Editor’s note: Anthony (Tony) J. Martin is based in the Department of Environmental Sciences, Emory University. He did his undergraduate work at St. Joseph’s College (Indiana) and earned his M.S. at Miami University (Ohio) and Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. Martin is the author of a popular college textbook, Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs (Wiley-Blackwell), as well as Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (Indiana University Press) and Dinosaurs Without Bones (Pegasus Books). Martin also does much outreach through public speaking and his blog, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, and is active on Twitter as @Ichnologist. In 2015, in recognition of his significant contributions to research, teaching, and public service, he was elected as a Fellow in The Explorers Club and a Fellow in the Geological Society of America.
Your current research incorporates both modern and ancient traces (and their trace makers). Were you a huge fan of trace fossils as a child? Were they your entry point into the field?
Just like most kids today, I grew up being crazy about dinosaurs and other big, extinct animals. But I had no idea that trace fossils existed, or that there was an entire science devoted to the study of modern and ancient traces, called ichnology. Still, I was aware of traces at an early age, and learned how these could be used to identify animals without having to see them. I learned that basic concept in ichnology while hunting with my father in Indiana, when he would point out deer tracks to me. So there was the beginning of my interest in modern traces, and even though I don’t hunt for food any more, tracking is still one of my favorite activities.
It wasn’t until much later I learned about trace fossils and became permanently addicted to studying them. This happened when I was in graduate school at Miami University [Ohio] and I took a course offered down the road from us at the University of Cincinnati. It was called “Trace Fossils and Ichnology,” and was taught by a sedimentologist, Wayne Pryor. This course changed my perspective on life, which is to say, the history of life! It showed me how animals left many, many more traces than bodies in the fossil record as a result of their behavior. Because of this shift in my thinking, I often refer to trace fossils as the “real” fossil record.
I read that Emory University shut down its Geology Department in 1989. As part of the Environmental Sciences Department, are you the only paleontologist employed at the university? How do you connect paleontology to modern environmental problems?
I am the only paleontologist at Emory, and although that sounds lonely (and it is sometimes), it’s also fun to be identified in news articles as “Emory’s paleontologist.”
To be honest, it is challenging to not be in a geology department, and to be the only paleontologist at a university that puts so much emphasis on the health sciences, rather than the natural sciences. But what I’ve tried to do in the past few years is show how ichnology is very important as a tool for understanding environmental issues. For example, think about this: What can trace fossils tell us about animals adapting to previous times climate change? Also, how did animals use burrows as refuges for surviving rapid changes in their environments? These questions are relevant to better understanding the effects of present and future climate change on animals and us.
Also, ichnology is useful in conservation biology, while also contributing to paleontology. For instance, I’m now finishing a project on gopher-tortoise burrows with colleagues (one of whom is at Emory) where we’ve measured tortoise burrows, then followed that with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and aerial drones to map tortoise burrows, while connecting this to geographic information systems (GIS). With all of these techniques, ichnolgoists can better work with conservation biologists studying an endangered species, while also giving paleontologists a search image for what a fossil gopher-tortoise burrow looks like. No one has found one yet, so that would be a great discovery!
What is a typical work day like for you? Or what are some of your favorite parts of your job? Your least favorite?
A typical day for me is to wake up early – about 5:30-6:00 a.m. – and start writing, or go to a nearby gym for a workout first, then write. This writing is either for research articles, books, or blog posts, the latter done for my Web site (www.georgialifetraces.com). I try to write at least 500 words a day: sometimes more, sometimes less, but that’s the goal. My wife (Ruth) and I always try to have breakfast together before I leave for campus, and of course we both attend to the needs of our two cats, Tao and Sapelo. I never drive to school, and instead walk 10 minutes to a free shuttle bus that goes to campus, or I ride my bicycle, which takes me about 15 minutes to get to my office. If I walk, I have fun checking all of the insect, bird, cat, dog, or human traces along the way.
Once at school, I answer students’ overnight e-mails, read my Twitter feed and post a few tweets (I’m @Ichnologist on Twitter), and prepare for teaching class and/or lab in the late morning or early afternoon. Teaching is almost always fun, as I (mostly) have smart, motivated students. So this is definitely one of my favorite things! Later in the day, I may meet with students one-on-one, write more e-mails, and try to read a few research articles. Because I live in a hilly city (Atlanta) and my bike route back is uphill, I’m usually “lazy” and zip over to a bus stop, put my bike on the bus’s rack, and take the bus home. The ride also gives me a chance to read and otherwise relax before coming home.
