Of Sacred Mules and Sauropod Tracks

Legends and storytelling are an intrinsic part of being human. Given this statement, you might then also think of myths and other stories you’ve heard throughout your life. Which were the most memorable, and why? With such remembrances, your next step may be to do something else that is very much a part of being human, which is to wonder whether that myth or story holds some lesson applicable to real life. Whether a story is an accurate account of reality is beside the point, as its imparted teachings are sometimes more important than factual accuracy.

Avelino-Sauropod-TracksModern scientists say these depressions in a tilted rock surface near Sesimbra, Portugal were made by sauropod dinosaurs in soft sediments during the Jurassic Period more than 150 million years ago. But what if you lived in this area during the 14th century? How would you explain these depressions? While you’re thinking about that, here’s another question: If I hadn’t told you these were dinosaur tracks, would you even know they were tracks? (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Yet, what if reality and scientific reasoning – with the latter thriving on a spirit of disproof – rudely intrudes on a good story, disrupting its original intent? In such instances, a legend previously regarded as literal truth may lose its narrative power, as we begin to doubt not just its details, but also its intent. Can anything useful be salvaged from a myth when skepticism assaults faith? Should we completely reject parables once we know foxes do not talk about grapes, sour or otherwise?

Less than two weeks ago I visited a place where the basic facts of a long-held legend had been disproved, yet a lesson from it remains. The place is Cabo Espichel, marked by a lighthouse, church, and small chapel on a plateau high above rocky cliffs along the southwest coast of Portugal. Cabo Espichel is about a 90-minute drive from the modern metropolis of Lisbon, yet it felt far more remote, and very much connected to a medieval past.

Cabo-Espichel-OutcropsA view of Lagosteiros Bay from the top of Cabo Espichel. Also check out those gorgeous outcrops of tilted Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks! Gee, I wonder what trace fossils might be in them? (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

The legend associated with that place concerns a 14th century visitation there by someone named Mary, who is also known by many other names: Saint Mary, Mary of Nazareth, Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady, The Madonna, or very simply the Mother of Jesus. Given the Catholic culture that is very much still a part of the Iberian Peninsula, her purported arrival to Portugal there was (and still is) considered a blessing and a ringing endorsement of Christianity there. Accordingly, the church complex is called the Santuário de Nossa Senhora do Cabo Espichel (“Sanctuary of Our Lady of Cape Espichel”).

Cabo-Espichel-ChurchIchnologists approaching the Santuário de Nossa Senhora do Cabo Espichel, Portugal, not on the way to confess their sins (that would have taken way too long), but to see the small chapel behind it, as well as some great coastal outcrops of Mesozoic rocks. So you might say they were there for a different type of worship. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

How did Mary get to Portugal from the Middle East? Given the absence of airlines then, she and the Baby Jesus traveled by boat. Once the Mother and Child reached the shore of Lagosteiros Bay below Capo Espichel, a giant mule carried them up the steep rock faces of Cabo Espichel. This scene came in a vision to two men in the area, who shared the same dream of her arrival on the same night. In a splendid example of confirmation bias, their testimony was taken quite seriously by the local populace and beyond, and has endured since.

Sauropod-Tracks-Cabo-Epsichel-3Cliff face below the present-day chapel and church at Cabo Espichel, with well-exposed and tilted bedding planes of sedimentary rock. This would have been the most likely route for a mule (giant or otherwise) to have accessed the top from Lagosteiros Bay. Photo is a still taken from an online edited drone video titled “Cabo Espichel – Dinosaur Trackway Adventure.” Related to the question asked in the previous caption: Huh, I wonder what those depressions on the rock face might be, how they relate to the legend, and the title of that video?

In commemoration of this momentous event, the church and chapel – the latter called Ermida da Memória (Chapel of Memory) – were built near the precipice. Portuguese royalty hosted annual feasts there, and many pilgrims put it on their spiritual “bucket list” as a must-visit place. Today, it is still visited by devout Catholics, who may be imagining themselves walking on the same holy ground trodden by Mary and her miraculous mule.

Ermida-da-MemoriaThe Ermida do Memória seen from afar on Capo Espichel. Imagine it in the darkness of night, when suddenly a glow comes from the bay below. Inside this light, the head of a giant mule appears, and as more of its body emerges from the cliff edge, you see Mother Mary astride it carrying the Baby Jesus, accompanied by an aerial escort of angels and the most beautiful music you’re ever heard in your life. OK, Guillermo de Toro, I just wrote the scene for your next movie: the rest is up to you. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

So where did this legend come from: crazed fishermen who had spent one day too many at sea, villagers imbibing enthusiastically on local vinho verde, or clergymen overcome by ecclesiastic visions? No, this story actually had evidence backing it up. All one had to do is get in a boat just offshore, and you could see for yourself enormous footprints in the rocks leading from the sea to the top of the cliff at Cabo Espichel.

Sauropod-Tracks-Cabo-Espichel-1They’re a little tough to see from this far out, but the big white arrows help. The “mule tracks” are on tilted strata just above the bay, and compose diagonal-walking patterns. (Photo taken as still from video Cabo Espichel – Dinosaur Track Adventure. I would have prefaced that information with “Spoiler Alert,” but you did read the title of this post, right?)

Sauropod-Tracks-Cabo-Espichel-2A closer view of a rock surface with the diagonal-walking pattern clearly defined, accentuated by vegetation growing in the depressions. Don’t believe me that these are from the same site? Look up “Cabo Espichel, Portugal” on Google Earth™, scan the rock surfaces just north of the chapel, and see them for yourself. (Photo again is still taken from video Cabo Espichel – Dinosaur Trackway Adventure.)

