The Evolution Underground – Part 2: Behind the Scenes

“I still don’t understand why they were looking for alligator dens.”

My dad and I had been discussing the review I’d written about Dr. Anthony Martin’s latest book, “The Evolution Underground.”  He voiced this confusion with more concern for the overall safety (and perhaps sanity?) of the Emory professor and his students than an interest in what knowledge they hoped to gain.

To be fair, my dad hadn’t yet read this or any book about ichnology and was not familiar with the field.  My inability to make that part of the book clearer aside, it also spoke to a question I’d had this past December.  Speaking with him by phone, I asked Dr. Martin: Did he think more people know about ichnology as a result of his prolific work?

“I think,” he began thoughtfully, “through the books, [through] giving public talks, and [by blogging] about it, I’m fairly confident in saying, ‘yes, more people are more aware now of ichnology as a science.’ I think that ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’ was a really good step [toward] popularizing ichnology as science, and then I think that ‘The Evolution Underground’ will take it another step further.”

Dr Anthony Martin courtesy of Carol Clark

Image of  Dr. Anthony Martin, courtesy of Emory University 

It is telling that, of the four books Dr. Martin has written so far, three of them focus on ichnology.  His handle on Twitter is @ichnologist.  Most of his blog posts feature concepts related to ichnology.  During our conversation, he chuckled and admitted he refers to himself as an “ichno-evangelist.”

Any physical remnant of an extinct or extant creature falls into ichnology: bites, scratches, footprints, marks indicating the drag of a tail, coprolites or scat.  Reading those traces—recognizing them for what they are—is a skill, and one for which there are relatively fewer reference points than the much older field of paleontology.*  Dr. Martin explains this in his first work with Pegasus Books, “Dinosaurs Without Bones.”  It is one thing to see a fossil femur, for example, and understand what it is.  Recognizing a fossil nest, however, or a fossil burrow, is considerably more challenging.  Without “search images” or reference points that help other scientists understand what to look for, such fossils might be easily missed.

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Detail of a slab of fossil footprints surrounded with what are believed to be fossil raindrops at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts. Both the footprints and the raindrops are examples of ichnology. Picture taken by the author of this blog.

 

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beneski-fascinating-trace-fossil-narrow

Can you tell what these are? I can’t, and, so far, neither can the experts.  As-yet unknown trace fossils at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts; pictures taken by the author of this blog.

Figure 1: A brief summary of animal burrowing through time, from the Ediacaran Period through today.  Geologic eras on left, periods on right, MYA = millions of years ago, and red arrows indicate times of mass extinctions in the geologic past. (Image and caption used with permission from Pegasus Books)

 

“Sage scents wafted by on the wind and, in between scoops, I looked around at the nearby pine forests and rolling, high-plains grassland nearly everywhere else, then up at an expansive blue sky hosting white, fluffy clouds.  You might say I was in a country where the sky was big: Some people just call it ‘Montana.’” – page 87, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

In the book, Dr. Martin describes participating in an excavation in the Blackleaf Formation that lead to the discovery of the first known fossilized burrow, found collectively by Dr. Martin, Yoshi Katsura, and Dr. David Varricchio of Montana State University.

This discovery—based solely on noticing the odd structure of sediment surrounding bones—is no small feat.  Looking at an image of this burrow, which you can see in Dr. Martin’s blog post here, I am amazed that anyone would be able to decipher what it actually is when working through layers of other rock, let alone when it was completely revealed.

Dr. Martin credits his mentor and former professor, Bob Frey, with guiding him in ichnology.  Both Dr. Varricchio and Dr. Martin were fellow students in his class, a class that seems to have been a road map for both of them in their future discoveries.

And while in this book Dr. Martin discusses many extant burrowers, he certainly addresses those found in the fossil record as well.

Figure 38: Early Cretaceous (130 mya) lobster burrow preserved as natural cast on bottom of limestone bed, Portugal.  Although the lobster’s body is not preserved, its leg impressions and body outline were left behind.  (Photo by Anthony J. Martin; image and caption used with permission from Pegasus Books)

The bigger picture behind these everyday observations of many holes in the ground, however, is that the long history of these burrowing invertebrates completely altered global environments, from the deepest sea to the highest mountains, and even affected the atmosphere and climate.  In short, the entire surface of our planet is built upon one big complex and constantly evolving burrow system, controlling the nature of our existence.” — page 14, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

The quote above is the central theme of “The Evolution Underground.”  I wondered if he’d gained this perspective after completing the book, or if this was something he carried as he began writing.

“I did go in with that big picture idea about burrows having this overarching influence on all of our ecosystems,” he replied. “[That, we, too,] have this evolutionary heritage that [is] connected to burrows. So I did have that idea in mind, but it was really scattered. Really disparate.  Also, it wasn’t an original idea. Lots of other people really deserve credit for that, [and they are] cited in the endnotes of the book.

