Enter The Evolution Underground

It seemed all too fitting that author copies of my new book, The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet (Pegasus Books, 2017) arrived on February 2. In the U.S., this is Groundhog Day, which is named after a burrowing animal and one in which its burrow plays a key role in its mythology. Did it cast a shadow or otherwise predict the weather for the next six weeks? No, but it may enlighten as you travel through geologic time, learning all about how animals and their burrows altered the world, and how animals used burrows to survive the worst the earth (or solar system) could toss at them.

It’s here! After about two years from start to end, The Evolution Underground is out of its literary bunker and into your hands. (Photo by Anthony Martin.)

Is a book about burrows and burrowing animals too far beneath you to read? Well, as the immortal Kenny Loggins might say: Do what you like, and do it naturally.

The Evolution Underground is my seventh book and the second written overtly for a popular-science audience, following Dinosaurs Without Bones: Revealing Dinosaur Lives through Their Trace Fossils (2014, also by Pegasus Books). Dinosaurs Without Bones was a successful debut for me as a popular writer, with not-bad sales and mostly positive reviews (such as this, this, and this). That book was also my first attempt to make the word “ichnology” (the study of traces) more mainstream, and by using those always-charismatic dinosaurs as a hook. It worked, and I now think the percentage of people confusing ichnology with ichthyology has gone down ever so slightly since that book came out.

It’s ichnology, not ichthyology. Make sure you get it right, because you do not want to be slapped by Batman.

For fans of Dinosaurs Without Bones, I’m happy to report my new book – which is officially published today, February 7, 2017 – includes dinosaurs and it’s about ichnology. But it also includes plenty of paleontology, geology, ecology, and good, old-fashioned natural history throughout. Moreover, this book gave me a chance to introduce readers to a panoply of animals representing the past 550 million years of earth history, while also exploring the big idea that burrowing impacted the evolution of many animals and their ecosystems.

What’s it like to be a gopher tortoise? Kind of like being a subterranean landlord, considering that you might be sharing your burrow with 300-400 other species of animals.(Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken on St. Catherines Island, Georgia.)

Along those lines, main themes of the book are expressed in subtitles I considered for it: How Burrows Changed the World and Better Surviving through Burrows. For the former, the mere collective action of burrowing animals – from the deep seafloor to mountaintops – is an essential part of how most ecosystems function. For the latter, burrows were all-natural bunkers enabling animals to escape the worst the Earth (or solar system) could throw at them and allowing their evolution to continue underground. Want to survive a mass extinction? Start digging.

Lungfishes since the Devonian Period (more than 350 million years ago) have burrowed to avoid droughts, and their lineage has survived four mass extinctions. Coincidence? Probably not. (Original illustration by Anthony Martin, in The Evolution Underground (2017).)

Must you buy this book, or at least persuade your local public library to get it? Well, yes, if you insist. Still, just in case you first need to know a bit more about the burrowing animals and geologic times represented in between its front and back covers, here’s a chapter list with brief descriptions of their contents. Thanks in advance, and I hope you and other readers enjoy reading it.

The Evolution Underground: Chapter Titles and Synopses

Chapter 1: The Wondrous World of Burrows – Did you know that alligators make burrows? They do indeed, and they’re awesome burrows. Learn how these body-armored saurians straight out of central casting from the Mesozoic Era provide superb living examples of how many animals use (or used) burrows to survive and thrive, thus symbolizing many of the main themes of the book.

Chapter 2: Beyond “Cavemen”: A Brief History of Humans Underground – Since the time of living in caves, humans have gone beneath the Earth’s surface during times of environmental or societal stress, and we still do. In this chapter, travel to Turkey, China, Russia, Australia, Canada, and the far-off exotic land of Pennsylvania (home of weather-predicting groundhogs) to marvel at how humans, time and time again, have looked below when seeking safety.

One of these is a map of a naked mole rat burrow system, and the other is of an underground city made by humans in central Turkey. Which is which? That might be one of many questions answered by reading my new book. (Original illustration by Anthony Martin, in The Evolution Underground.)

Chapter 3: Kaleidoscopes of Dug-Out Diversity – Gopher tortoises of the southeastern U.S. dig burrows that are both deep and meaningful, as these burrows host underground menageries of many other species, boosting the biodiversity of their ecosystems. How did tortoises and other turtles evolve and survive mass extinctions of the past? If you answered “burrowing,” you’re catching on to what this book is about.

Chapter 4: Hadean Dinosaurs and Birds Underfoot – Although burrowing dinosaurs of the Mesozoic past were apparently rare, a few of their living descendants (birds) evolved to put their nests not in trees, but underground. In this chapter, penguins, puffins, shearwaters, owls, kiwis, bee-eaters, and other birds raising underground families are lauded for their digging family values.

Chapter 5: Bomb Shelters of the Phanerozoic – This chapter opens with a piece of fiction about a Lystrosaurus (or two) embarking on a post-apocalyptic journey. This allegory conveys how burrowing helped their kind and a few other animals to survive the worst mass extinction in the history of life at the end of the Permian Period (about 250 million years ago). This chapter also summarizes other mass extinctions and how burrowing provided an advantage for making it through the worst ecological crises of the geologic past.

Chapter 6: Terraforming a Planet, One Hole at a Time – When did animals move from the sea to freshwater and then onto land? Burrowing may have helped animals to make transitions from such environmental extremes, which ultimately resulted in their shaping landscapes as we know them today. Featured animals in this chapter include trilobites, horseshoe crabs, lungfish, amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders), lizards, and snakes.

Chapter 7: Playing Hide and Seek for Keeps – For a long time, all animal life was superficial, living either on seafloor surfaces or just underneath. Then about 550-540 million years ago, animals starting plumbing deeper. What caused this downward shift, and how did animals’ churning of oceanic sands and muds forever change the oceans, atmosphere, and the evolution of life? Also, the evolution of predators gave animals yet another reason to burrow: That is, before the predators started burrowing, too, starting an underground “arms race” that continues through today.

Chapter 8: Rulers of the Underworld – What animals are the real ecosystem engineers for our planet? Mostly the small and spineless ones, invertebrates. This chapter starts with those marvelous earthworms that so beguiled Charles Darwin, then pays tribute to the amazing feats of burrowing and animal architectures created by ants, crayfish, crabs, lobsters, and more.

Chapter 9: Viva La Evolución: Change Comes from Within – This chapter starts with the second fictional story in the book, following the exploits of an ecological hero – a pocket gopher – following the 1980 volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens. The rest of the concluding chapter of The Evolution Underground looks at burrowing mammals (especially rodents), but also considers the largest burrowing animals of all time. Also, what can we as mammals learn from our fellow furry underground relatives as we head into an uncertain future posed by rapid climate change?

Appendix: Genera and Species Mentioned in The Evolution Underground – A listing of the animals name-dropped in the book, some of which may surprise you.

What are you waiting for? Leave your underground hidey-hole and get my book! P.S. Thanks for reading it. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Decatur, Georgia.)


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.

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.)

Vestiges of Home

I first became a scientist in my backyard. This path to life-long inquiry began when I was four years old, as soon as my family moved to a larger house, and one with a larger yard. This small, outdoor patch of land with a few large trees, bushes, and grass soon became my field area, laboratory, classroom, and all-purpose place for conducting experiments in nature. Even better, my proclivity for observing this world outside of myself was encouraged – or at least tolerated – by my mother and father.

At the time, I had no idea just how important of a role this backyard and parental support would play in my scientific career. Yet now I look back on it with a mix of gratitude and wistfulness, especially as both of my parents have departed this earth I have studied for most of my life.

Backyard-Home-IndianaHere’s where I first learned science by going into the field. Back in the day, people – including my parents – called it a “backyard.” (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Indiana was an odd place for a natural scientist to develop in the 1960s. I recall how kids in public schools there and then were encouraged to study and pursue careers in science. However, this was mostly because of the “space race,” in which the U.S. was competing against the U.S.S.R. to see who could first land on the moon. I loved space, staring at the moon, planets, and stars, and I watched Star Trek (the original series, of course), dreaming of some day traveling in space. Science fiction stories became an outlet for me as well. Weekly trips to the public library meant checking out books by Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and other sci-fi writers who expanded my perspectives and kick-started my imagination with worlds far different from those I could experience in the Midwest.