These tracks, people said, marked where the weight of the mule pressed into the rocks. Even better, some of these tracks formed patterns clearly made by four-legged animals, and individual tracks were crescent-shaped, resembling the feet of mules or other horse-like animals. As a result, one name applied to this place is Pedras de Mula, which translates as “Rocks of the Mule,” although Pegadas de Mula (“Tracks of the Mule”) is also applied.

Every good story also needs images, and this one has a particularly noteworthy visual aid. The building of a chapel on the site in the 16th century contains tile artwork commemorating this divine calling; however, the tile was probably made later, in the 18th century. Although the chapel interior is closed to the public, a open slot in its door afforded a glimpse of this depiction, aided by the zoom lens on my camera. Like any good illustration, the story is neatly encapsulated in the tiles: Mother Mary and The Baby Jesus riding on a mule, with angels in tow and stunned onlookers properly prostrating.

Pedras-de-Mula-118th century tiled artwork inside the Ermida do Memória depicting the legend of Mary’s visitation of Cabo Espichel. To all artists out there (and I’m one of you), the original creator of this work is unknown, hence image credit cannot be assigned here. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Centuries later, ichnology happened. Beginning in the mid-1970s, geologists and paleontologists realized that the Mesozoic rocks of Portugal, including those at and near Cabo Espichel, held dinosaur tracks. This consciousness has been affirmed many times since, with discoveries of tracks belonging to a wide variety of Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs: theropods, ornithopods, stegosaurs, and sauropods among them. Portugal is now rightly renown as one of the best places in the world to see thousands of well-preserved dinosaur tracks, all within just a few hours drive of one another.

Saruopod-Tracks-Cabo-Espichel-4A close-up of a dinosaur trackway – probably from a sauropod – on one of the rock surfaces at Cabo Espichel. As folks would say in my part of the U.S., “Those ain’t from no mule.” (Photo is still from video Cabo Espichel – Dinosaur Trackway Adventure.)

Vanda-Santos-Avelino-Sauropod-TracksDr. Vanda Faria dos Santos, Portugal’s premier dinosaur tracker, telling us about the sauropod tracks at the Avelino tracksite, just south of Cabo Espichel. Notice the abundant depressions on a tilted rock face, very similar to those at Cabo Espichel. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Of these tracks, those of sauropods were the most relevant to the tale of Cabo Espichel. The majority of sauropod tracks in Portugal are very large, especially those of the rear-foot (pes), which can be about a meter long and nearly as wide. The front-foot (manus) impressions are smaller, but still approach a half-meter wide, and are crescent-shaped. You know, like those of a horse, or mule.

Sauropod-Manus-AvelinoFront-foot (manus) track made by a Late Jurassic sauropod preserved as a cresent-shaped depression at the Avelino tracksite near Sesimbra, Portugal. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

A detailed field study of the tracks at Cabo Epischel, done by Martin Lockley, Christian Meyer, and Vanda Santos in 1993 and published in 1994, confirmed that the “mule tracks” at Cabo Epsichel were indeed those of sauropods. The original surfaces were of soft sediment and horizontal; only later did a combination of cementation and plate tectonics harden and tilt these rocks, with coastal erosion finally rendering their current appearance. Moreover, ten sauropod trackways on one of the bedding-plane surfaces there recorded the herding movements of seven smaller sauropods (juveniles) and three larger ones (adults), all of them walking in more-or-less the same direction. These results thus made the site scientifically famous, as it was one of the first convincing examples of family herding behavior in sauropods demonstrated from their footprints.

Lockley-et-al-Sauropod-Track-Map-Cabo-EspichelTrackway map of bedding plane at Cabo Espichel in article by Lockley, Meyer, and Santos (1994). The map shows parallel smaller (juvenile) sauropod trackways (numbers 1-7), followed by two larger (adult) sauropod trackways (numbers 8-9); another adult trackway is not on this figure, but was below the other two.

Here’s the full edited aerial-drone video linked previously, Cabo Espichel – Dinosaur Trackway Adventure. The video credit only says “rlage3,” so if the person/people who produced this would just let me know who you are, I’m more than glad to give full attribution. In the meantime, thanks much for providing such a nice overview of this beautiful and ichnologically rich area!

This situation with competing stories is where ichnology excels, as it is also a science based on storytelling. Granted, the story told by ichnologists is radically different from the one first accepted by the 14th century people of Portugal, or those since who have accepted the faith-based explanation for the tracks. On a personal note, I’m ex-Catholic; hell, I was an altar boy, went to a Catholic college for my undergraduate studies, and my mother was a more devout Catholic than most pontiffs. Thus I have much empathy for how people of faith (especially Catholics) feel about such things. So if pilgrims still chose to believe the tracks of Cabo Espichel were made by a giant mule bearing Mary and Jesus, and this fills them with joy, I’m cool with that. Just don’t tell me our science is wrong.

So now I will leave you with two provocative thoughts. The first is that the tile artwork in the chapel is the first known illustration of dinosaur tracks. Is it a scientifically accurate, to-scale, 3-D rotating digital model of a dinosaur trackway? No, but it’s still an illustration, and even though its interpretation does not qualify as science, it clearly shows a large, diagonal-walking trackway pattern on an inclined cliffside at Cabo Espichel. Let that sink in for a second: an 18th century artist must have seen dinosaur tracks on a bedding plane somewhere in that area, and faithfully reproduced them in a recognizable pattern.

