Teaching about Traces as Evidence

With the start of a new academic year, many university professors might be deliberating on what they’ll be teaching, and many students similarly (and hopefully) might be wondering what they will be taught. For me this academic year, my plan is not to put so much emphasis on the “what,” but more on the “how,” and put it in the form of a basic question: How could I be wrong?

In my experience, this is a question we professors and other educators we often ask, regardless of whether we are in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, or some blend of those educational realms. Now, this is not to say that we should continuously live our lives in doubt of our hard-earned skills and knowledge, succumbing to imposter syndrome. So what I will suggest is that we use it in our teaching, leading by example for our students. For instance, when my students see me question an initial interpretation of mine, correct that wrong interpretation, and show delight when this happens, then they will feel more comfortable asking themselves the same question, too.

So how do I apply this method to my research disciplines of paleontology and ichnology? If I am observing a natural phenomenon in the field, museum, or other settings, and I find myself jumping to a conclusion too rapidly, I take a moment to pause, back up, and try to disprove that hasty conclusion. Sometimes it turns out that, yes indeed, I was an idiot. But if this debunking process fails to find anything terribly wrong with my original explanation, or I modify it accordingly in the face of newly acquired evidence, then I’ll think this: So far, so good.

Eight-Legged-Otter-TracksWhoa, check out the tracks made by this eight-legged river otter! This eight-legged otter must have been the result of some freak mutation, or genetic engineering, or joined twin otters, or a robot spider with otter feet…What? Was it something I said? (Scale in centimeters; Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Moreover, because so much of paleontology and ichnology involves interpreting the products of non-witnessed lives, behaviors, and environments, such as bones, shells, leaves, tracks, and burrows, careful documentation of this evidence is key for making reasonable interpretations. Because we can’t prove ourselves wrong by watching a video of whatever happened in the pre-human past, we also have to ensure that the evidence can be shared and evaluated by other paleontologists and ichnologists.

In the following video, I explain these two basic scientific principles – how could I be wrong, and so far, so good – by using a few examples from a forested area next to the Emory University campus in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the place where I often teach first-year (freshman) students in a small-class seminar how to track the animals on and around our campus. Because most of these animals are nocturnal, most remain “invisible” to the students’ during their four years on campus. So my students really do learn how to use trace evidence to make reasonable hypotheses about animal presence and behaviors, and by the end of the semester, they get pretty good at it.

This sort of educational fruition is what made for the most fun part about doing this video, which was having a former student of mine who took the class four years ago play the role of my willing and eager “student.” In this, we demonstrated how the two basic principles – how could I be wrong, and so far, so good – are applied when in the field. It actually wasn’t much of a stretch for my former student, as Dorothy (Dottie) Stearns (Emory College ’16) was one of my best students in the class when she took it, and she really enjoys getting outside and tracking, so her enthusiasm is genuine.

The video is part of a series that Emory is producing on the theme of Evidence at Emory, with professors from a wide variety of disciplines explaining how they incorporate evidence-based reasoning in their courses. First-year students at Emory are the specific target of the videos so they are exposed to different disciplines and how scholars evaluate evidence in those disciplines. But there’s also hope that students will retain these discernment skills in life after college. Nonetheless, I think anyone who likes observing and thinking about what they observed can benefit from watching them. I could be wrong on that, but if not, I’m fine with that, too: for now.

Eight-Legged-Otter-TracksWait a minute, you’re saying these tracks could have been made by two otters, with one following closely behind the other? Huh, hadn’t thought of that. But that doesn’t mean eight-legged otters aren’t out there somewhere. Or freak mutated otters. Or genetically engineered otters. Or a robot spider with otter feet. What? Was it something I said?

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the Quality Enchancement Plan of Emory University for encouraging me to more overtly incorporate evidence as a main theme in my class, to Dottie Stearns for being such an awesome student/actor, and to the Center for Digital Scholarship, also of Emory University, for their fine work on the video production.