My least favorite parts of my job? Grading, grading, and oh yeah, grading. I’ve heard whispered legends of professors who have teaching assistants do most of their grading for them, but I’m not one of those. Still, grading is an essential part of my job that helps students improve on their mistakes, or provides me with the opportunity to give them a big pat on the back when they do show positive transformation. I love seeing that happen!
Given that the goal of FOSSIL is to link amateur groups with professionals, what are your thoughts about the role of amateurs in the science?
Amateurs have been and always will be an essential part of paleontology. For instance, while I’m grading exams or answering e-mails, amateurs are out in the field, looking for fossils, and finding them. Of course, not all of these fossils turn out to be world-famous discoveries, but some of them are important enough to advance our science.
The most recent example of amateurs discerning very important trace fossils for me was a few years ago in Victoria, Australia. Two volunteers for the Museum Victoria, Sean Wright and Alan Tait, were scouting for bones at a place along the coast of Victoria that was well known for its dinosaur bones; so much so it’s called Dinosaur Cove. But instead of bones, they found three tracks in a loose chunk of Cretaceous sandstone. Alan went back later and heroically hauled that big rock out of there in a backpack, and he then donated it to Museum Victoria.
The next year, while I was visiting the museum, I took a look at the tracks. Within just a few minutes, I realized that at least one of them was a bird track. Well, it turned out that no Cretaceous bird tracks were known from Australia at the time, which made these the oldest bird tracks on that continent. So this was a huge discovery! When I later studied the tracks, I concluded that two of the three were from birds, and the third was from a dinosaur. When my coauthors and I published the paper on that in 2014, I proudly pointed to Alan and Sean as examples of why we need amateurs as “eyes on the ground,” out there looking for fossils.
I understand that you travel to Australia for research fairly frequently. Where exactly within the country have you gone, and how do you enjoy the field conditions there? Could you describe a distinctive scary/exciting/eureka moment at one of your field sites?
I absolutely loved doing field work in Australia, and now that I haven’t been back since 2011, I really miss it! Most of my research there was along the coast of Victoria, which has incredible exposures of Early Cretaceous rocks.
My two biggest “eureka” moments there were both in 2006. In 2006 I was invited to visit the Dinosaur Dreaming dig site, which is on the Victoria coast southeast of Melbourne. On the first day there, I spotted a couple of isolated large theropod dinosaur tracks, the first that had ever been found there. The next day, I found some trace fossils that I was very sure were crayfish burrows, and when I asked the dig site manager – Lesley Kool – she said they had fossil crayfish from another locality, and in the museum collections. These turned out to be parts of the oldest fossil crayfish in the Southern Hemisphere, and I got to name a new species, too.
A few months later, while hunting for dinosaur tracks with a bunch of volunteers at another place on the coast called Knowledge Creek, I saw a large structure in the outcrop almost identical to a Cretaceous dinosaur burrow I had seen in Montana the previous year. In 2009, I published an article about it and a couple of other nearby structures that I interpreted as the oldest dinosaur burrows in the geologic record, from about 105 million years ago. So far no one has disproved those, nor found any older ones. The timing was great on that discovery, too, as I had co-named the only known burrowing dinosaur, Oryctodromeus cubicularis from the mid-Cretaceous of Montana, in 2007.
Incidentally, Knowledge Creek is one of the most god-awful field sites to reach that I have ever experienced in my career. It’s a sheer-cliff outcrop along the coast that requires going down a very steep, slippery, and overgrown slope, where it’s really easy to get lost on the way down, even if you have a GPS and compass with you. You then have to cross a leech-infested stream, and once on the outcrop, you try very hard not to slip and fall on the marine platform there, while dodging killer waves knocking against the shore. Then once you’re done with field work there, you have to go back up that slope. I’ve been there three times, which is probably a record that no one wants to beat. Anyway, if you want to read more about Knowledge Creek and these dinosaur burrows, I wrote about it in a chapter of my book Dinosaurs Without Bones.