Pedras-de-Mula-2Close-up of tile artwork in the Ermida da Memória, connecting the trackway pattern to a mule, but which we now can be sure was inspired by the trackway of a Late Jurassic sauropod dinosaur. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

The second thought is that although the interpretations of this trackway might differ radically, what they share is true: These impressions in the rock were made by enormous, walking, four-legged animals. How many modern people today, their eyes no-doubt glued to their 21st-century devices, would stumble in such tracks, possibly never recognizing their connection to animal life? So rather than make fun of the people of Portuguese past, or whoever else must have observed the tracks preserved in the rocks of Cabo Espichel, we should celebrate those who recognized these depressions as traces of life. In this sense, then, the faith-filled people of the past were doing their own form of ichnology in Portugal, centuries before we modern ichnologists walked in the same place.

Afterword: Many other paleontologists and science historians have written about the discovery of the first known sauropod tracks in Portugal, so I will not repeat nor summarize their contributions here. Instead, I’ve included the following bibliography. Many thanks to Drs. Vanda Santos, Paulo Caetano, Carlos Neto de Carvahlo, and Joana Rodrigues for teaching other ichnologists and me about the long ichnological history of Cabo Espichel.

Further Reading

Atunes, M.T. 1976. Dinossáurios Eocretácios de Lagosteiros. Ciéncias da Terra (UNL), 1: 1-35.

Atunes, M.T. 1990. Dinossáurios em Sesimbra e Zambujal – Episódios de há cerca de 140 milhões de anos. Sesimbra Cultural: 12-14.

Chure, D. 2012. Sacred birds, lucky rhinos, and The Virgin and the sauropod. Land of the Dead (blog), January 7, 2012.

Lockley, M.G., Meyer, C.A., and Santos, V.F. 1994. Trackway evidence for a herd of juvenile sauropods from the Late Jurassic of Portugal. Gaia, 10: 29-40.

Lockley, M.G., Novikov, V., Santos, V.F., Nessov, L.A., and Forney, G. 1994. “Pegadas de mula”: an explanation for the occurrence of Mesozoic traces that resemble mule tracks. Ichnos, 3: 125-133.

Santos, V.F. 2008. Pegadas de dinossáurios de Portugal. Museo Nacional de História Natural da Universidade de Lisbõa, Lisbõa, 123.


Life Traces of a Master: A Tribute to Dolf Seilacher (Part III)

(This is the third of a three-part series honoring the memory of paleontologist-ichnologist-teacher-artist Dolf Seilacher, who died on April 26, 2014. Part I of the series is here and Part II is here.)

After Dolf’s only trip to Georgia in 1997, I saw and talked with him a few more times, conversations that sometimes involved rocks and trace fossils in the field, but sometimes not. These times and places were in 2003 (Switzerland), 2004 (Argentina), 2006 (the far-off land of Philadelphia), and 2008 (Krakow, Poland).

Plenty of other ichnologists from around the world attended these meetings, too. Many of them I now consider as long-time friends, in which we get back for regular reunions to talk and argue about trace fossils, discussions that are normally accompanied by ritualistic consumption of significant volumes of libations. Almost always in such conversations, though, someone mentions the name “Dolf.” This then leads to animated discussions of his articles, remembrances of personal encounters with him (which usually involve some sort of strongly worded disagreement about a scientific idea), or telling stories about field trips, where Dolf noticed something extraordinary that everyone else had missed. In other words, even when Dolf wasn’t there, he was still present.

Seilacher-Ichnia-ArgentinaIf invited to speak at a gathering of ichnologists, Dolf Seilacher was never shy about saying “yes.” Here he addresses participants of the 1st International Ichnological Congress (Ichnia), held in Trelew, Argentina in 2004. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

As opposed to his trip to Georgia in 1997, the 2003 meeting in Switzerland was more-or-less in Dolf’s backyard, a short trip from his home in Tübingen, Germany. This was the International Ichnofabric Workshop, a biannual meeting of ichnologists that’s been taking place since the 1990s in various trace-fossil-rich places throughout the world. I love these meetings because of their balance between time spent blabbing in conference rooms and time spent in the field, looking at trace fossils: typically three days inside, three days outside. Now that’s what I call “fair and balanced.”

Dolf-Roland-IIW-BaselHow would you like to have your “Dolfing“? Inside or…

Dolf-Field-Switzerland…outside? (Both photographs taken by Anthony Martin in July 2003, Switzerland.)

Many of the trace fossils we encountered on the field-trip portion of the workshop were originally from deep-marine environments, made 30-50 million years ago by invertebrate animals that lived in on ocean-floor sediments hundreds or perhaps thousands of meters below the surface. Later, when the Alps were uplifted by colliding plates, this oceanic-continental mashing transported the trace fossils, resulting in seemingly anomalous signs of life from a deep seafloor, but in alpine settings. Dolf was one of the world’s experts on deep-sea traces, and among the few ichnologists to have taken a submersible ride (DSV Alvin) to more than 3,500 m (11,500 ft) down, highlighted in the IMAX film Volcanoes of the Deep Sea (2003). So it was no surprise when our first encounters with these trace fossils in the field prompted him to share his considerable knowledge about them.

Although Volcanoes of the Deep Sea is a fine documentary film in its entirety, for now just watch the first three minutes here to see Dolf in the field, looking for deep-sea trace fossils and talking about his mistress, who he met on his honeymoon. (Spoiler alert: His “mistress” is a trace fossil, and a complicated one, named Paleodictyon.)

Seilacher-SpirorapheDolf was clearly excited about sharing what he knew about the deep-sea trace fossils during our Ichnofabric Workshop in Switzerland. And he knew a lot. (Photograph taken by Anthony Martin in July 2003, Switzerland.)