Yet science fiction wasn’t the only subject that put me on a first-name basis with librarians as I checked out stacks of books. There were two other topics that supplemented my learning, namely dinosaurs and insects. Although the study of dinosaurs had not yet gone through its major scientific revolution of the 1970s, these animals still loomed large in my and other children’s inner worlds. “Tyrannosaurus rex! Stegosaurus! Brontosaurus!” we kids would shout gleefully at one another, or at bemused adults. Books with artistic recreations of dinosaurs and the occasional movie starring dinosaurian protagonists – such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Valley of Gwangi – fed our fancy, too.

Charles-Knight-PaintingPhoto of the original mural of Charles Knight’s ‘Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus‘ (1927), which is in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. While growing up, I saw this image many times in books, and it inspired both my artistic and scientific leanings. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Still, no matter how hard I imagined, I could not see a tyrannosaur in my backyard, let alone watch it stalk and devour its prey. In contrast, insects and other animals with jointed legs delivered Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw,” and much more. For about nine months of any given year during my childhood, starting in the spring, I could step out the back door of my house and watch ants, bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, spiders, and praying mantises. Plant-insect interactions in particular – such as pollination, herbivory, and wound responses in plants – drew me in, teaching me those ecological principles long before I ever heard the words “pollination,” “herbivory,” and “wound response.”

Roses-Pollination-Bee-HomeRoses blooming in the front yard of my Indiana home in August 2014, attracting a pollen-gathering carpenter bee (probably Xylocopa virginica). Female carpenter bees leave exquisitely crafted traces in wood, boring into them to make brooding cells, which they provision with pollen balls. The rose bush was originally planted by my father in the late 1970s. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Leave-Insect-Feeding-TracesInsect damage on the leaf of an apple tree in the backyard of my Indiana home in August 2014. The leaf mine (left) was probably caused by a different insect from the one that made the incision along the leaf margin just to its right. Notice the brown discoloration in the leaf, a trace of its response to these injuries and its healing. My father planted this apple tree, but I’m not sure when: maybe also in the late 1970s. (Photograph by Anthony Martin.)

Predation fascinated me, probably because death was such an inappropriate topic for children to discuss with their parents. This wasn’t the artificial, acted-out stuff of TV and movies, but was in your face, or rather, in front of your face. With mild shame now (and apologies to my Buddhist friends), I remember going into my backyard, picking up ants, and throwing them into wolf spiders’ ground webs. It was a repeatable experiment in which I could observe spider response-times to tactile stimuli, and it was real.

My backyard is also where I learned to sit still and wait. As soon as I spotted a praying mantis, it was only a matter of time before that magnificent, big-eyed head swiveled to lock onto a target, moved delicately toward it, and sprang its barbed arms forward to snatch and hold its squirming dinner, which it devoured alive. Who the hell needed TV, with sharks, lions, and polar bears, when you had this, and for free?

Ah, there’s that word, “free.” This connects to the main reason why my science leaned more toward field observations and less to indoor labs, a legacy that stuck. You see, my family was poor. I didn’t know this until other kids at school made fun of my shoes, which had holes in their soles, or my pants, which were too outgrown or ragged, or my haircuts, which looked odd because my mother cut it, and badly, but with good intentions, because haircuts done by barbers were just too expensive. Compounding this (and not coincidentally), my mother and father never went to college, and my parents struggled to maintain their traditional roles, for which they were ill suited to succeed.

My father was a veteran of World-War II, and late in his shortened life was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome), which in the 1970s was labeled “shell shock.” This condition meshed all too well with his alcoholism, meaning he had trouble keeping down a job for more than a few years. His last paycheck came from working as a night-shift janitor at a Columbia Records distribution center in Terre Haute. This job ended once he began suffering from a series of serious illnesses that put him in and out of hospitals for the last 15 years of his life. Only 59 years old, he died in the summer of 1985, just a few months before I left for Ph.D. study at the University of Georgia.

Dad-Then-LaterMy father at six months old (in 1927) and near the end of his life (circa 1982). His mother was still alive when the photo at the left was taken, but he never got to know her; she died when he was only two years old. During his last ten years of life, he developed a fondness for roses, cultivating them in our yard and bringing beauty to our home every year.

My parents were also Catholic, which in their time meant the only birth control they used was prayer. As a result, we had a big family, and I grew up with four brothers and one sister. But we were also reminded of unseen siblings, the ones who might have been. My mother was pregnant 13 times, with six successful births, but also six miscarriages and one stillbirth, meaning she bore more deaths than lives. Much later, I realized how this must have placed a profound emotional burden on her, even though she almost never mentioned it.

Judging from my mother’s affection for books and reading, I think she wanted to be an intellectual of sorts, perhaps even a scientist, or at least she wanted to learn and debate ideas with other people. This, however, was not possible when cleaning, cooking, shopping, paying bills, and otherwise taking care of six kids, all while constantly pregnant until she had her last child in 1962. Add to those demands a chain-smoking, alcohol-fueled, and narrow-minded husband who helped with none of those household tasks, followed by her being his in-house nurse and servant during the last 15 years of his life, and she didn’t stand a chance of reaching those ideals.

Dad-Back-From-War-with-MomHappier times for my parents, soon after my father came home after his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, where he fought in the Pacific. It would be his only trip abroad, but it scarred him for the rest of his life, which affected everyone around him. My mother never traveled outside of the U.S. and stayed in the Midwest for nearly all of her life.

Given such a family history, I experienced class differences and situations in college and graduate school that perplexed and occasionally stung. Even now, despite having taught at an elite private university for nearly 25 years, I still wrestle with imposter syndrome, and with how much my background sets me apart from others in my rarified academic world.

For instance, many of my academic colleagues are second-generation academics, or otherwise come from more socially elevated or well-to-do (or at least middle-class) families, where they never had to worry about paying the bills in time and making it through the month. Moreover, most of the students I’ve taught over the years have almost never experienced such economic anxieties, either. Behind all of the science I do and teach, and all of my achievements, I still hold onto a nagging, debilitating fear of scarcity, and a secret shame of how my family was on welfare and used food stamps to buy groceries. The taste of government cheese still lingers.

In the 1960s, education seemed like a way to escape from the cycle of poverty, and that was the message I constantly received from my mother and father. Sadly, that message sometimes translated as, “Don’t be failures like us.” Later in life, I turned that little frown upside down when I traveled, met wonderful people, and made scientific discoveries, many of which happened whenever I did field work in places far away from that backyard in Indiana.

Victoria-Coast-CretaceousIn grade school music class, I used to get in trouble for singing the chorus of Waltzing Matilda a bit too boisterously, which happened in between reading books about dinosaurs and insects. About 40 years later, I was walking along the coast of Victoria, Australia, looking for dinosaur tracks and insect trace fossils in the Cretaceous rocks there. Funny how that happens sometimes. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

But here’s the thing about that whole “education helps people to escape from poverty” trope, one seemingly affirmed by my little personal story. This was much easier to do in the 1960s than today. The gap between the poor and rich in the U.S. today is the worst it’s been since the 1920s, with no sign of abating. People who wants to preach their faith-based mantra of “People just need to work harder to succeed” conveniently overlook that Horatio Alger was a second-generation Harvard man and Ayn Rand took government assistance. Also, an increased emphasis on student loans to pay for exploding tuition rates during the past 30 years has meant young, aspiring scientists may be starting their careers with crippling debt.

But here’s another thing: I was damned lucky because of my parents. Not despite them, but because of them. That’s what I say – and with considerable ferocity – every time someone tries to tell me (in a well-meaning way) how much my life reflects “the American dream.” For one thing, I grew up at a time when white boys were far more encouraged to go into science than African-American boys, or all girls. This accident of being born male, and in a family belonging to the dominant ethnic group of my culture, meant I benefited from the privilege of my gender and race, even as my socioeconomic background held me back.

Flagpole-ClimbingThat’s me, climbing a flagpole just outside my house when I was about seven years old, circa 1967. The rest of my family was standing below watching, cheering me on, and documenting the event. Little did I know at the time that other kids were told they couldn’t climb flagpoles, let alone make it to the top. Yes, that’s a metaphor. (P.S. The flagpole’s gone now.)