But, he said, “[w]riting the book definitely helped me pull together a lot of those previously separated ideas into the theme that I summarized as ‘burrows acting as the midwife in the birth of Gaia.’

“We can’t really talk about the evolution of ecosystems or the evolution of life without talking about burrows.”

Figure 16: Folk-art rendering inspired by the Lystrosaurus saga set during the Permian-Triassic transition (Chapter 5), with a cutaway view of a Lystrosaurus burrow. (Artwork by Ruth Schowalter and Anthony J. Martin; image and caption used with permission from Pegasus Books) — (The author of this blog wants to note, as Dr. Martin does in the endnotes, that his interest in the species was inspired by this piece by Annalee Newitz.)

Having written four books, did writing them get easier?

“It did get easier with each book,” he acknowledged. Then laughed. “But, of course, the word ‘easy’ is relative.”

“[‘The Life Traces of the Georgia Coast‘] was hard to write because it was so comprehensive.  It was almost 700 pages long; it had more than 800 peer-reviewed references. It’s an academic book, but I [also] wrote it for a popular audience.  So it’s a hybrid kind of book in that respect. That took four years from the acceptance of the book proposal to actually holding it in my hands.”

“And,” he added, “a book is not finished until I’m holding it in my hands.”

“In contrast to that, ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’ was quick. That took me—from start to end—less than two years. I felt like [‘The Evolution Underground’] was a little bit easier than ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones,’ but that’s only because I used Pegasus Books again as the publisher. And I had the same editor: Jessica Case. With that said, it was still difficult to write because it covered so many different burrowing animals, [not to mention it covered] the last 560 million years!

“The main takeaway point of it is for people to better appreciate the world they don’t often see, and that’s the world below their feet. We might not even be here talking about burrowing animals if our earliest mammalian ancestors hadn’t burrowed.”

 

*This comment is not meant to hold one field over another. I have great respect for the skills needed for both paleontology and ichnology.

******

Thank you to Carol Clark, Senior Science Communicator at Emory University, for the wonderful picture of Dr. Martin!

A sincere and enthusiastic THANK YOU to Dr. Anthony Martin for his willingness to connect by phone and for his generous responses to my questions!  It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to speak with him, and—like his writing—he made it fun!  I eagerly (if impatiently) await any possible future work.  

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this blog loved Dr. Martin’s previous book with Pegasus, “Dinosaurs Without Bones,” and thus, jumped at the chance to review his latest work (fully predisposed to embrace it) by requesting a review copy from the publisher.  I am very grateful to Pegasus Books for the opportunity to do so. Being able to use such beautiful images from the book is a great honor! I am specifically grateful to Deputy Publisher, Jessica Case, with whom it was wonderful to work!!

******

References:

  1. The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet, Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books, 2017
  2. Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils, Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books, 2014
  3. Life Traces of the Georgia Coast Blog, Anthony J. Martin

Evolution Underground

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The Evolution Underground – Part 1: Book Review

Not all scholars write with the playfulness or the open curiosity found in books written by Dr. Anthony Martin, professor at Emory University.

In his second work with Pegasus Books, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” he opens with an anecdote about an outdoor class on an island off of the Georgia coast.  If you have any question about whether this book is for you, read those first several pages.

He, his colleague, Michael Page, and several students were mapping alligator dens.  While they’d witnessed many active dens from a safe distance, in this instance, they were exploring those long abandoned by their former occupants.  They were, he explained to the reader, in the middle of the forest where a now-nonexistent canal once ran.  Without water, there would, of course, be no alligators.

Only he was wrong.  And this was pointed out when a student noticed teeth within the den.

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Picture of alligators by Michael Leggero, courtesy of Getty Images

You will need to read the book to find out what happens, but this first chapter perfectly encapsulates how Dr. Martin writes. If you want to learn about any aspect of our world from a scientific and curious lens, here is an author you might want as your guide.  He is no stranger to presenting enormous volumes of information in an easily digestible way, nor is he one to make it cumbersome. His wit and sense of adventure make learning fun.  Moreover, there is no arrogance in his books.  The words “so far,” “unknown,” and “as yet” are sprinkled throughout the text.  He is not afraid to admit when science (or, indeed, when he himself!) has been mistaken, when theories are disproven, educational assumptions found incorrect. He writes with the understanding that our scientific knowledge–like life itself–is still evolving. And like so much of his writing, it only serves to prompt the reader into thoughtful reverie: where might science take us in the future? What will be revealed years, decades, centuries from now, and how will this impact the world?  The creative and wondrous question “What if?” floats like a butterfly through its chapters.