The 2004 meeting in Argentina was a big deal for ichnologists, as this marked the first International Ichnological Congress, more briefly called Ichnia. More than a hundred ichnologists of varied interests, backgrounds, and nationalities gathered in Patagonia, Argentina, first for a glorious four-day field trip based out of Comodora Rivadavia, then for the congress itself in Trelew. Dolf joined us for the latter, and people who delivered talks in the sessions soon realized they were not going to leave the stage until Dolf asked them a question or made a comment about their work. At the time, he was 79 years old, but clearly was not ready to slow down teaching all of us.

Bromley-Pemberton-Seilacher-IchniaA rare circumstance: three of the most significant ichnologists in the world leaving fresh and contemporaneous footprints in the same habitat. From left to right is Richard Bromley (Denmark), George Pemberton (Canada), and Dolf, who was accepting an award from the organizers of this Ichnia. Jorge Genise’s hands (left) for scale. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Trelew, Argentina in April 2004).

The 2006 meeting in Philadelphia was significant, as this was for a symposium in honor of Dolf’s long and successful career. Organized as a session within the Geological Society of America meeting, it attracted so many ichnologists that the symposium lasted the entire day. In our talk, Andy Rindsberg (mentioned in my last post) and I decided we would cover one of Dolf’s favorite topics, the traces made by animals when they stop, nicknamed “resting traces.” In planning our talk, we knew Dolf would appreciate some good-natured poking fun at his expense. So we decided to lampoon both his authority in our field and his penchant for smoking good cigars through the following two slides (shown here side-by-side).

Freud-Seilacher-CigarTwo slides shown in succession at the Seilacher symposium, held in the 2006 Geological Society of America meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Translation on the right is “Sometimes a resting trace is just a resting trace,” and I think you can figure out the one on the left now. I don’t know the photo credit for Dr. Freud, but the one on the right was taken by Andy Rindsberg at the Seilachers’ home in Tubingen, Germany in 2006.

It was a success. Dolf was sitting in the front row while I gave my talk, and I’ll never forget his delighted smile when he saw the image of Sigmund Freud dissolve into his, with an almost perfectly mirrored pose.

The last time I saw Dolf was in Krakow, Poland, and at the second Ichnia meeting in 2008. His presence was doubly appreciated by all of us, as Jagiellonian University was also hosting – at the same time – Dolf’s pride and joy, the Fossil Art exhibit.

Fossil-Art-Sign-KrakowIt’s a sign! Advertising the exhibit Fossil Art, that is. In this instance, the venue was at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and in 2008. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

However, it was at this meeting where Dolf showed us a side we had almost never seen, but one that was completely appropriate for where we were. Alfred Uchman, the meeting organizer (and one of the world’s experts on deep-sea trace fossils), had asked Dolf to speak at the opening of the meeting on an ichnologically themed topic of his choosing. I don’t remember the main topic of his presentation, and the reason why for my faulty memory is because of what happened first.

Dolf began his talk with a deeply heartfelt and remorseful apology. In an awareness of both history and place, he told us how the grand room in which we were seated was where, in 1939, Jagiellonian University officials had handed over control of this esteemed institution – one of the oldest universities in the world and the intellectual home of Copernicus – to invading forces of Nazi Germany. Dolf, as a German citizen, a World-War II veteran who fought on the side of the Nazis, and who shared a first name with a certain genocidal dictator from Germany, expressed his shame and regret about what had happened in that place and then. I looked around the room and recall sensing the surprise we all felt at his  expression of regret, but also its poignancy and sense of redemption. He then went on and delivered his scientific talk, but it had become one overshadowed by our realization of how horrific histories and inquisitive inquiries are shared facets of our humanity.

Then there was Fossil Art. I remember seeing the first iteration of this traveling display in Germany in 1994, then elsewhere. This exhibit consists of life-sized reproductions (epoxy resin casts) of rock slabs, most of which held gorgeously intricate and intriguing trace fossils, but some with body fossils and physical sedimentary structures, such as ripples and mudcracks. At this meeting, we were privileged enough to get a guided tour of the exhibit by Dolf himself, who gave an introduction to its purpose as a way of engaging our minds and senses with beautiful patterns in rocks, many of which were made by animals from millions of years ago.

Seilacher-Fossil-Art-2Seilacher-Fossil-Art-1Dolf Seialcher introducing Fossil Art to a gathering of ichnologists at Ichnia 2008 in Krakow, Poland. (Photographs by Anthony Martin.)

Many of these reproductions received fanciful titles, such as The Trilobite Circus of Penha Garcia and Witch Broomings, and are mounted like works of art, with carefully arranged lighting accentuating their features. These “slabs” also have Dolf’s written explanations in placards next to them, describing and interpreting their geological significance, but also marveling at their beauty. Is it art, or is it science? Yes. Anyway, I’ll just let these images speak for this masterful blending of natural, aesthetic beauty and scientific information.

Cambrian-Beach-Party-Fossil-ArtCambrian Beach Party II, representing trace fossils made by large slug-like animals on a beach about 500 million years ago. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Krakow, Poland in 2008.)

Trilobite-Circus-Fossil-ArtThe Trilobite Circus of Penha Garcia, a collection of exquisitely preserved trilobite burrows from Portugal, preserved as natural casts. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Krakow, Poland in 2008.)

Trilobite-Pirouettes-Fossil-ArtTrilobite Pirouettes, more natural casts of trilobite burrows, but showing looping and stopping (“resting”) behaviors. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Krakow, Poland in 2008.)

More ichnology meetings took place since then: the third Ichnia meeting in Newfoundland, Canada (2012), and the most recent International Ichnofabric Workshop in Çannakale, Turkey (2013). Dolf did not physically attend either meeting, which did not surprise anyone, as he was in his late 80s, and we were starting to hear stories about his failing health. Nevertheless, a day never passed without his name coming up in conversation. So although most of us had not seen him since 2008, his ideas, personality, and methods seemed permanently attached to us, akin to some of the fossils he had studied.

Now that Dolf is gone and we are left with his considerable life traces, what would be  the best way for all of us to remember him? I suggest we do it through the flattery of imitation.

We are living in a time when science is very popular, even in the U.S., evident from TV shows like Cosmos and Your Inner Fish, as well as many clear and wonderfully written  science books. A few people have even declared that we’ve entered a “golden age” of science communication. Yet basic scientific research is also under assault from anti-science political forces, ones that insist on alternative realities where opinions are given equal (or superior) weight when compared to factual evidence. Moreover, mainstream academia is currently undergoing an administratively led collapse from within, as U.S. universities move more toward a corporate model that places higher profits over discoveries, knowledge, and teaching.

Still, through Dolf Seilacher’s life and accomplishments as a scientist, teacher, and artist, he showed a way to side-step the current chaos. Through his practices, he demonstrated how nearly all of us can do science and make discoveries every day by simply using our senses, pencils, paper, and intellects. Just to be clear, this is not a call to Neo-Luddism, in which we abandon our precious iPads and laser scanners while chanting incantations honoring our pre-technological ancestors. Instead, it is one that asks us to rediscover these basic skills – observing, drawing, and imagination – for conducting science, discovering, learning, and passing on new-found insights to future generations. In short: be more like Dolf.

Danke und Auf Wiedersehen, Dolf, for the gifts you gave us, traces that will continue long after you have become part of the earth and life you so loved studying.


Seilacher, A. 2007. Trace Fossil Analysis. Springer, Berlin: 226 p.

Seilacher, A. 1997, 2008. Fossil Art. (Two versions of this book were published, one through the Royal Tyrell Museum of Palaeontology in 1997, which was 64 page long; the other was through CBM Publishing in Laasby, Denmark, and was 101 pages long. The latter book can be purchased here.)

Descent with Modification

At this time last year, Fernbank Museum of Natural History was hosting the Darwin exhibit. On loan from the American Museum of Natural History, this exhibit was a major coup for the museum and the Atlanta area, which has enjoyed a growing culture of celebrating science during the past few years. Along with this exhibit, the museum also planned and concurrently displayed an evolution-themed art show, appropriately titled Selections, which I wrote about then here.*

Descent with Modification (2011), mixed media (colored pencils and ink) on paper, 24″ X 36.” Although this artwork might at first look like a tentacled creature infested with crustaceans and living on a sea bottom, its main form actually mimics a typical burrow system made by ten-legged crustaceans (decapods). Yet it’s also an evolutionary hypothesis. Intrigued? If so, please read on. If not, there are plenty of funny cat-themed Web sites that otherwise require your attention. (Artwork and photograph of the artwork by Anthony Martin.)

One unusual feature of this art show was that five of the eight artists were also scientists (full confession: I was one of them). Furthemore, one of the other artists was married to a scientist (fuller confession: that would be my wife Ruth). The show stayed up for more than three months, which was also as long as the Darwin exhibit resided at Fernbank. Thus we like to think it successfully exposed thousands of museum visitors to the concept that scientists, like many other humans, have artistic inspirations and abilities, neatly refuting the stereotype that not all of us are joyless, left-brained automatons and misanthropes.

Last week I was reminded of this anniversary and further connections between science and art during a campus visit last week by marine biologist and crustacean expert Joel Martin (no relation). Dr. Martin was invited to Emory University to give a public lecture with the provocative title God or Darwin? A Marine Biologist’s Take on the Compatibility of Faith and Evolution. His lecture was the first of several on campus this year about the intersections between matters of faith and science, the Nature of Knowledge Seminar Series. This series was organized as a direct response to the university inviting a commencement speaker this past May who held decidedly strong and publicly expressed anti-science views.

Dr. Martin, who is also an ordained elder in his Presbyterian church and has taught Sunday school to teenagers in his church for more than 20 years, gave an informative, organized, congenial, and otherwise well-delivered presentation to an audience of more than 200 students, staff, faculty, and other people from the Atlanta community. In his talk, Martin effectively explored the false “either-or” choice often presented to Americans who are challenged by those who unknowingly misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent evolutionary theory in favor of their beliefs. Much of what he mentioned, he said, is summarized in a book he wrote for teenagers and their parents, titled The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution is Not a Threat.

I purposefully won’t mention any of the labels that have been applied to the people and organizations who promote this divisiveness between evolutionary theory and faith. After all, words have power, especially when backed up by Internet search engines. Moreover, it is an old and tired subject, of which I grow weary discussing when there is so much more to learn from the natural world. Better to just say that Martin persuasively conveyed his personal wonder for the insights provided by evolutionary theory, how science informs and melds with his faith, and otherwise showed how science and faith are completely compatible with one another. You know, kind of like science and art.

Previous to his arrival, his host in the Department of Biology asked Emory science faculty via e-mail if any of us would like to have a one-on-one meeting with Dr. Martin during his time here. I leaped at the chance, and was lucky enough to secure a half-hour slot in his schedule. When he and I met in my office, we had an enjoyable chat on a wide range of topics, but mostly on our shared enthusiasm for the evolution of burrowing crustaceans, and particularly marine crustaceans.

Ophiomorpha nodosa, a burrow network in a Pleistocene limestone of San Salvador, Bahamas. In this instance, the burrows were probably made by callianassid shrimp, otherwise known as “ghost shrimp,” and are preserved in what was a sandy patch next to a once-thriving reef from 125,000 years ago. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Interestingly, during this conversation we also touched on on how art and science work together, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Dr. Martin is a talented artist, too. It turns out he has illustrated many of his articles with exquisite line drawings of his beloved subjects, marine crustaceans. Yes, I realize that some artists like to draw a line (get it?) between being an “artist” and an “illustrator,” with the latter being held in some sort of disdain for merely “copying” what is seen in nature. If you’re one of those, sorry, I don’t have the time or inclination to argue about this with you. (Now go back to putting a red dot on a white canvas and leave us alone.)

Cover art of branchiopod Lepidurus packardi from California, drawn by Joel W. Martin, for An Updated Classification of the Recent Crustacea, also co-authored by Joel W. Martin and George E. Davis: No. 39, Science Series, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, California.

During our discussion in my office, I pointed out a enlarged reproduction of a drawing of mine depicting the burrow complex of an Atlantic mud crab (Panopeus herbstii). He immediately recognized it as a crustacean burrow, for which I was glad, because it is an illustration of just that in my upcoming book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast.

Burrow complex made by Atlantic mud crab (Panopeus herbstii), originally credited to a snapping shrimp (Alpheus heterochaelis). Scale = 5 cm (2 in). (Illustration by Anthony Martin, based on epoxy resin cast figured by Basan and Frey (1977).

After his campus visit, though, I realized that an even more appropriate artistic work to have shown him was the following one made for the Selections art exhibit last fall, titled Descent with Modification. This title in honor of the phrase used by Charles Darwin to describe the evolutionary process, but also is a play on words connecting to the evolution of burrowing crustaceans.

Descent with Modification again, but this time look at it as an evolutionary chart, where the burrow junctions in the burrow system reflect divergence points (nodes) from common ancestors. For example, from left to right, the ghost shrimp is more closely related to a mud shrimp, and both of these are more closely related to the ghost crab (middle) than they are to the lobster and freshwater crayfish (right). The main vertical burrow shaft represents their common ancestry from a “first decapod,” which may have been as far back as the Ordovician Period, about 450 million years ago.

The image shows five burrowing crustaceans, or to be more specific, ten-legged crustaceans called decapods. Along with these is a structure, which has a burrow entrance surrounded by a conical mound of excavated and pelleted sediment, a vertical shaft connecting to the main burrow network, and branching tunnels that lead to terminal chambers. A burrowing crustacean occupies each chamber, and these are, from left to right: a ghost shrimp (Callichirus major), a mud shrimp (Upogebia pusilla), a ghost crab (Ocypode quadrata), a marine lobster (Homarus gammarus), and a freshwater crayfish (Procambarus clarkii).

Here’s the cool part (or at least I think so): this burrow system also serves as an evolutionary chart – kind of a cladogram – depicting the ancestral relationships of these modern burrowing decapods. For example, lobsters and crayfish are more closely related to one another (share a more recent common ancestor) than lobsters are related to crabs. Mud shrimp are more closely related to crabs than ghost shrimp. Accordingly, the burrow junctions show where these decapod lineages diverged. So the title of the artwork is a double entendre with reference to Darwin’s phrase describing evolution as a process of “descent with modification,” along with burrowing decapods undergoing change through time as they descend in the sediment.

Modern decapod burrows and trace fossils of probable decapod burrows support both the science and the artwork, too. Here are a few examples to whet your ichnological and aesthetic appetites:

Thalassinoides, a trace fossil of horizontally oriented and branching burrow systems made by decapods in Early Cretaceous rocks (about 115 mya) of Victoria, Australia. In this case, these burrows were likely by freshwater decapods, such as crayfish, which had probably diverged from a common ancestor with marine lobsters more than 100 million years before then. Scale = 10 cm (4 in). (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Thalassinoides again, but this time in limestones formed originally in marine environments, from the Miocene of Argentina. Note the convergence in forms of the burrows with those of the freshwater crayfish ones in Australia. Think that might be related to some sort of evolutionary heritage? Scale = 15 cm (6 in). (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Horizontally oriented burrow junction of a modern ghost shrimp – probably made by a Carolina ghost shrimp (Callichirus major) – exposed along the shoreline of Sapelo Island, Georgia. Note the pelleted exterior, which is also visible on the burrow networks of the fossil ones in the Bahamas, pictured earlier. So if fossilized, this would be classified as the trace fossil Ophiomorpha nodosa. Scale in centimeters. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Two ghost-shrimp burrow entrances on a beach of Sapelo Island, Georgia, with the one on the right showing evidence of its occupant expelling water from its burrow. No scale, but burrow mound on right is about 5 cm (2 in) wide. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Burrow entrance and conical, pelleted mound made by a freshwater crayfish (probably a species of Procambarus) in the interior of Jekyll Island, Georgia. Scale = 1 cm (0.4 in). (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

So the take-away message of all of these musings and visual depictions is that evolution, faith, science, art, trace fossils, modern burrows, and burrowing decapods can all co-exist and be celebrated, regardless of whether we sing Kumbaya or not. So let’s stop dividing one another, get out there, and learn.

*I’m also proud to say that my post from October 17, 2011, Georgia Life Traces as Art and Science, was nominated for possible inclusion in Open Laboratory 2013. Thank you!

Further Reading

Basan, P.B., and Frey, R.W. 1977. Actual-palaeontology and neoichnology of salt marshes near Sapelo Island, Georgia. In Crimes, T.P., and Harper, J.C. (editors), Trace Fossils 2. Liverpool, Seel House Press: 41-70.

Martin, A.J. In press. Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN: 680 p.

Martin, A.J., Rich, T.H., Poore, G.C.B., Schultz, M.B., Austin, C.M., Kool, L., and Vickers-Rich, P. 2008. Fossil evidence from Australia for oldest known freshwater crayfish in Gondwana. Gondwana Research, 14: 287-296.

