Amateur Spotlight: George Martin

Dr. Dana Ehret nominated George Martin to be this issue’s featured amateur. Dana describes some of George’s contributions to paleontology in his introduction below. Then Eleanor Gardner summarizes her interview with George.

George Martin volunteering on a fossil dig with the Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy of George Martin

George Martin, of Auburn, has been donating fossils to The University of Alabama Museums since 2005 when he first brought in a partial fossil sea turtle shell and pelvis from the late Cretaceous of Alabama. A retired soil scientist from the US Department of Agriculture- Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS), George says that he has been interested in geology and paleontology his entire life. His job as a soil scientist has taken him all over the southeast, including Alabama and Louisiana, and has allowed him the opportunity to learn the local geology while keeping his eyes peeled for fossils.

Since retiring in 2007, George has more time to focus on his fossil-collecting hobby. In addition to collecting fossils here in Alabama, he has volunteered on numerous fossil digs for the Florida Museum of Natural History. George’s collecting expertise has led to many important donations and contributions, both vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology from the southeastern US. He has donated specimens not only to the Alabama Museum of Natural History (ALMNH), but also to the American Museum of Natural History, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and the Mississippi Museum of Natural History. George has been honored for his discoveries by having an early Paleocene (~60 million years ago) crab from Alabama named after him, Stevea martini, which he donated to the Florida Museum of Natural History. In addition to his great eyes in the field, George is also a great fossil preparator and even has a lab set up in his home.

Recently, George has been contributing many wonderful specimens to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, including fossils of elasmosaurs, turtles, sharks, fishes, snakes, and crabs. In addition to his generosity, he also accompanies me to sites throughout the Black Belt to collect fossils for the museum. On a recent collecting trip the day of the Iron Bowl, George and I found the first state record of the shell-crushing shark Ptychodus rugosus from Alabama! Despite in-state rivalry on the football field that day, two scientists, one from Auburn and one from Tuscaloosa, came together to make an important discovery in the Paleontology field.

The University of Alabama Museums thanks Mr. George Martin for his continued generosity and support. –Dana Ehret

What is fossil hunting in the southeast like?

As compared to what?  The southeast is the only placed I’ve hunted for fossils!  I hunt mostly creeks, walking the streams — don’t even have to sift!  I tend to collect Cretaceous material because that is what’s around me.  Often in the southeast, it is too hot or too wet to collect, so you always have to watch the weather reports.  I also enjoy hunting road cuts and generally wherever rock is exposed, specifically limestone, marl, and chalk.  Also, I’m always happy to have opportunities to collect at places like the Harrell Station Paleontological Site (a 140-acre research site for the Alabama Museum of Natural History).  That site is kind of like the Badlands out west: there are deep gullies and you mostly do surface collecting.

George Martin holding a partial Bison leg bone he excavated while volunteering on a fossil dig with the Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy of George Martin

What are the keys to successful fossil collecting in the southeast?

Perseverance.  Keeping your eyes peeled, as well as getting them acclimated for a particular search image (like a crab claw or a turtle bone).  I like to return 3-4 times to site, particularly after it rains.  I try to collect as much as possible at each site, to get a good representative sample of the fauna.  I want to collect as many different species as possible.

How did your experience as a soil scientist inform your hobby collecting fossils?

It definitely played a large role because I was often outside looking at the ground, thinking about parent rocks and resulting soils.  Actually, I wanted to be a geologist in college and really always had an interest in geology, but ended up majoring soil science.  Being a soil scientist gave me access to road cuts and other sites that later turned out to be fossiliferous.  It worked out rather well!

George Martin holding rare elasmosaur paddle bones that he donated to the ALMNH, which are now on display in Smith Hall. Photo courtesy of George Martin

How did you first come to donate fossils to museums?

My first donation was really neat.  I was working along a creek and noticed something dark.  Upon collecting it, I recognized it was probably bone, so I brought it to the attention of Dr. Ed Hooks (the previous curator of vertebrate paleontology at the museum).  He said it was turtle and encouraged me to go back and collect more of it.  I went back several times and managed to collect one of the most complete specimens of this particular new species of turtle.  The specimen is currently being studied by a PhD student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

I enjoy donating my finds to museums because I know the specimens will be used for research and help to further our understanding of earth history.  Also, the more I donate, the more I get invited to participate in university and museum fossil digs!  Besides Dana Ehret at the Alabama Museum of Natural History, I work closely with George Phillips at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.  In fact, just last week I was in Mississippi with George collecting material from a Cretaceous field site.  I’ve also donated to the Florida Museum as well as the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

What were the circumstances of the discovery of S. martini

I was collecting at a roadcut and began noticing that a variety of crabs of different sizes were preserved in the rocks.  I collected samples of each size of crab and kept them for later.  During a volunteer dig at Thomas Farm in Florida, I brought the crab specimens out in the parking lot area and showed them to Richard Hulbert, who suggested that I get in contact with Roger Portell in the invertebrate division.  After showing Roger the crabs, he recognized that one of them was a new species – and that’s how we got S. martini!

George Martin preparing a Cretaceous ammonite he collected in Alabama in his home prep lab. Photo courtesy of  George Martin

What tools would you recommend for someone just getting into fossil preparation?

It all depends on what they’re working on.  All I had at first was an old dremel tool, but it didn’t work especially well, so then I got dental tools and sculpting tools.  I make my own tools, too – like grinding down a screw driver or turning a wooden handle into a probe.  Dental picks, screw drivers, probes, and such are all nice tools for working with soft fossil material.  In recent years, I purchased an air scribe and a sand-blaster for working on harder material.  For beginners, though, I’d recommend hand tools: X-acto knives, probes, and dental picks.

Any special tricks of the trade that you’ve picked up along the way?

My “trick” isn’t much of a trick – just patience! If you don’t have patience, you’ll mess the fossil up more than you’ll fix it.  Also, it helps to have a ready tube of superglue!  Lastly, I tend to keep a picture or a reference book with nice images of fossils on hand.  I get a lot of the printed pictures from journal articles (open access, or from my professional contacts, or through library access).

How did you and Dana meet?

I had already been donating to the UA museums (through Ed Hooks and previous curators), when I heard that Dana got the job at the Alabama Museum of Natural History.  I just emailed him and told him about my interests, and generally introduced myself as a collector and as someone Dana could rely on for donations or help in the field.  We got to know one another via email and then I made a trip up to Tuscaloosa and met him in person.  We correspond frequently and Dana invites me when he’s going collecting somewhere, and vice versa.  I have the same kind of relationship with George Phillips in Mississippi.  It’s nice.

What is your favorite find thus far? 

Gosh, my favorite fossil find? I love them all!  If pressed to choose, I’d say the sawfish rostrum I found several years ago.  It is Cretaceous in age and about 58 cm long; these aren’t preserved very frequently and it turns out the one I found is one of the more complete specimens in the world.  So I guess it’s my favorite because it is rare.

To learn more:

More info on the Harrell site:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *