A Sneak Peek at a Book Jacket (with Traces)

After returning from a two-week vacation in California with my wife Ruth, we noticed a cardboard tube awaiting us at home. Intriguingly, the mystery package, which was only about 60 cm (24 in) long and 8 cm (3 in) wide, had been sent by Indiana University Press, the publisher of my new book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast. We were a little puzzled by it, considering that it couldn’t possibly contain complimentary copies of the book. (As of this writing, I still have not held a corporeal representation of the book, hence my continuing skepticism that it is really published.) What was in this mystery tube?

Front cover and spine of my new book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals (Indiana University Press). The book, newly released this month, is not yet in stores, but supposedly on its way to those places and to people who were kind enough to pre-order it. But if you didn’t pre-order it, that’s OK: you can get it right here, right now.

Upon opening it, we were delighted to find that it held ten life-sized prints of the book jacket: front cover, spine, back cover, and front-back inside flaps. The cover art, done by Georgia artist Alan Campbell, looked gorgeous, and had reduced well to the 16 X 25 cm (6 X 9″) format, retaining details of traces and tracemakers, but also conveying a nice aesthetic sense. I was also amused to see the spine had the title (of course) but also said “Martin” and “Indiana.” Although I’ve lived in Georgia for more than 27 years, I was born and raised in Indiana, so it somehow seemed fitting in a circle-of-life sort of way to see this put so simply on the book.

Back cover of Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, highlighting a few of the tracemakers mentioned in the book – sea oats, sandhill crane, sand fiddler crab, and sea star – while also providing a pretty sunset view of primary dunes, beach, and subtidal environments on Sapelo Island. (P.S. I love that it says “Science” and “Nature” at the top, too.)

I had no idea what the back cover might be like until seeing these prints, but I thought it was well designed, bearing a fair representative sample of tracemakers of the Georgia barrier islands: sea oats (Uniola paniculata), a sandhill crane (Grus canadensis), sand fiddler crab (Uca pugilator), and lined sea star (Luidia clathrata), as well as a scenic view of some coastal environments. I had taken all of these photos, so it was exciting to see these arranged in such a pleasing way. My only scientifically based objection is that I would have like to see it include photos of insects, worms, amphibians, reptiles, or mammals (these and much more are covered in the book), as well as a few more tracks, trails, or burrows. Granted, I suppose they only had so much room for that 6 X 9″ space, and thus I understood how they couldn’t use this space to better represent the biodiversity of Georgia-coast tracemakers and their traces. (Oh well: guess you’ll have to read the book to learn about all that.)

Inside front and back flap material for Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, which also includes a summary of the book (written by me) and a rare photo of me (taken by Ruth Schowalter) in my natural habitat, which in this instance was on St. Catherines Island, Georgia.

I had written the summary of the book on the inside flap nearly a year ago, so it was fun to look at it with fresh eyes, almost as if someone else had written it for me. Fortunately, I banished my inner critic while reading it, and just enjoyed the sense that it likely achieved its goal, which was to tell people about the book and provoke their interest in it.

In short, this cover jacket symbolizes a next-to-last step toward the book being real in my mind. Now, like any good scientist, all I need is some independently verifiable evidence in the form of tactile data, such as a physical book in my hands. Stay tuned for that update, which I’ll be sure to share once it happens. In the meantime, many thanks to all of the staff at Indiana University Press – who I’ll mention by name next time – for their essential role in making the book happen and promoting it in this new year.

Information about the Book, from Indiana University Press

Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Revealing the Unseen Lives of Plants and Animals, Anthony J. Martin

Have you ever wondered what left behind those prints and tracks on the seashore, or what made those marks or dug those holes in the dunes? Life Traces of the Georgia Coast is an up-close look at these traces of life and the animals and plants that made them. It tells about the how the tracemakers lived and how they interacted with their environments. This is a book about ichnology (the study of such traces), a wonderful way to learn about the behavior of organisms, living and long extinct. Life Traces presents an overview of the traces left by modern animals and plants in this biologically rich region; shows how life traces relate to the environments, natural history, and behaviors of their tracemakers; and applies that knowledge toward a better understanding of the fossilized traces that ancient life left in the geologic record. Augmented by numerous illustrations of traces made by both ancient and modern organisms, the book shows how ancient trace fossils directly relate to modern traces and tracemakers, among them, insects, grasses, crabs, shorebirds, alligators, and sea turtles. The result is an aesthetically appealing and scientifically accurate book that will serve as both a source book for scientists and for anyone interested in the natural history of the Georgia coast.

Life of the Past – Science/Paleontology

692 pp., 34 color illus., 137 b&w illus.
cloth 978-0-253-00602-8 $60.00
ebook 978-0-253-00609-7 $51.99

More information at:

http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/806767 ]http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/catalog/806767

The Ichnology of Peeps

Once a year, around Easter time, an attentive beachcomber might notice the unusual traces of a migratory animal on the sands of the Georgia barrier islands. Based on a few clues, its traces point toward five identically sized and conjoined tracemakers, indicating some sort of obligatory group behavior.