Introducing a ‘Mammoth’ Book

For the past ten years, Labor Day weekend in my adopted home town of Decatur, Georgia means the Decatur Book Festival takes over the downtown area. This is always a good thing, as attested by the 70-80,000 people and more than 500 authors who attend it each year, as well as the tens of thousands of books sold, making it the largest independent book festival in the U.S. But this year I thought of a way to make it a little more exciting: Bringing back some recently departed Pleistocene megafauna to the area.

DBF2015-Decatur-GeorgiaA small sample of book lovers attending the 2015 Decatur Book Festival, walking up and down Clairemont Road in lovely downtown Decatur on a beautiful day. The only thing that would improve this picture is a rampaging herd of mammoths, perhaps accompanied by a pack of dire wolves. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

As a “local boy done good,” I’ve been lucky enough to participate directly in the festival the past few years as an author and introducer of authors. In 2012, I was part of a panel discussion with authors Maryn McKenna and Dr. Holly Tucker about science authors using social media. In 2013, I was invited by the Atlanta Writers Club to present on my then-new book Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, and in another session introduced Brian Switek, there to talk about his book My Beloved Brontosaurus. Last year, I was delighted to be invited as one of the featured authors in the Science Track of the festival for my book Dinosaurs Without Bones.

With the planning of the 2015 Decatur Book Festival, and a new book in the works but nowhere near published, I figured my role in it this year would be as a spectator and probable book purchaser. So I was very pleased when festival organizers, in cooperation with the Atlanta Science Tavern, asked me to introduce one of the featured authors in the Science Track, Dr. Beth Shapiro, an invitation I readily accepted. Her new book, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, promised to be one of the more exciting titles showcased in the Science Track. Of course, I was also happy that my trip to this event involved only a 15-minute walk from home.

To start prepare for introducing Dr. Shapiro at the festival, I bought her book and read it beforehand, cover-to-cover. I’m not going to review it here (that’s partially covered in my introduction anyway), but the following book trailer, narrated by Shapiro, succinctly tells its story while using nicely rendered watercolors to illustrate its main points.

This is how science-book trailers should be done: Short and simply told, using lots of pretty pictures, but injected with enough intrigue to make you want to learn more about the topic. The video is narrated by Beth Shapiro and the artwork by Peter Durand, and is available for free download from Vimeo at this link.

After reading Dr. Shapiro’s book, I started writing my introduction for her, using some of the main ideas posed in the book and some biographical information. Yet somehow I knew that to just do that could be really boring. I also knew that because this was a book festival and I was a book author, it would be totally appropriate for me to actually write something original and read it to this literary-loving audience. This was not the time to “wing it” with a stumbling, impromptu little speech that just said, “The book’s great, she’s great, get the book!”

So this is when I took a page (or two) out of my most recent book (Dinosaurs Without Bones) and created a scenario to draw in and involve the audience more directly. In Dinosaurs Without Bones, I open the book with a detailed description of dinosaurs interacting with one another and making traces (tracks, burrows, nests, and more) in a given hour back in the Cretaceous Period. This time, though, I imagined a re-booted Pleistocene megafauna cavorting in downtown Decatur immediately after Shapiro’s talk (described below), then followed it with laudatory comments about the book and its author. Once written, I edited the rough draft, edited it again, and a third time, then rehearsed and timed the introduction four times. I only had about 3 minutes, and the final version came out to 3:30 minutes: Close enough.

I figured her talk, scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Sunday (September 6) at the Marriott Conference Center in downtown Decatur, would be packed, and it was. By about 1:05 p.m., the room was already nearly filled, and by the time I started my introduction, about 400 people were in the room, with many standing in the back and on the sides. This turned out to be the best attended of all Science Track talks at the festival, which was not surprising considering the interesting subject, lots of advance press about her book, and Dr. Shapiro’s engaging presentation style.