Martin, J.W. 2010. The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution is Not a Threat. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD: 192 p.

Martin, J.W., and Davis. G.E. 2001. An Updated Classification of the Recent Crustacea, No. 39, Science Series, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, California: 132 p.


Life Traces as Cover Art

I’ve been a long-time admirer of the artistic appeal of tracks, trails, burrows, nests, and other traces of animal behavior. My fondness for the beauty of traces also no doubt contributes to my science: after all, the longer I look at a trace, the more I learn about it. This sentiment accords with a long-time principle of paleontology, botany, and other facets of natural history, which is, “If you draw it, you know it,” with the added benefit of expressing your appreciation of natural objects to others through visual depictions.

Here it is: the cover for my upcoming book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals! The book is scheduled to be published by Indiana University Press in the fall of 2012, so be watching out for it then. But in the meantime, look at the beautiful cover art. Who created it, what inspired it, and what science lies behind its aesthetically pleasing composition? Please read on to find out.

My thinking about traces as objects of art is not very original, though, and in fact has been preceded by most of humanity. For example, animal tracks and other traces were common subjects of rock art extending back to the Pleistocene Epoch. Whether made as pictographs or petroglyphs, these traces of traces are in Australia, southern Africa, Australia, and Europe, with some tens of thousands of years old. Based on this tantalizing evidence, one could reasonably propose that the representation of animal traces through art composes an intrinsic part of our heritage as a species. Yes, I know, that’s a tough hypothesis to pursue any further. So I’ll leave it to my paleoanthropologist colleagues to work out (or not).

Petroglyphs that likely represent bird tracks, etched in Triassic sandstone by Native Americans hundreds of years ago (sorry, I’m a paleontologist, not an archaeologist). The pair of marks on the right is similar to the tracks made by a perching bird with three forward pointing toes and one rearward-pointing toe – such as an eagle – whereas those to the right may be like those of a roadrunner, which has an X-shaped foot. Petroglyphs are in northeastern Arizona, near Petrified Forest National Park.

Much more recently, trace fossils similarly inspired renowned ichnologist Dolf Seilacher, who also saw these vestiges of past behavior as lovely objects that fill us with wonder. As a result, in the mid-1990s, he conceived of a traveling exhibit and book showcasing tableaus of trace fossils and other sedimentary structures, titled Fossil Art. For this show – embraced by natural-history venues but mostly rejected by art museums – Seilacher prepared it by: (1) making latex molds of sedimentary rock surfaces; (2) pouring epoxy resin into the molds to make casts mimicking the original bedding planes; and (3) using indirect lighting to enhance details; and (4) assigning creative titles to each piece as if they were works of art.

So these artificial slabs are not human-made art in the traditional sense, but nonetheless invoke marvel, project splendor, and otherwise make us think, engaging the same senses and thought processes that accompany an appreciation of art. Moreover, the slim book Seilacher authored for the exhibit contains explanatory text about each of the objects, illuminated further by his marvelous illustrations and visual interpretations. I remember first seeing a version of this exhibit in Holzmaden, Germany in 1995, near Seilacher’s home in Tubingen, and most lately enjoyed strolling through it with other many ichnologists – and Seilacher himself – in Krakow, Poland in 2008.

World-renowned ichnologist and (oh yeah) Crafoord Prize winner, Dolf Seilacher, lecturing about the planning and execution of Fossil Art as an exhibit while it was showing at the Geological Museum of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland in September 2008. Photograph by Anthony Martin.

A close-up of Wrong Sided Hands, one of the pieces displayed in Fossil Art, cast from a latex mold of a sample from Lower Triassic Buntsandstein of Germany. The piece is so-called because the false appearance of a “thumb” on the outside of the tracks originally led to the mistaken idea that the animal awkwardly crossed its own path with each step. This turned out to be wrong. Also, check out the mudcracks! Photograph by Anthony Martin.

Another close-up of a piece from Fossil Art, titled Shrimp Burrow Jungle (helpfully translated into Polish here). This one is based on burrow systems made by crustaceans during the Late Triassic in Italy, which became densely populated over time and hence contributed to overlapping systems. Photograph by Anthony Martin.

Hence during my writing of a book about the modern traces of the Georgia barrier islands, I was well aware of how some of these traces could likewise lend to artistic expression. Some of this mindfulness was applied to a collaborative artwork done with my wife, Ruth Schowalter, in which we took an illustration of mine from the book and used it as the inspiration for a large watercolor painting depicting traces that would form with rising sea level along the Georgia coast (discussed in detail here).

Nonetheless, it was especially important to think about traces as art when considering a potential cover for the book. Book authors know all too well that a well-designed, attractive cover is essential for grabbing the attention of a potential reader, so I had that practical consideration in mind. But I also wanted a cover that pleased me personally, sharing my love of beautiful traces with others, especially those varied and wondrous tracks, burrows, and trails I had seen and studied on the Georgia barrier islands during the past 15 years.

In such an endeavor, I also faced the added pressure of precedence set by my publisher, Indiana University Press. My book is part of a series by IU Press, called Life of the Past, which is widely admired not only for its comprehensive coverage of paleontological topics, but also for its fine cover art, showcasing works done by a veritable “who’s who” of “paleoartists,” So I knew the cover art for my book needed to both conform to this legacy of artistic excellence, but also stand out from other books in the series because of its unique themes. After all, this would be first book in Life of the Past focusing specifically on ichnology. Moreover, the book is more concerned on modern tracemakers and their environments, rather than plants and animals of pre-human worlds. This was done with the intention of demonstrating how our knowledge of modern traces helps us to better understand life from the geologic past, an intrinsic principle of geology called uniformitarianism.