Eyewitnesses swear these tracemakers – nicknamed “peeps” – possess a few superficial avian qualities, yet they lack many of the anatomical traits we normally associate with birds, such as, well, wings and legs. Indeed, they apparently have flat ventral surfaces, which with their forward movement along beach sands cause trails, rather than trackways.

Peep trail, observed on berm of Nannygoat Beach, Sapelo Island, Georgia. Oddly enough, this trail shows both a sudden start and end, almost as if the peeps were placed and removed from the surface, respectively.

As a result, peep trails – which are sometimes sinuous, but always harmonious – consist of five parallel grooves, each spaced equally and separated by six ridges, four on the interior of the trail and one on each side. Lateral movements along the length of a peep trail can vary the height of these ridges, depending on whether the peeps are banking to the right or left as they turn.

Although flying ability in peeps has only been inferred on the basis of their possible avian affinity, peep traces show only very brief periods of airborne activity. These traces indicate a somewhat clumsy strategy when approaching ground surfaces, culminating in abrupt vertical descents best described to laypeople as “crashing.” Ideally, all five peeps leave impressions of their cranial anatomy, which includes rudimentary beaks and foreshortened premaxillas. I have no idea if this facial configuration reflects acquired characteristics – caused by frequent crashes – or are more attributable to their original genotype.

Peep landing trace, in which impressions of the anterior anatomy are preserved. Note the short beak marks and rounded dorsal portion of the torso, but with a thin shelf close to the ventral surface. Sand ridges around the impressions suggest the tracemaker bounced after landing.

Peep resting traces are sometimes subtle, owing to their light weight, which according to some sources is about 85 grams (3.0 ounces) in total, or 17 grams per peep. In such instances where their resting traces are recognized, though, peep ventral anatomy is more clearly discernible. Interestingly, the anterior portion of their bodies is rounded and broad, but tapers into a blunt, narrow posterior with a possible upturned tail, the latter suggested by a thin groove bisecting the dorsal part of this posterior mark.

But perhaps the puzzling aspect of these traces is their lack of feather impressions. This evidence shows that peeps, despite their inferred avian affinity, must have become secondarily featherless, despite a long history of descent from non-avian dinosaurs.

Peep resting trace, barely noticeable owing to the light weight of its tracemakers, yet still apparent through its typical overall five-part form.

As is typical with resting traces, these are often connected directly to traces of other behaviors, such as locomotion or burrowing. Indeed, peep resting traces sometimes segue into or out of shallow burrows, which again have five impressions on their bases. Burrowing is presumably an adaptive strategy to avoid predation, implying delectable qualities.

A peep resting trace that is also a burrow, and connecting to an exit mark (right) in which the peep tails left impressions with movement up and out of the excavation.

Peeps are rarely sighted outside of small, cellophane-wrapped boxes in urban shopping centers. Nevertheless, one spring I was lucky enough to see a gaggle of them (five, of course), exuberantly unbound. on a beach of Sapelo Island, Georgia. Thus I was able to observe them making trails, landing traces, resting traces, and actively burrow just above the intertidal zone, which may very well be their natural habitat.

Five peeps making a trail as conjoined unit on a Sapelo Island beach, a behavior predicted by their traces. Who says ichnology isn’t a real science?

Peep landing marks from a short aerial excursion, with the peep presence a short distance away also supporting the interpretation of their bouncing forward after landing.

Peeps exiting a shallow burrow that was also a resting trace, a blend of behaviors often implied by traces.

Peeps initiating a deeper burrowing strategy, perhaps as a form of predation avoidance. Note how the trail becomes shortened, straight, and produces a large pile of sand in front of the direction of movement.

Never-before-seen evidence of how these legless peeps burrow! They use a combination of minute lateral undulations and forward movement directed downward at a shallow angle. As a result, the trail entering the burrow becomes covered by sand ridges produced by the subsequent behavior.

Success! These peeps have managed to bury themselves, leaving only a small portion of their heads exposed, with all five watching warily for predators,

Peeps have been the subject of intensive research, but much of this work, however valuable, has been laboratory based and highly experimental. Thus the data I’ve presented here on their traces should greatly expand our understanding of their behavior in the context of natural settings. Further insights on the biology of peeps are currently murky, but their traces hold promise of fitting them into a taxonomic category more precise than “looks like little chicks.”

Although trace fossils of peep trails, landing traces, resting traces, and burrows have not yet been discovered, I propose these should have the following ichnogenus and ichnospecies names: Peepichnus quinquecalles (= “Peep trace of five trails”). However, I anticipate some of my ichnological colleagues will want to split the ichnotaxonomy of peep traces on the basis of whether they were moving horizontally versus vertically (the peeps, not my colleagues) and other such nuances. Personally, I think they just need to relax, stop coming up with so many silly, unpronounceable names, and just enjoy the sweetness of these little tracemakers of the Georgia coast.