabic jargon.
  • Where jargon was used, it was explained in single, easy-to-follow sentences, and then reinforced with visual aids.
  • Once in a while they would repeat key points, but not so often that people got bored or (worse) thought the speaker was treating them like they were brain-dead morons.
  • Their bodies were an integral part of communicating their science, whether through moving, gesturing, acting out a scientific principle, or even varying facial expressions.
  • Their visual aids were perfectly understandable, using photographs of real, phenomena – but taken creatively – and beautiful artwork or graphs that also convey information clearly.

For those academic scientists who were supremely unsuccessful in communicating their science at a public event, they did the opposite of everything I just listed. Regardless, for both end members of this spectrum, I am very grateful for their showing me what works, and what doesn’t.

So in my first outreach event, done on Saturday, July 14 at Fernbank Museum of Natural History, my audience mostly consisted of children and their parents. Knowing that very few (if any) of their parents would have been academic scientists, my props, approach, and attitude were prepared with children and non-scientist adults in mind. In such preparations, I knew that visual aids would be important to augment any concepts I wanted to get across. I also knew that I would have to be somewhat basic in any terms I used, but without resorting to “See the dinosaur run. Run, dinosaur, run!” My enthusiasm had to be high, and I would have to be very friendly. Last, I had to be ready for nearly any idea or question to out of their mouths, from very well informed to, well, less so.

Fortunately, these preparations paid off, and I had a wonderful two hours interacting with a wide range of kids, ranging from 4-12 years old, and parents who shared their kids’ excitement about dinosaurs, fossils, and other facets of natural history.

Two days later, on Monday, July 16, I had a very different audience, and one that required a big mental shift from my Fernbank experience, but closer to what academic scientists would consider “normal.” It was the Emory Emeritus College, an organization within my home university. So it was a “home crowd,” and I knew most of them would be receptive to what I had to say. Yet it still represented a small challenge in knowing my audience and figuring out how to deliver it.

The Emory Emeritus College, as one might have figured out from its name, is composed of retired faculty at Emory University. Although I knew some of the faculty from before their retirement, I wanted to learn more about the goals and activities of this organization. I was pleasantly surprised to find out they were part of a nationwide organization, called the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education. What is this? In their own words:

The Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education (AROHE) is an international network of retiree organizations at colleges and universities, fosters the development and sharing of ideas to assist member organizations in achieving their purposes and goals.

Along those lines, part of the mission of the Emory group is to foster further learning in retired faculty through regular lunchtime or breakfast-time lectures on a variety of general-interest topics. So I was delighted, several months ago, to have been invited to speak to this group by Dr. Sidney (Sid) Perkowitz. Sid is a retired physics professor who is also one of the few science faculty members at Emory – retired or otherwise – writing trade books intended specifically for public audiences, such as Hollywood Science, Empire of Light, and others. And not just books: he writes articles, essays, stage plays, performance dance pieces, and screenplays. In other words, he’s a pretty cool dude, and a great example of what scientists can become if they want to connect their science to a broader audience.

Sid thought that it would be great if I could talk with the emeritus faculty about the topic of my upcoming book (which is, like, you know, the title of this blog). But he also wanted me to mention how I integrate science and art in my work. Fortunately, the standard talk I give to public audiences about the book has plenty of examples of that, provided through my illustrations and photographs that will be in the book. Here are a few samples:

Three examples of slides I’ve used in my standard talk about my book, intended for general audiences, with some combining illustrations of mine and photographs. I know some people would suggest that I use even less text on the slides, but a little bit of information in addition to whatever I’m saying seems to help, too.

I suspected this approach – using visual elements to explain the subject of the talk – would work very well with this audience, which was composed of an eclectic group of well-educated people: artists, writers, literary critics, historians, theologians, physicians, chemists, political scientists, and more. Yet I was also keenly aware that just because they retired from teaching at Emory didn’t mean their minds had shut down. This was going to be an engaged, alert bunch.

It worked. About thirty people were there, mostly emeritus faculty, but with a few younger staff helping with the organization of lunch. After a generously laudatory introduction by my hosts, I began with the mystery of the broken bivalve, the opening few pages of the book, but told through images.

They were an attentive audience, with only one person nodding off halfway through my talk, which was much better than what I’ve experienced in a similarly sized class of 18-22year-old students (and following a delicious lunch, so completely understandable). Both planned and unplanned laughs took place throughout the talk, which always helps to relax an audience and me, too.

The time for questions was the part I savored, because I knew they’d be good, conversational ones. Here are three I remember:

  1. What about the history of ichnology? How long have people been recognizing traces and trace fossils? Answer: It’s as old as humanity, although ichnology has been around as a formal science since the early 19th century.)
  2. How could someone as young as me be able to do this (ichnology) so well? (This got a good laugh, because I’m 52 years old, which was “young” for this crowd.”) Answer: Lots of practice. (“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.”) Also, I know I have a long ways to go whenever I’m around peers who are much better at this than me (and older).
  3. How would this (ichnology) be useful for convincing people that global-climate change is not just some crazy left-wing conspiracy? Answer: The last slide in my talk is a prediction of what will happen on the Georgia coast with increased sea level over the next 100 years or so, and traces will be one more piece of evidence that this is happening.

The most important question, though, was at the very last, and it connected directly with my experience with the children at Fernbank Museum only two days before. What was going to be the future of ichnology if the current generations of children are less likely to go outside and observe nature?

I didn’t really have an answer for this, other than to say that I teach a freshman seminar on tracking at Emory, which gets 18-year-olds out in the classroom, and that some creative combination of digital media that also involves looking at traces outside (such as CyberTracker™) might help, too. It’s not an easy problem to solve, and it’s real. That’s why the first piece of advice I gave kids at Fernbank two days previously was to get outside and enjoy what nature had to teach them.

But this was a key point. Science isn’t just something we learn in college, especially in one required course so we could graduate for non-scientists, or doing it exclusively in a lab with colleagues in academia. It should be life-long learning, or as some science educators say, “from K to gray.” So I see ichnology and the popularizing of it as a science as one solution among many, to make sure that our lives are filled with everyday but awe-inspiring science, from our first toddling steps to our last conscious breaths.