Ideally, as an ichnological purist, I would have had a cover devoid of any animals, and just shown environments of the Georgia of the Georgia coast with their traces. Indeed, I did just that in some of my illustrations in the book, in which I purposefully omitted animals and left only their traces. This “ichno-centric” mindset actually serves a pedagogical purpose, in that it would echo the truism that many sedimentary rocks are devoid of body fossils, yet are teeming with trace fossils.

Figure 1.3 from Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, conveying a sense of the variety and abundance of traces on a typical Georgia barrier island, from maritime forest (left) to shallow intertidal (right). I purposefully drew this illustration using a more cartoonish technique to introduce broad search images of traces for people who may not ordinarily think about these. But also notice what’s missing from the figure: the animal tracemakers. Instead, only immobile plants are depicted. Would this make for good cover art? No and no, especially if you’ve seen the typical covers done for Indiana University Press books. Illustration by Anthony Martin.

Realistically, though, I also knew that modern traces, particularly those made in places as easy to visit as parts of the Georgia coast, would be more eye-catching if accompanied by some of their charismatic tracemakers in a beautiful, natural setting. After all, the Georgia coast has lengthy sandy beaches, dunes, maritime forests, and salt marshes, inhabited by a wide variety of animals, such as sea turtles, shorebirds, alligators, horseshoe crabs, ghost crabs, and many others.

I also knew that a paleoartist would not be as well suited to the task of creating a cover as someone who works more with modern environments. A better pick would be someone who was familiar with the landscapes, plants, and animals of the Georgia barrier islands, but also a fine artist. I briefly toyed with the idea of doing it myself, but already felt like far too much of the book had been “DIY,” and was not confident enough in my skills to put together a compelling cover in enough time before the book came together. An artfully done photograph was another possibility, so I sent several prospective examples to the editors for their appraisal, but these were all shot down for not having enough aesthetic elements for an attention-getting cover (i.e., traces + landscapes + sky + water = very difficult to get into a single photo).

Fortunately, through social connections that still happen despite the Internet and its incentives for becoming increasingly introverted, I met Alan Campbell through mutual friends in December 2008 at a dinner party on the Georgia coast. Fortuitously enough, our meeting was also just before Ruth and I did three weeks of field work on the barrier islands for the book. It was only fitting, then, that our first meeting was spent dining with both of us facing a Georgia salt marsh, filled with fiddler crab burrows and other such traces. Alan is a Georgia artist with much life experience along its coast, he has often portrayed its environments through gorgeous watercolors, and he has worked with scientists in the field.

Consequently, I kept Alan in mind as a potential cover artist for the next few years, and after I had finished the text and all figures for the book, I contacted him last year about my idea, while simultaneously suggesting him to the editors at IU Press. After much back-and-forth negotiations, with me in the middle, both parties finally came to an agreement, and Alan had a contract to do the artwork for the cover by December 2011.

To help Alan in researching his task, I sent him all of my illustrations and photos used in the book so that he would have an extensive library of trace images on hand for reference. He also had this blog as a source, in which I regularly write about Georgia-coast traces, explanations that are always accompanied by photographs and an occasional illustration. We also exchanged many e-mails and talked on the phone whenever needed. I told Alan my preferred cover would feature a coastal scene, but one filled with traces. He voiced a concern that the painting might become too “busy,” and the details might be lost in reduction of the image to the size

Alan’s contract specified that he would have preliminary study sketches would be done by February 1, and the final cover art was to be finished by March 30. He was only a little late with the study sketches (delayed by a minor operation), and I was delighted to see the following sketch in mid-February.

Study sketch by Alan Campbell for the cover of Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. Reprinted with his permission, and anyone else who want to use it, you have to ask him, too. By the way, every time you use original artwork without permission, a little kitten dies.

After a little bit of feedback from both me and graphic designers at IU Press, Alan went back to the drawing board (so to speak), and came up with the following watercolor painting.

Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, 2012, watercolor on paper, 14” X 18” by Alan Campbell. Again, if you want to use it, you have to ask him first and get permission. Remember those kittens? They’re alive now, but there’s no guarantee they’re going to stay that way.

I gave this artwork a big thumbs up, as did the people at IU Press. So once approved and the scan was sent to IU Press, it was up to the graphic designers there to pick out the typeface, color of the type for the main title, subtitle, author name, and placement of type without covering up the main composition of the painting. I had no say in this, and that’s a good thing, because they really knew what they were doing. It is a very nicely designed cover, and the only thing that would please me more is if they had produced a holographic image of it. (Maybe next year.)

The final cover art for Life Traces of the Georgia Coast revisited. Does it look a little different, now that you know more about how it came about?

I won’t spoil the fun for potential readers, scientists, and art appreciators by explaining in detail all of the ichnological, ecological, and geological elements incorporated into the cover. After all, I’d like to sell a few copies of the book, while also letting readers make their own personal discoveries. But hopefully all of you now have a better appreciation for how traces made by animals, our recognition and admiration for these, and artistic expression of them can all combine to contribute to a book that can be accurately judged by its cover.

Further Reading

Leigh, J., Kilgo, J., and Campbell, A. 2004. Ossabaw: Evocations of an Island. University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia.

Martin, A.J., in press. Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.

Morwood, M.J. 2002. Visions from the Past: The Archaeology of Australian Aboriginal Art. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, Australia.

Seilacher, A. 2008. Fossil Art: An Exhibition of the Geologisches Institut. Tubingen University, Tubingen, Germany.

Tomaselli, K.G. 2001. Rock art, the art of tracking, and cybertracking: Demystifying the “Bushmen” in the information age. Visual Anthropology, 14: 77-82.