I also had lots of help along the way, such as financial aid and scholarships in college, and teaching assistantships in graduate school. This meant I didn’t have to take out student loans. Sure, I had less than $100 to my name the first month I began the teaching job I still hold (so far), but at least I began that job debt-free. Many of today’s aspiring scientists don’t have this luxury, and entrenched inequities related to gender and ethnicity continue to discourage careers in science for most Americans. Also, achieving a college degree today is nine times more likely if you come from an upper-income family than a poor one. It was never easy for poor people to become successful scientists, but it’s far, far tougher today. I was lucky.

Perhaps most importantly, though, I had parents who let me play outside and supported my learning science, however weird I must have seemed to them. I mean, staying out in the backyard for hours, flinging ants in spider webs, and watching praying mantises kill other insects? That was pretty strange, even in the 1960s. I even climbed trees in our backyard. I suspect that many of today’s “helicopter parents” would have forbidden a scrawny runt like me from going outside, let alone get my face close to spiders and insects, and handle unknown plants. Climbing trees probably would have involved first donning a series of ropes, carabiners, harnesses, padding, and a helmet, all while being supervised by a team of tree-climbing experts. Instead, like any arboreal primate should, I climbed those trees by myself, occasionally fell out of them, then got back up and climbed again. I was lucky.

Climbing-Pine-TreeMy favorite climbing tree in my backyard, which I started scaling when I was about six years old, so it must be more than 70 years old now. It was great fun to see how far I could get up into it and explore, and I found much peace just sitting in its crooks, watching the world below. Notice in the close-up (right) all of the scars on the trunk, marking the sites of the low-hanging branches, which fell off the tree a long time ago. (Yes, that’s another metaphor.)

My parents also regularly took me to our modest public library, where I checked out many books, which I read, and sometimes re-read. After my grade-school teachers alerted them that I was showing talent as an artist, my parents also spent some of their meager cash to buy me crayons, pencils, paper, acrylic paints, oil paints, and canvases as birthday and Christmas presents. So I drew and painted, and nature was my inspiration for such creations. I still can draw well – and sometimes teach drawing to my students – because of what my parents did for me. I was lucky.

Insects-Then-NowOne of my earliest attempts at scientific illustration (left), coupled with one of my more recent efforts (right). The one on the left – clearly intended as a multi-part figure – shows some of the insects I observed in my backyard, as well as some of the ecological interactions they had as pollinators, predators, and prey. The one on the right is from Figure 5.4a in Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (2013, Indiana University Press, p. 192), and is the subsurface form of a nest made by Florida harvester-ants (Pogonomyrmex badius); scale bar = 25 cm (10 in).

As I do field work today, I silently thank my father for taking me on hunting and fishing trips, effectively planting the seeds for my present-day comfort with forests, streams, lakes, and other outdoor environments. On those hunting trips, I learned what little my father knew then about tracking animals, a skill that I honed later in life, and now one of my passions. On fishing trips, I watched the behavior and ecology of freshwater crayfish, which abounded in the streams of southern Indiana. I had no clue that more than 40 years later I would reconnect with that childhood interest in crayfish by discovering the oldest fossil crayfish in Australia. I also did a different kind of fishing by studying and interpreting fish trace fossils, such as a trail left by a bottom-feeding fish about 50 million years ago in Wyoming. Then I combined my childhood love of insects and dinosaurs by writing and publishing a paper about Cretaceous insect cocoons near dinosaur nests in Montana. I didn’t see an ocean until I was 20 years old, but last year published a 700-page book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, which I also illustrated myself. None of those things would have happened without my parents’ help early in my life. I was lucky.

My father and mother did what they could with what life dealt them, and my mother in particular. She was born in northern Illinois and lived there through the Great Depression during her childhood. While there, she met her high-school sweetheart, who some day would be the father of her six children. He went off to fight in a world war, she waited for him to return, and they married soon afterwards. They headed south to Terre Haute, and lived in one house, then another. The latter was her home for 50 years.

Mom-Honeymoon-OutcropMy mother on her honeymoon at Turkey Run State Park in southern Indiana, 1947. While looking through a photo album in 2012, I was delighted to see this photo, showing her when she was fully in love with my father, but also enjoying what must have been a glorious waterfall. Best of all for me, though, it has an outcrop of Late Carboniferous (Pennsylvanian) Period deltaic sandstones in the background.

My mother outlived my father by nearly 30 years and got to see how her love of books, reading, and encouragement of my learning came back home to her. In 2001 and 2006, it was with much pride I mailed her each edition of a textbook I wrote and published (Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs). In the preface to Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, I pointedly thanked her and my father for cultivating a childhood life filled with books, art, and the outdoors.

Mom-Then-LaterThe first and last photographs of my mother, when she was three years old (about 1929) and just last month, the latter photo taken by my brother Pat.

My mother died three weeks ago. The first stroke was toward the end of December 2013, and its treatment necessitated her going to a hospital, and then to assisted care. For the next eight months, she had a picture window that looked out onto a courtyard, where she watched the blooms, butterflies, and birds of what would be her last Indiana spring and summer. On August 26, she had a second and more deadly stroke, putting her in a coma that took away all of her speech, thoughts, and memories. After receiving emergency care in Terre Haute, she was evacuated by helicopter to an intensive-care unit in Indianapolis that same night. Six days later, she exhaled for the last time, less than a week shy of her 88th birthday.

Decatur-Book-Festival-Dedication-MomMe giving a talk about my most recent book, Dinosaurs Without Bones (2014) at the Decatur Book Festival last month. At the end of my talk, I dedicated it to my mother. Almost no one in the audience knew she was in a coma at the time, and none of us knew she would die three days later. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

Just before this second stroke, I flew up to Indiana to see her, and we spent some time with our extended family, but also some quiet moments talking together, just mother and son. During this visit, I told her how much I appreciated everything she had done for me. We got to say goodbye to one another. We were lucky.

Today I am a trace of my mother’s and father’s love and care, and a trace of my home and backyard in Terre Haute, Indiana. Given more luck, I’ll be around for a while longer, leaving more traces of my own, and in many more places. Thank you, Dad. Thank you, Mom. You did good.

Mom-Me-Then-LaterFirst and last photos of my mother with me, separated by more than 50 years. As you can see from both pictures, my disposition hasn’t changed much. And thanks to Mom, it probably won’t.

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.

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.)

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

(This is the second in a three-part series honoring the memory of ichnologist-paleontologist-educator-artist Dolf Seilacher (1925-2014). For Part I, please go here.)

Dolf Seilacher and I crossed trails again in the fall of 1997, but through my initiative and in my backyard, here in Georgia. After the Evolutionary Biology Study Group at Emory University hosted a series of prominent biologists on the Emory University campus – such as George C. Williams, Richard Lewontin, and the Grants (Rosemary and Peter) – its director asked me which paleontologist we might bring to campus. Having invited theoreticians and lab-based or field biologists as our main guests, he wanted to give the members of our group more of a “deep time” perspective on evolutionary processes. So I immediately said, “Dolf Seilacher.”

Seilacher-Coca-Cola-EmoryDolf Seilacher in Melton’s App & Tap, a neighborhood pub near the Emory University campus that served both Coca-Cola (which has economic connections to Emory) and proper adult beverages, the latter necessary for fueling meaningful paleontological conversations. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Atlanta, Georgia 1997.)

I recall a few snobbish members of the group doubted that any paleontologist could be a real evolutionary scientist: after all, paleontologists don’t do “experimental work.” (Yes, I’ve actually heard this smug, self-important drivel emit from the mouths of proudly lab-bound neontologists, making Sheldon Cooper look downright open-minded by comparison.) I was also at a university that had jettisoned its Department of Geology only eight years previously, meaning I had little support in my on-campus academic community for hosting an earth scientist. However, Dolf had won the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Crafoord Prize just five years before, thus he qualified as prestigious enough for most of the doubters. (Needless to say – but it bears saying anyway – none of his prejudiced skeptics had similar honors.)

Fortunately, Dolf did not disappoint, and hosting him at Emory University was among the most intellectually exhilarating three days I’ve experienced in the past 24 years at my institution. I had him mostly to myself on his first day in Atlanta, but we were joined by fellow ichnologist and friend Andrew (Andy) Rindsberg for dinner, with both of us feeling as if we had the world’s best private tutor in ichnology for that brief time. The next day, Dolf did a lunchtime seminar for the Evolutionary Biology Study Group, then later that afternoon delivered a talk in a big room open to the entire university and the general public. For his last full day in Georgia, he insisted we take him out in the field to see some of the Ordovician-Silurian rocks in the northwest corner of the state. (Other than transferring planes in Atlanta’s airport, Dolf had never been to Georgia and wanted to see our trace fossils.)

His second day in Atlanta, he began his engagement with the Evolutionary Biology Study Group, which was composed mostly of biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists; Andy and I were the lone paleontologists there. The lunchtime seminar was held in a cramped room, and most people there were awkwardly holding flimsy paper plates weighed down by slices of cheap pizza. The overall mood was one of curiosity, as Dolf was a complete unknown to most people there. (Remember, this was 1997: “Googling” was still a year away from being anything, let alone a verb.)

His seminar topic was on fossil tracks, and he started with the classic historical example of how some Early Triassic tracks from Germany (named Chirotherium) had been badly misinterpreted by some of the greatest scientists of their time, such as Alexander von Humboldt, Richard Owen, and Charles Lyell. Later, with more scrutiny and the application of a few key ichnological principles, other scientists revealed what animals made them and how, which Dolf explained in his book Trace Fossil Analysis (2007, p. 6-7).

Seilacher-Chirotherium-AnalysisDolf Seilacher’s visual explanation for how the anatomy and dimensions of a tracemaker, its behavior, and the original substrate (a firm mud) all contributed to making a fossil trackway from the Early Triassic Period (about 245 million years old). He also included  explanations of previous interpretations for these tracks and when they were proposed (middle right), neatly summarizing the progression of the science done on these tracks. (Figure from: Seilacher, A., 2007, Trace Fossil Analysis, Springer, p. 7.)

Wrong-Way-Hands-Fossil-ArtA reproduction of the Early Triassic (about 245 million-year-old) rock slab with mudcracks and Chirotherium tracks, both preserved in convex relief as natural casts. I said “reproduction” because this is a epoxy resin cast made from a latex mold that was also colored to mimic the original rock. Does this sound like a work of art? Well, as a matter of fact, this was one piece in a show Seilacher conceived called Fossil Art. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Krakow, Poland in 2008.)

Once introduced, Dolf took off, and his audience went with him. In a lively, mesmerizing presentation, Dolf deftly interwove history of science with detective-like applications of ichnology, anatomy, sedimentology, and evolution, all delivered with his trademark enthusiasm, humor, and charisma.

In one memorable instant, he used his hands and arms to play-act the wrongly interpreted gait of the Chirotherium maker, in which this wretched imaginary animal had to cross its limbs as it walked. (Later, paleontologists figured out its so-called “thumb” was actually its outermost digit, thus erasing any need for the animal to cross-step.) He then pantomimed the more correct gait, again bringing across his points far more effectively than if he had used, say, a computer-animated reconstruction of the tracemaker. The audience was enthralled, enchanted, engaged, or whatever words science communicators use to describe what happens when a speaker is rhetorically kicking butt.

How did I know Dolf’s talk was a success? About five minutes into it, one of the most egotistical and pedantic curmudgeons in the Evolutionary Biology Study Group (who may or may not have been an anthropologist) turned to me and said with genuine delight, “This guy is terrific!” Yes, he was.

Later that afternoon, Dolf gave a lecture in a, well, lecture hall, with about a hundred people attending. For me, this was less exciting than his noontime talk because trace fossils and ichnology only figured briefly in its message. Instead, it was more about the “big picture” of evolution as reflected by the fossil record, with emphases on constructional morphology and biological structuralism, and connecting these to the evolution of animal behaviors. Some of these concepts – which I won’t even try to explain here – represented expansions on research by Dolf’s Ph.D. advisor, Otto Schindewolf. Nonetheless, he delivered a thought-provoking lecture, and enthusiastically answered a variety of questions when the time came.

Dinner at a Lebanese restaurant after the lecture was an opportunity to see yet another side of Dolf. For instance, soon after our party had been seated, he and the restaurant owner exchanged pleasantries (and jokes) in Arabic. I had forgotten that Dolf taught at the University of Baghdad early in his career and did much field work in Libya and other parts of the Middle East. The dinner – which included many field stories Dolf had experienced around the world – went well into the night, but did not hinder Dolf’s observation skills at the end of it.

As we exited the restaurant, he pointed to the cement on the doorstep and said, “Look, evidence of a former biomat, helping to preserve this footprint.” We looked down and saw where a shoe-clad human had stepped into the originally wet cement. But wrinkle marks around its edges – as Dolf explained – showed where plastic sheeting had been placed over the cement in a vain attempt to prevent people from stepping on it. It was a moment when we felt like Watson to his Sherlock.

Following his triumphant visit to the Emory campus in Atlanta, Dolf was then ready to experience something that really mattered, like trace fossils. The next day, we took him to northwestern Georgia to look at trace fossils in the Ordovician-Silurian rocks there, a mere 2.5 hour drive from Atlanta.

We had a varied group, composed of a few paleontologists – Andy Rindsberg, Sally Walker, and me – along with the director of the Evolutionary Biology Study Group (Michael Zeiler), a couple of evolutionary biologists and biology graduate students, and a few undergraduate students from one of my geology classes. Our only goal for the day was to see the I-75 Ringgold roadcut, which through its height, breadth, and gently tilted strata afforded an opportunity to stroll along its length, find many trace fossils, and put them into the context of changing environments from more than 440-430 million years ago.

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-1The start of the field trip with Dolf Seilacher to see Ordovician-Silurian rocks near Ringgold, Georgia. This photo was taken about 10 minutes before he took over the field trip, which immediately followed Andy Rindsberg and me getting “Dolfed.” (Photograph taken by Anthony Martin in November 1997.)

Andy and I were thrilled to have Dolf at this outcrop with us because we had done a lot of work there, and we wanted to show off what we had found. Andy studied the Ordovician and Silurian trace fossils there in an M.S. thesis done at the University of Georgia, and I completed a bed-by-bed analysis of its Upper Ordovician rocks as part of my Ph.D. dissertation, also at the University of Georgia. Because we worked for the same graduate advisor (Robert “Bob” Frey), Andy and I communicated well with one another, and we mostly agreed on what trace fossils were there and what they meant. Moreover, Frey had published a paper with Dolf in 1980 (well before he died in 1992). Thus Andy and I felt as if we were fulfilling an ichnological legacy by taking Dolf to see trace fossils that Frey had studied here in Georgia.

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-2A first sign that Andy and I were not leading this field trip: within minutes of arriving at the site, the group gathered around Dolf to listen to what he had to say about the Late Ordovician rocks under our feet and around us. Did I mention this was his first time there? (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-3Probably my favorite photograph of Dolf, showing him in full lecture mode while surrounded by Late Ordovician rocks in northwest Georgia. His synapses also might have been firing double time because of the caffeinated beverage he picked up at a Golden Gallon convenience store just beforehand. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

When we got to our destination, we parked and walked a short ways to our first stop. Rather than going directly to the road cut, we first looked at big slabs of sandstone in a former quarry site. These sandstones were from the Late Ordovician Sequatchie Formation, and they made for wonderful teaching specimens, containing many fossil burrows, mudcracks, and reddish clay, all indicating formerly intertidal environments. However, Andy and I didn’t know what made the burrows. Little did we know (but we should have), we were about to find out.

After Andy and I gave a brief introduction to this site and a preview of what to expect at the outcrop, Dolf strolled over to a large slab of sandstone, and nonchalantly placed his hand over a bump on its surface. “This trilobite resting trace shows how they were well adapted to living in intertidal environments at this time…” he began.

Andy and I exchanged startled looks. “Trilobite resting traces?” we both said. In all of our years of field work at this site, we had found very little evidence of a trilobite presence. We also had never recognized a trace fossil showing where a trilobite dug into mud or sand in one place and left an outline of its body, a so-called “resting trace,” sometimes called Rusophycus.

That’s when we realized it. We’d been Dolfed. And on our own field trip.

Fortunately, we didn’t care. Dolf then went on to propose that the more common burrows in these rocks were also made by trilobites, but smaller ones. I’ve written previously about this trilobite-themed revelation and how Andy and I tried later to disprove it, only to find that Dolf was probably right. This served as yet another example of why experience matters in ichnology, and why we ichnologists should always listen to those who have it.