Crowd-Shapiro-DBF2015A panorama of the crowd as Beth Shapiro (far right) sets up her laptop at the podium, just before my introduction. The few empty seats you see in this photo were filled within minutes. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

I also met Dr. Shapiro for the first time about 10 minutes before my introduction, where we had a lively and fun exchange (including the coincidence that we had both attended the University of Georgia, albeit at separate times). We even had time to pose for a picture, taken by my wife, Ruth Schowalter.

Shapiro-Martin-DBF2015Just in case you were confused, that’s me on the left, and Beth Shapiro on the right. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

What’s charming about the Decatur Book Festival is that even the introducers are introduced, so I had to wait while the room captain (Anthony) read a brief biography about me, then I jumped up on stage for my introduction. All I’ll say is that it went very well, and I’m even more pleased to report that Shapiro’s talk was excellent, serving as a model for effective science communication.

Martin-Introducing-Shapiro-DBF2015Me on stage introducing Beth Shapiro (far right), with a large happy, enthusiastic crowd listening, and there for a science book. Did I already say how much I love the Decatur Book Festival? (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

My introduction follows in its entirety, and you’ll just have to think about how it would sound while reading it out loud, and with much dramatic emphasis.

Imagine exiting this building, but you have to pause for a moment because a herd of mammoths is strolling down Clairemont Road. On the Decatur town square, you move warily around a giant ground sloth tearing apart a Southern magnolia, and likewise give wide berth to several wooly rhinoceroses grazing by the gazebo. A pack of dire wolves dash by, chasing down a soon-to-be locally extinct coyote. However, you are amused when, in what looks like an act of vengeance, a giant bison crashes through the front door of Ted’s Montana Grill. Suddenly, a sunny day turns dark, and you look up to see a vast, dark cloud, from which a gentle rain falls. Only the “cloud” is composed of a billion passenger pigeons, and that’s not rain you’re feeling.

The animals just mentioned were all here, but separated from us by the geologically brief time of 11,000 years, or for passenger pigeons, only a hundred years. In Dr. Beth Shapiro’s brilliant new book, How To Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, she highlights our close temporal proximity to these extinct animals, while also exploring the feasibility of bringing them back alive, to the here and now.

Part lesson in the once-separate realms of genetics and paleontology, part wistful elegy to these recently departed animals, and all-good storytelling, How to Clone a Mammoth is a book that provokes weighty thoughts about improving our future by reliving the past. These animals or their proxies may be just what we need to repair environments devoid of long-gone keystone species. Forget Jurassic World with its super-sized mosasaurs, constipated dinosaurs, and improbable heels: We want “Pleistocene Park.” And our perfect guide for learning how to create that park is Dr. Shapiro.

As an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Dr. Shapiro studies de-extinction, a word that originated in science fiction, but thanks to her efforts and those of her colleagues, is now evolving into science fact. I also envy her UC-Santa Cruz students, who surely gain new and life-changing insights in her classes, benefiting directly from her field experiences in Siberia and laboratory expertise.

How to Clone a Mammoth is a provocative book, literally, as it provokes many questions. For instance, can we really clone a mammoth? How do we reconstruct their genome and those of other long-extinct animals? Once made, how does a “de-extincted” species become a self-sustaining population? How does this population fit into a modern community of microbes, plants, and animals? And, most importantly of all, should we try to bring back extinct animals, even those that only recently departed this earth? In other words, when creating a “Pleistocene Park,” will we make something more akin to Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery?

To answer all of those questions and more, we are very lucky to have Dr. Shapiro here today to talk about her book, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Beth Shapiro.

So if you were there at the Decatur Book Festival, I hope you enjoyed it, and especially the Science Track. Oh, and by the way, y’all really need to get (and read) Beth Shapiro’s book, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction (2015, Princeton University Press).

How-To-Clone-Mammoth-Book-CoverMy copy of the book, personally autographed by Beth Shapiro. No, I’m not going to sell it to you: Get your own copy. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

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.