Many of our fossil clubs and societies are very committed to education and work hard to engage youth. Do you have any advice to share about effective ways to get children and teens interested in paleontology and collections?
Right now I can think of two things we can do to interest children and teens in paleontology and collections, but there are probably a lot more. The first is to get kids outside to find fossils for themselves in the field. But if that’s not feasible, bring them in to look at museum collections and have them handle real fossils. With field trips especially, there’s nothing like the thrill of discovering something for themselves to kindle their interest in paleontology as a science!
The second would be to make sure we have good role models for both children and teenagers, to show them that the science of paleontology is potentially universal and global in its extent. This means having more women, underrepresented minorities, first-generation American citizens, and people from countries outside of the U.S. as spokespeople and mentors for paleontology. That way kids can think, “Hey, that could be me some day!” Young people are the future of paleontology, and we need to cultivate that as our country becomes more culturally diverse.
What research question currently excites you the most?
The book I’m writing now is exploring my most exciting research question, which is this: How did burrows and burrowing aid not only in the survival and evolution of many major animal lineages (including our own as mammals), but also how did these shape marine and land environments through time? Appropriately then, my book is tentatively titled The Evolution Underground: Better Surviving through Burrows. I start it by talking about some of my current research on the Georgia barrier islands, where I’m studying alligator dens. Alligators use these big burrows for all sorts of reasons, but the bottom line is that they use them to survive all sorts of environmental stresses. In researching this book, I’m finding lots of similar stories, from worms to people, of how going underground is the best bet for making it through any given disaster. Although for those of you in Florida, I wouldn’t recommend it for dealing with hurricanes!
Do you see on the horizon any new directions or opportunities in paleontology emerging as the result of technological advances or new discoveries?
Yes! Now that three-dimensional visualizations of trace fossils are becoming more common and easier to use, we can now store digital models of both body and trace fossils as databases and more easily share them with one another. I’m also excited about how aerial drones, once integrated with GIS, will improve the accuracy of our study of dinosaur trackways and modern, landscape-scale traces. But one caution I always make about technology is that our tools don’t make us better scientists. We still have to develop our knowledge and skills. Otherwise all of the fancy equipment won’t help us at all.
Do you have a favorite fossil discovery (can be your own, or a famous historical discovery)?
Of my fossil discoveries, I’m probably best known for co-naming the burrowing dinosaur Oryctodromeus, but I didn’t actually discover it: I just co-named it and described its burrow, which admittedly was still pretty darned cool.
I’m probably the most proud of my describing and naming the oldest fossil crayfish in the Southern Hemisphere (Palaeoechinastacus australanus = “ancient spiny crayfish of Australia), as well as interpreting crayfish trace fossils (burrows) from there. These discoveries answered questions originally posed by Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) on the evolution of crayfish in 1880. He predicted that such fossils would be found in Australia or New Zealand, but it wasn’t until I described these fossils that he found out he was right. So it was incredibly gratifying to connect with that historical legacy in evolutionary biology, with trace fossils as a key element.
But I think my best “lesser known” fossil discovery was of a fish trace fossil from the Green River Formation (Eocene) of Wyoming. Despite how this formation is best know for its exquisitely preserved fish fossils, no one had ever interpreted fish swimming traces from there. But in 2009, while looking at collections of these trace fossils at Fossil Butte National Monument, I noticed one trace fossil also had a bottom-feeding (mouth) trace in between the fin-drag traces. Only one fish in the Green River Formation had a downwardly pointing mouth that would have allowed it to bottom-feed, and that was Notogoneus osculus. Then, using a little bit of math on the trace fossil, my coauthors and I figured out the length of the fish, which was about 50 cm (19 in). So we not only know what fish made the trace, but its size! When we published the article about this in 2010, I referred to it as “The one that got away: 50 million years ago. And it was this big.” Anyway, our paper was also reported in “Science Times” section of The New York Times, which was very exciting.
To learn more:
Watch a video of Tony pointing out dinosaur tracks in Australia
Martin, A. J., Vazquez-Prokopec, G. M., & Page, M. (2010). First Known Feeding Trace of the Eocene Bottom-Dwelling Fish Notogoneus osculus and Its Paleontological Significance. PLoS ONE 5(5): e10420. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.001042