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-4Dolf in action, as he started to put together the story of how trilobites were burrowing on and into tidal flats more than 400 million years ago in a place we now call Georgia. Notice how Dolf was using pencil and paper to assist in his explanations of what was in front of us, no doubt drawing out his conclusions. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-5Dr. Sally Walker, getting a close look at the bedding-plane surface of the sandstone, which is loaded with natural casts of mudcracks. But wait: what’s that blurry, whitish bump in the lower left corner?

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-6Why, that’s a trilobite resting trace, the first ever found in this formation and locality. Thanks for the Dolfing, Dolf. (Both photographs by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

Seilacher-Trilobite-Resting-Trace-DrawingDon’t quite see the trilobite resting trace fossil, and you think it’s a just a random bump on that rock surface? Here’s an illustration by Dolf that should help to enlighten. Take a look at the left-hand side of this figure with his depictions of trilobite resting traces, then look again at the photograph of the “random bump.” Yes, that’s right: you’re wrong. And you know what? It’s perfectly fine to be wrong in science. Just make sure you learn from your mistakes. (Figure from: Seilacher, A., 2007, Trace Fossil Analysis, Springer, p. 39.)

The rest of the field trip seemed almost anti-climatic after Dolf’s discovery, but it was still quite enjoyable. We left the quarry site and walked along the roadcut itself for the next few hours, stopping to look at whatever caught our attention. Its titled strata meant were were going forward in geologic time, from oldest to youngest (Middle Ordovician –> Early Silurian). This provided a nice lesson for the geological novices in our group in how to interpret changing environments through time. We found more trace fossils, and even a few body fossils, giving everyone plenty of paleontological stimulation to get them through that day and beyond.

Dolf-Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-7Dolf Seilacher, master ichnologist and consumate teacher. We will greatly miss his pointing out the obvious to the oblivious. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken near Ringgold, Georgia in November, 1997.)

When it came time to leave, we walked out with Dolf, feeling exceedingly grateful for his requesting this trip. Later, we joked with him about the success of his “first visit to Georgia.” Alas, we did not know then that it would also his last. Nonetheless, what remains are the provocative thoughts and methods he imparted on so many of us during his brief time here, no doubt inspiring future generations of paleontologists, ichnologists, and all others interested in learning about the wondrous history of the earth.

Seilacher-Ringgold-14A group picture following our field trip with Dolf Seilacher to northwest Georgia in November 1997 (and much gratitude to whoever suggested it and took it). For me (far right, big hat), the road behind us seems to symbolize a trail he blazed for us to follow. Thanks for all of the cognitive traces, Dolf: may they continue to reach into the fossil record.


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


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

Every paleontologist has a Dolf story. Or at least it seems that way, especially for the past couple of weeks. One-by-one, like feather-duster worms poking their heads out of burrows, these stories have all emerged since the paleontological community heard the sad news that Adolf (Dolf) Seilacher died on April 26, 2014.

This manifestation of Dolf connecting with so many paleontologists over multiple generations symbolizes his ultimate and most lasting trace as a scientist and teacher. During his 89 years with us, he observed, discovered, pondered, argued, and argued more over the evidence that life left in the rocks of the past 600 million years or so. Much of this evidence is preserved as trace fossils, the vestiges of animal behavior that imparted their former presence as burrows, trails, tracks, feces, or other signs of life that almost never connect to their undoubted makers. Although Dolf was no slouch when pontificating on the bodily remains of ancient animals, either, it was with trace fossils where he truly excelled.

Seilacher-Ringgold-Georgia-TeachingAdolf (“Dolf”) Seilacher in his natural habitat, teaching students and professors alike when in the field. Notice how he was using paper and pencil as tools, which were instrinsic to his teaching methods. (Photo taken by Anthony Martin at Ringgold, Georgia in November 1997; Dr. Sally Walker (right) for scale.)

Dolf is often acknowledged as the founder of modern ichnology, the study of traces and trace fossils. Through this science, he could divine the original intents and purposes of trilobites, worms, clams, snails, shrimp, fish, pelycosaurs, dinosaurs, and many other former denizens of the earth. He accomplished this Sherlockian feat through the careful examination of ancient animals’ signatures, or the jots and tittles in those signatures: miniscule clues he reconstructed as entire manuscripts or symphonies that spill their secrets to those who pay heed. Dolf’s marvelous ability to spin fossil gold from carbonized straw is most of what inspired the many stories we paleontologists tell about him, although his personality was intrinsically linked to this, too (more on that later).

Nonetheless, what was truly remarkable about how Dolf worked his ichnological magic was his use of such old-fashioned methods. What were his primary tools for observing? His eyes, brain, pencil, paper, and drawing: no laser scanners (let alone “laser cowboys”), CT imaging, digital photogrammetry, rotating 3-D visualizations, or other modern technological tools were necessary for what he did. If someone had a time machine, they could have inserted Dolf into the late 19th century among the naturalists of those days, and he would have blended. Paradoxically, though, we 21st century paleontologists remember him as someone who surpassed all of us with his observational and intuitive skills. In this sense, he was a reminder of the readily available and valuable means we already possess that allow us to make sense of our planet and its vast history.


The Hand of Dolf, drawing onto a Middle Jurassic trace fossil (Zoophycos) to teach me and others how it was made by worm-like animal on a deep seafloor about 170 million years ago. (Photograph taken by Anthony Martin in Switzerland, 2003.)

Field-Notebook-Dolf-DrawingA composite trace (drawings plus writings) made by Dolf and me. The central figure is a visual explanation he drew for me, showing how one could figure out whether the Zoophycos-making animal was moving down below the sediment surface (protrusive) or moving up (retrusive) as it burrowed. Under his watchful eye, I then parceled out the details below. Field notes and drawings done on July 16, 2003, at the outcrop indicated in Switzerland.

Still, Dolf vigorously disagreed whenever anyone praised him as an “artist,” insisting he was a mere illustrator. With all due respect to his memory, he was wrong on this, and most of the paleontological community likewise rejected such statements. He was a fine artist and scientist, inseparably partnered in one person.

Trilobite-Grazing-SeilacherOne of many examples of how Dolf Seilacher was both a scientist and an artist, in which through drawing he interpreted a series of movements made by a trilobite along an Early Cambrian seafloor, more than 500 million years ago. (Figure from Seilacher, A., 2007, Trace Fossil Analysis, Springer: p. 27. If you support the unification of science and art, then you must get this book.)

Like all students of paleontology who took their first toddling steps in the 1970s-80s, I first learned of Seilacher through his papers. In those readings, I also soon realized the most effective way to discern the key points of his papers was to skip straight to his exquisite illustrations. Following a long tradition of German artist-scientists, such as Albrecht Dürer, he could accurately reproduce what might have been evident from a photograph of a trace fossil, or the specimen itself. Yet the salient qualities of a trace fossil were somehow more deeply understood – and thus better communicated – through his drawing of that specimen. His illustrations often impelled a viewer to take a second, third, or fourth look at a trace fossil, prompting more learning and often provoking marvel at what he perceived.

In some instances, he “cheated” in his drawing by using a camera lucida. This is a clever device that, through a prism, projects the image of a subject onto paper, where its proportions and details can be traced and thus captured accurately by the person drawing it. However, in Dolf’s drawings, his tracings were often fortified and embellished with dramatic black-and-white contrast rendered by pen and ink. Even better, these so-called “illustrations” were used as launching points for interpretive drawings that presented provocative explanations for how a trace fossil was made. Sometimes he even added a whimsical touch to these figures, such as placing a little windmill next to the cross-section of a marine-invertebrate burrow. Was this science, or was this art? Yes.

When did I first meet Dr. Adolf Seilacher, a person many other paleontologists and I would later casually call “Dolf”? It was on a Geological Society of America field trip in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the fall of 1992. In retrospect, I was extremely lucky with that first meeting to watch him perform his expertise – and it was always a performance – in the field, rather than the sterile confines of a convention hall or conference room.

On this field trip, we paleontologists were looking at outcrops in the Cincinnati area, which bear some of the best Late Ordovician fossils (about 445 million years old) in the world. Among these fossils are brachiopods, bryozoans, snails, clams, crinoids, and other animals – such as trilobites – that have no living relatives today. You can walk up to most of these outcrops, close your eyes, and scoop up a handful of these fossils. I had also done my M.S. thesis in this area, so it was a trip back to familiar territory, and some of the fossils felt like old friends: I mean, really old friends.

Yet thanks to Dolf, these body fossils were not the stars of the field trip that day. When we went to an outcrop with numerous U-shaped burrows preserved in its limestones – trace fossils the field-trip leaders called Rhizocorallium – I witnessed his scientific process at work. After we had all listened to the field-trip leaders give their interpretation of the burrows, he sat down next to one of these trace fossils, and for about 10 minutes, he quietly drew in his field notebook. Gradually, some of us gathered around to see what had attracted his attention and we watched him draw. Once he had a critical mass for what he considered an adequate audience, he began sharing his thoughts, a didactic lecture accompanied by more drawing as he explained his conception of how the burrows were made by small animals living in a shallow sea hundreds of millions of years before that moment.


A field-trip memory expressed through drawing: my recollection of what Dolf Seilacher illustrated in his field notebook in October 1992 while explaining a 445-million-year-old burrow and how it was made. The burrow is the main U-shaped structure, and the lines in between are spreite, showing where the former location of the animal’s burrow. In my illustration here, the animal – either a small arthropod or worm – adjusted its burrow downward into the sediment, then to the right. The behaviors recorded here may have been from the animal feeding, reacting to changes in the surrounding sediment, or a combination of ecological cues.

“You see, this so-called ‘Rhizocorallium’ is just the beginning of a Zoophycos,” he said with his patented Teutonic confidence mixed with professorial charm. He then drew more in his field notebook to show what he meant, a slow-motion visualization that delivered his lesson unambiguously. In his estimation, the U-shaped burrow, which had curved lines showing where the animal had moved it, was only the start of a more complex feeding probe. In Dolf’s assessment, one trace fossil (what ichnologists would call Rhizocorallium) could have thus easily merged into another form, one we would then assign another name (Zoophycos). This was a clarifying moment for me as a young scientist and educator about the communicative power of drawing. As a result, I have tried to use drawing in my research articles, books, and teaching ever since.

Based on this sample of one, I did not know then that Dolf’s “hijacking” of field trips was a time-honored tradition for him. Moreover, I did not know then that nearly every paleontologist who had ever disagreed with him, or presented a hypothesis he somehow found lacking, was running the risk of being subjected to an intense and aggressive interrogation that over the years was nicknamed “Dolfing.”

Dolf-Roland-IIW-Basel-2“Dolfing” in action, in which Dolf Seilacher would ask a series of penetrating questions as a follow-up to a helpful statement informing the “Dolfee” that she/he is completely wrong about everything ever. And just to show how no one was excused from potential “Dolfing,” regardless of their accomplishments and seniority, here he is subjecting Dr. Roland Goldring (1928-2005) to this treatment, just like he would have done to a well-meaning but woefully misguided graduate student. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in Basel, Switzerland in July 2003.)

This harrowing critique was equal opportunity, in that he applied it to graduate students, senior professors, and everyone in between. For Dolf, getting the science right was far more important than honoring silly academic hierarchies. Although “Dolfing” occasionally caused discomfort in those getting “Dolfed,” these lopsided personal lectures often resulted in more details emerging, clearer explanations, and deeper understanding about a paleontological problem, meaning both the “Dolfer” and “Dolfee” learned more in the process. “Dolfing” became such a badge of honor, graduate students even wished for it to happen (“I’ve been Dolfed!”, they would say excitedly after surviving such an encounter.) One paleontologist friend of mine – after a colleague and I described “Dolfing” to her – said wistfully, “Oh…I want to be Dolfed!”

It was with much pleasure, then, that I got to watch “Dolfing” happen again during a field trip to the Cretaceous-Paleogene stratigraphic boundary in Recife, Brazil in 1994. This was when the “end-Cretaceous meteorite” hypothesis was still debated fiercely at professional meetings, with both proponents and skeptics fighting over the evidence. Preceding the field trip was a morning symposium on this contentious topic, much of which dealt with the 65-million-year-old boundary exposed at a nearby outcrop we would see later that afternoon.

In this session, one of the geologist speakers referred to a “massive” deposit of limestone as a tsunamite (a deposit formed by a meteorite-induced tsunami), which we were all supposed to see on the field trip. As soon as this speaker finished and the question-answer period began, Dolf sprang to his feet and declared, “You realize, of course, that if we find one burrow, it will completely negate your hypothesis.” Very simply, an animal would not have continued burrowing blithely on and in the ocean sediments while a gigantic sea wave washed over it. The speaker, taken aback by Dolf’s confident pronouncement, simply repeated that the deposit was “massive,” meaning it lacked any defined layering (bedding), and had no burrows. Ichnologists know better, though, as we sometimes translate “massive” as “There’s no bedding because it’s been completely burrowed, you ichnologically ignorant geologist!”

Dolf’s statement turned out to be a prophetic one. Later that afternoon, we field trip participants walked along the outcrop, looking at the layer of limestone interpreted as a meteorite-induced “tsunamite.” Sure enough, within ten minutes of inspecting, I found a burrow. Acting as a field-trip troll, I called out, “Oh Dolf, look what I found!” He came over and confirmed that yes indeed, it was a burrow, he quickly spotted dozens more, and the rest of the field trip was his for the taking. Many of the participants on the trip sat back and watched the fireworks, enjoyed the show, and we very nearly applauded at the end. Although I felt a little sorry for the field-trip leaders, it served as a good reminder that all you need is one burrow (or its factual equivalent) to upset a hypothetical apple cart.


Dolf Seilacher (left) delivering the intellectual equivalent of a bolide impact while standing in front of an outcrop containing evidence from the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. (Photograph by Anthony Martin, taken in 1994 near Recife, Brazil.)

After such a memorable conference and field trip, when would Dolf and I cross trails again? Not until 1997, and through my initiative and in my backyard, here in Georgia. But that story is worth its own post, one I promise to tell next time.

(To Be Continued)

Reference (Which is Also Quite Likely the Best Book Ever Done on Trace Fossils That Also Includes Some Incredible Artwork):

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

The Ichnology of Pacific Rim

Last week I surrendered to geekdom peer pressure and went to see the new summer blockbuster Pacific Rim. Living up to my namesake, St. Anthony, I normally don't have a problem resisting such temptations, and just wait to see a movie like this in some other format: DVD, Netflix, or the way movies were originally intended to be seen, on a tiny screen on the back of an airplane seat. But what really pushed me to go was the following image, only glimpsed for a few seconds in one of the trailers:

Kaiju-Track-IntertidalOoo, look, a trace made in an intertidal sandflat! Perhaps it's from a ghost crab, moon snail, or shorebird. Hey, wait a minute, something doesn't quite look right. Are those people next to it? (Image from http://www.comicbook.com.)

Yes, that’s right: it's a gigantic footprint, and in what looks like an intertidal coastal environment, between the low tide mark and coastal dunes. That was all the incentive I needed, as I further wondered what other ichnological wonders would be included in the film. I was also encouraged to see where other scientifically inclined bloggers had fun with Pacific Rim by taking a look at its biology (here, here, and most recently, here) and physics (here here, and most recently, here). So given a $5 afternoon matinee and a spouse (Ruth) willing to indulge my sci-fi inner nerd (OK, so it’s not so “inner”), I had every reason to document the various traces and tracemaking activities in the film. You know, for science and science education.

The verdict? Well, I have to admit some mild disappointment with how the director – Guillermo del Toro - chose to focus on the conflicts between massive amphibious creatures (kaiju) constructed by interdimensional aliens and human-guided fighting machines (jaegers), rather than on their traces. Nonetheless, I managed to find some ichnological gems scattered throughout. For example, the footprint shown in the trailer did indeed look glorious on a big screen, and the human figures associated with it reminded me of Jason Isley’s whimsical underwater photos. But let’s take a closer look at what this footprint tells us about its maker.

Although viewed from an oblique angle, the track seems longer than wide, and has four clearly defined digits, although a probable fifth digit is visible on the side farthest from the viewer. All of the digits are forward-pointing and taper abruptly at their ends. The tracks also has an indentation on the “heel” (proximal) part of the foot, and is more-or less-bilaterally symmetrical. Pits inside of the track may represent additional anatomical traits, such as scales or other bumps on its skin, or could be sediment that underwent liquefaction or other soft-sediment deformation.

Kaiju-TrackInterpreted kaiju track, extrapolated from oblique view. Scale = 10 m (33 ft).

Using the people around the tracks as informal units of measurement, and assuming from the hiragana-katakana in the newscast image that this track - like many items - was made in Japan, we can estimate the dimensions of the track. Average heights for Japanese males and females are 1.71 m and 1.58 m, respectively, and the average of those is 1.64 m. Using one figure (boxed) as a unit that equals 1.64 m (5.4 ft), the footprint had about 18.4 Japanese-Person-Units (JPU) length and 10.1 JPU width, which converts to about 30 m (98 ft) long and 17 m (56 ft) wide. This results in a length:width ratio of about 1.8.

Kaiju-Track-MeasuredLength and width measurements for kaiju track, including figure used as 1.0 JPU = 1.64 m. Width measurement is assumed on basis of probable fifth digit impression on side of track furthest from the viewer.

Unlike in most articles published in high-impact journals, I'll actually admit potential sources of error in these measurements before I'm forced to retract this blog post under a cloud of scandal, followed by my accepting a high-paying position on Wall Street, where such inaccuracies are rewarded without penalty. For example, the width measurement, because it is being taken from an oblique angle (not so accurate) instead of from directly above (much more accurate) probably underestimates the actual width. So the actual width is probably closer to 20 m (67 ft), which reduces the length:width ratio to about 1.5. The length measurement would also benefit from more of an overhead view, and probably would best be studied using aerial high-resolution LiDAR scanning. So there.

To put this in ichnological perspective, when these dimensions are compared to typical sauropod dinosaur tracks from the Early Cretaceous of Texas - where everything is supposed to be bigger - the sauropod comes out looking pretty puny indeed. In this example, the rear track length is 87 cm (34 in) and width is 59 cm (23"), and although its length:width ratio comes out fairly close to my estimation for the kaiju track (1.47), it is only about 2% of its size. Some "thunder lizard."

Sauropod-Tracks-TexasSauropod tracks from the Early Cretaceous (about 120-million-years-old) Glen Rose Formation of central Texas.The larger track is from the left rear foot, and the smaller one in front of it is the left front foot; this sauropod was walking slowly with an "understep" gait, in which its rear foot stayed behind its front. Please read the preceding text for all of that measurement stuff, which ichnologists sometimes call "data." (Photograph taken by Anthony Martin in Dinosaur Valley State Park, near Glen Rose, Texas.)

Kaiju+Sauropod-Tracks copyTo-scale comparison between sauropod track (arrow, lower left) and kaiju track (right) to same scale. Looks like some cute little saurischian would be feeling a little inadequate. As Cowboy Curtis once said on Pee Wee's Playhouse, "You know what they say: Big feet, big boots!" Scale = 10 m.

Speaking of high impact, how about track depth and other features of this individual track that might tell us about behavior of the kaiju tracemaker? Oddly enough, the kaiju track looks too shallow to me, measuring only about 1.6 JPU, or about 2.5 m (8 ft) deep. It also lacks pressure-release structures, which are sedimentary structures caused by the tracemaker applying and releasing pressure against the wall of the track. Considering that kaiju were supposed to weigh tens of thousands of tons, this track should have a greater depth, along with major ridges and plates outside of the track outline that would have been imparted by any forward or lateral movement of its foot.

Alternatively, this track may represent more of what I would call a “stamp,” which would have been made by placing a foot directly down onto a soft substrate and pulling it straight up, rather than from moving forward or laterally. Based on this evidence, the kaiju might have been attempting to squish pesky humans, rather thank performing its normal, forward-walking, city-destroying gait. Unfortunately, the preceding and next track are not shown in the photo, which would help to test this hypothesis.

Other than size, how does the form of this track compare to those of other known dinosaur tracks? The length: width ratio comes out close to that of a sauropod dinosaur, yet other qualitative traits of the track, such as thin digits that taper and end with sharp clawmarks, are more like that of a theropod. But I do want to point out a little coincidence. Have you ever seen the front-foot track of a typical raccoon? Hmmm...

Raccoon+Kaiju-TracksI give you you raccoon tracks, and I give you kaiju track. That is all. (Photo of raccoon tracks taken by Anthony Martin on Cumberland Island, Georgia.)

What’s really fun, though, is if you compare the kaiju track to known theropod tracks. Theropod tracks bearing four or more forward-pointing toes are quite rare, and the few identified probably belong to a group of theropods called therizinosaurs, which - by a strictly enforced paleo-nerd law - cannot be mentioned in a sentence without also using the descriptor "bizarre." Late Cretaceous dinosaur tracks recently reported from Alaska with four long, forward-pointing digits have been attributed to therizinosaurs. Were the creators of the kaiju track trying to compare it to that of a really strange theropod dinosaur? Maybe, maybe not.

Therizinosaur-Tamara-TrackArtistic rendition of Nothronychus mckinleyi, a therizinosaur from the mid-Cretaceous of North America (left) and a four-toed rear-foot track credited to a therizinosaur from Late Cretaceous rocks of Alaska (right). Therizinosaur artwork by paleoartist Nobu Tamara and available in Wikipedia Commons here; photo of track by David Tomeo and reproduced from Everything Dinosaur.

Although the Pacific Rim kaiju designers used a mix of invertebrate and vertebrate elements for anatomical details appearances of their monsters (detailed splendidly by Darren Naish here), I do wonder how they came up with the track, and which real-life animals - modern or extinct - were supposed to be evoked by this track's brief appearance onscreen. Hopefully the DVD and its Special Features will reveal all once that comes out.

(Incidentally, this attempt to divine the evolutionary relatedness of a science-fictional animal from a single track reminds me of a scene from the classic science-fiction film Forbidden Planet. At some point, an invisible monster comes aboard a spaceship on the aforementioned planet and kills its chief engineer. The ship scientist, Dr. Ostrow, then gave a fine interpretation of the monster based on a plaster cast made from one of its footprints, including how it traits seemed to go against all known evolutionary principles. It's such a fun scene, I've shown it in some of my classes as an example of "extraterrestrial ichnology.")

Other tracemaking in the movie, of course, included wholesale destruction of major population centers by the kaiju, clawmarks left on various city substrates, as well as kaiju scat. Unlike other fans of the movie, I've only seen it once so far, and cannot recall whether the following picture of its droppings was flashed on the movie screen or not.

What-a-load-of-kaiju-crapThe banner for this news clip says it all: kaiju excrement, and you can bet this much did indeed contaminate a portion of Manila, Philippines (or the "Phillipines," which may be a gated community just outside of Philadelphia.) On the flip side, I'll bet a certain sick Triceratops in the movie Jurassic Park is now a little less self-conscious about having its wastes piled higher and deeper on the big screen.

One line about their excrement – uttered by kaiju-organ harvester, Hannibal Chau (played by a hilarious Ron Perlman) - alludes to its commercial value based on its phosphorus content. This would accord with the economic importance given to bat or bird guano, which has been mined and sold as fertilizer, and even inspired wars. (I am not making that up.) Still, it would have been beyond awesome to have just one scene showing a deposit of its scat enveloping a large, recognizable monument to a politician in one of those cities.

Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), selling kaiju products for whatever might ail you. Alas, their scat is not mentioned in this ad, but he could easily do another one directed at Whole Foods. After all, it would be 100% organic and free-range fertilizer!

What about the jaegers? Their traces are much tougher to discuss, semantically speaking. Ichnologists classify tools themselves as traces of behavior, but most do not count marks made by tools (or machines) as traces. Nonetheless, because the jaegers are being controlled by humans, the marks they leave on the landscape, seascapes, and upside some kaiju’s head, might count as traces, too.

However, in one scene of the movie, in which a kaiju picked up a jaeger and threw it – inflicting much destruction of private and public property – these traces would be those of the kaiju, not the jaeger. I pointed out a similar situation with Jurassic Park. Toward the end of the movie, the poor, misunderstood protagonist of the film - the Tyrannosaurus rex - in an action tinged with self-loathing, hurled a Velociraptor at a mounted T. rex skeleton, no doubt expressing doubt about her place in a post-Mesozoic world. Existentialist angst aside, the destruction of the skeleton was a trace of the tyrannosaur's behavior, not that of the Velociraptor.

So next time you go to a movie featuring multi-ton monsters emerging from the deep sea and massive fighting machines, look for them to make traces, note the traces they make, how these traces may reflect some sort of evolutionary history for the tracemakers, and ask yourself what constitutes a trace. Then no matter how bad the movie, you'll still be guaranteed to enjoy it. Happy movie viewing and tracking!

Teaching on an Old Friend, Sapelo Island

(This post is the fourth in a series about a spring-break field trip taken last week with my Barrier Islands class, which I teach in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University. The first three posts, in chronological order, tell about our visits to Cumberland Island, Jekyll Island, and Little St. Simons and St. Simons Islands. For the sake of conveying a sense of being in the field with the students, these posts mostly follow the format of a little bit of prose – mostly captions – and a lot of photos.)

When planning a week-long trip to the Georgia barrier islands with my students, I knew that one island – Sapelo – had to be included in our itinerary. Part of my determination for us to visit it was emotionally motivated, as Sapelo was my first barrier island, and you always remember your first. But Sapelo has much else to offer, and because of these many opportunities, it is my favorite as an destination for teaching students about the Georgia coast and its place in the history of science.

Getting to Sapelo Island requires a 15-minute ferry ride, all for the low-low price of $2.50. (It used to cost $1.00 and took 30 minutes. My, how times have changed.) For my students, their enthusiasm about visiting their fourth Georgia barrier island was clearly evident (with perhaps a few visible exceptions), although photobombing may count as a form of enthusiasm, too.

I first left my own traces on Sapelo in 1988 on a class field trip, when I was a graduate student in geology at the University of Georgia. My strongest memory from that trip was witnessing alligator predation of a cocker spaniel in one of the freshwater ponds there. (I suppose that’s another story for another day.) Yet I also recall Sapelo as a fine place to see geology and ecology intertwining, blending, and otherwise becoming indistinguishable from one another. This impression will likely last for the rest of my life, reinforced by subsequent visits to the island. This learning has always been enhanced whenever I’ve brought my own students there, which I have done nearly every year since 1997.

As a result of both teaching and research forays, I’ve spent more time on Sapelo than all of the other Georgia barrier islands combined. Moreover, it is not just my personal history that is pertinent, but also how Sapelo is the unofficial “birthplace” of modern ecology and neoichnology in North America. Lastly, Sapelo inspired most of the field stories I tell at the start of each chapter in my book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. In short, Sapelo Island has been very, very good to me, and continues to give back something new every time I return to it.

So with all of that said, here’s to another learning experience on Sapelo with a new batch of students, even though it was only for a day, before moving on to the next island, St. Catherines.

(All photographs by Anthony Martin and taken on Sapelo Island.)

Next to the University of Georgia Marine Institute is a freshwater wetland, a remnant of an artificial pond created by original landowner R.J. Reynolds, Jr. More importantly, this habitat has been used and modified by alligators for at least as long as the pond has been around. For example, this trail winding through the wetland is almost assuredly made through habitual use by alligators, and not mammals like raccoons and deer, because, you know, alligators.

Photographic evidence that alligators, much like humans prone to wearing clown shoes, will use dens that are far too big for them. This den was along the edge of the ponded area of the wetland, and has been used by generations of alligators, which I have been seeing use it on-and-off since 1988.

An idealized diagram of ecological zones on Sapelo Island, from maritime forest to the subtidal. This sign provided a good field test for my students, as they had already (supposedly) learned about these zones in class, but now could experience the real things for themselves. And yes, this will be on the exam.

When it’s high tide in the salt marsh, marsh periwinkles (Littoraria irrorata) seek higher ground, er, leaves, to avoid predation by crabs, fish, and diamondback terrapins lurking in the water. Here they are on smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), and while there are getting in a meal by grazing on algae on the leaves.

Erosion of a tidal creek bank caused salt cedars (which are actually junipers, Juniperus virginiana) to go for their first and last swim. I have watched this tidal creek migrate through the years, another reminder that even the interiors of barrier islands are always undergoing dynamic change.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: where’s the ichnology? OK, how about these wide, shallow holes exposed in the sandflat at low tide? However tempted you might be to say “sauropod tracks,” these are more likely fish feeding traces, specifically of southern stingrays. Stingrays make these holes by shooting jets of water into the sand, which loosens it and reveals all of the yummy invertebrates that were hiding there, followed by the stingray chowing down. Notice that some wave ripples formed in the bottom of this structure, showing how this stingray fed here at high tide, before waves started affecting the bottom in a significant way.

Here’s more ichnology for you, and even better, traces of shorebirds! I am fairly sure these are the double-probe beak marks of a least sandpiper, which may be backed up by the tracks associated with these (traveling from bottom to top of the photo). But I could be wrong, which has happened once or twice before. If so, an alternative tracemaker would be a sanderling, which also makes tracks similar in size and shape to a sandpiper, although they tend to probe a lot more in one place.

Just in case you can’t get enough ichnology, here’s the lower, eroded shaft of a ghost-shrimp burrow. Check out that burrow wall, reinforced by pellets. Nice fossilization potential, eh? This was a great example to show my students how trace fossils of these can be used as tools for showing where a shoreline was located in the geologic past. And sure enough, these trace fossils were used to identify ancient barrier islands on the Georgia coastal plain.

Understandably, my students got tired of living vicariously through various invertebrate and vertebrate tracemakers of Sapelo, and instead became their own tracemakers. Here they decided to more directly experience the intertidal sands and muds of Cabretta Beach at low tide by ambulating through them. Will their tracks make it into the fossil record? Hard to say, but I’ll bet the memories of their making them will last longer than any given class we’ve had indoors and on the Emory campus. (No offense to those other classes, but I mean, you’re competing with a beach.)

The north end of Cabretta Beach on Sapelo is eroding while other parts of the shoreline are building, and nothing screams “erosion!” as loudly as dead trees from a former maritime forest with their roots exposed on a beach. Also, from an ichnological perspective, the complex horizontal and vertical components of the roots on this dead pine tree could be compared to trace fossils from 40,000 year-old (Pleistocene) deposits on the island. Also note that at this point in the trip, my students had not yet tired of being “scale” in my photographs, which was a good thing for all.

Another student eager about being scale in this view of a live-oak tree root system. See how this tree is dominated by horizontal roots? Now think about how trace fossils made by its roots will differ from those of a pine tree. But don’t think about it too long, because there are a few more photos for you to check out.

Told you so! Here’s a beautifully exposed, 500-year-old relict marsh, formerly buried but now eroding out of the beach. I’ve written about this marsh deposit and its educational value before, so will refrain from covering that ground again. Just go to this link to learn about that.

OK geologists, here’s a puzzler for you. The surface of this 500-year-old relict marsh, with its stubs of long-dead smooth cordgrass and in-place ribbed mussels (Guekensia demissa), also has very-much-live smooth cordgrass living in it and sending its roots down into that old mud. So if you found a mudstone with mussel shells and root traces in it, would you be able to tell the plants were from two generations and separated by 500 years? Yes, I know, arriving at an answer may require more beer.

Although a little tough to see in this photo, my students and I, for the first time since I have gone to this relict marsh, were able to discern the division between the low marsh (right) and high marsh (left). Look for the white dots, which are old ribbed mussels, which live mostly in the high marsh, and not in the low marsh. Grain sizes and burrows were different on each part, too: the high marsh was sandier and had what looked like sand-fiddler crab burrows, whereas the low marsh was muddier and had mud-fiddler burrows. SCIENCE!

At the end of a great day in the field on Sapelo, it was time to do whatever was necessary to get back to our field vehicle, including (gasp!) getting wet. The back-dune meadows, which had been inundated by unusually high tides, presented a high risk that we might experience a temporary non-dry state for our phalanges, tarsals, and metatarsals. Fortunately, my students bravely waded through the water anyway, and sure enough, their feet eventually dried. I was so proud.

So what was our next-to-last stop on this grand ichnologically tainted tour of the Georgia barrier islands? St. Catherines Island, which is just to the north of Sapelo. Would it reveal some secrets to students and educators alike? Would it have some previously unknown traces, awaiting our discovery and description? Would any of our time there also involve close encounters with large reptilian tracemakers? Signs point to yes. Thanks for reading, and look for that next post soon.