Dr. Martin describes how these seemingly abandoned alligator dens may have indeed been dug when water was present, but that even despite drought, parts of their internal structures may connect with the groundwater table.  Water within the den may have also attracted thirsty birds and animals on the island.  He and his students later found the ravaged corpses and bones from such unsuspecting creatures both in and outside of other forest dens.

“All of this trace evidence told us the alligators could switch from aquatic to terrestrial predation if necessary, like a shark deciding it was going to turn into a lion.  This surprising behavioral transformation and adaptability in alligators was made possible through their dens, which during times of environmental change became all-purpose hunting lodges.” – page 7, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

And thus begins his exploration of the animals—including humans!—worms, insects and birds that have created sanctuaries below ground.  Burrows, he posits, have made survival possible throughout Earth’s history, and these underground homes have made and continue to make enormous impact on life above ground.

“The bigger picture behind these everyday observations of many holes in the ground, however, is that the long history of these burrowing invertebrates completely altered global environments, from the deepest sea to the highest mountains, and even affected the atmosphere and climate.  In short, the entire surface of our planet is built upon one big complex and constantly evolving burrow system, controlling the nature of our existence.” – page 14, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

Dr. Martin encourages us to take a closer look at a generally overlooked part of our world. That closer look involves fascinating details about creatures and places one may not have realized existed.  Burrowing owls–with their photogenic and often amusing images–may be familiar, but perhaps not so much the charming fairy penguins of Tasmania, or the alarming assassin flies associated with gopher tortoise burrows, who both kill and start digesting their hapless victims with an injection of neurotoxins and enzymes.

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Image of burrowing fairy penguins, courtesy of Getty Images
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Slideshow of burrowing owls, courtesy of Getty Images

 

Perhaps the most powerful section of the book—one that really drives home his point about survival underground—involves the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State thirty-seven years ago.

Whether you’ve only read about it or whether you’ve actually visited, Mount St. Helens is a stark reminder of how devastating Nature can be.  After a couple of months of earthquakes, the volcano erupted in the morning of May 18th, 1980. Not only did it obliterate everything in its path, the eruption and its aftermath killed 57 people and all of the wildlife within about 150 square miles.

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Image of Mount St. Helens before the eruption of 1980, photo by Jeff Goulden, courtesy of Getty Images

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Image of Mount St. Helens today, courtesy of Getty Images

Here, Dr. Martin uses creative nonfiction (or ‘narrative nonfiction’) to help illustrate how, despite this traumatic event, the entire area made a comeback.  Loowit, a sweet little fictional pocket gopher, takes the reader through some of the natural events that transformed devastation into renewal and rebirth.

He describes her home: a branching set of underground tunnels and rooms that can reach up to 500 feet long, complete with food storage areas, latrines, and other chambers. Although undeterred by snow, she was, at the time of the eruption, comfortably ensconced in her burrow.  This saved her.  He takes us through how she emerges after the eruption, her confusion, her tentative steps back into a new world above ground, how she and other survivors may have eventually formed communities.

In sum, in a world that now knew mostly death and destruction, these pocket gophers not only survived, but kept surviving, and in so doing, helped bring life back to an area that did not outwardly appear to contain much.

…these little ecosystem engineers began terraforming the previously desolate landscape, first by helping plants take root and grow. Each individual pocket gopher was capable of overturning more than a ton of soil each year…” – page 262, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books
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Image of a pocket gopher, courtesy of Getty Images

Of the 55 mammal species in the area of Mount St. Helens in May 1980, only 14 survived the volcanic eruption and its collateral damage. Surface-dwelling elk, deer, black bears…and all other large- to medium-size mammals perished. On the other hand, nearly all the small mammals that lived were burrowing rodents…One of the few non-rodent survivors was the tiny Trowbridge’s shrew (Sorex trowbridgii), which (not coincidentally) is also a burrower.  Pocket gophers are active year round, but many other small-mammal species were both underground and still hibernating when the eruption took place.  The fortuitous timing of this disaster at the transition between winter and spring thus greatly enhanced the chances of these minutest of mammals to emerge and thrive.  Of the rodents that had already come out of hibernation, nocturnal species were doubly lucky to have already retired for the day in their burrows when the blast occurred.  Had the volcano erupted at night, many more would have died.” – page 264, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

For the pocket gopher populations that survived the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, their collective actions were the key to turning a desolate, monochromatic landscape back into a vibrant and verdant one.  From a geological perspective, their effects were astoundingly quick, with partial ecological restoration apparent within just five years of the eruption. Consequently, pocket gophers and other burrowing animals that lived beyond May 18, 1980, send a powerful message about the benefits of burrows for surviving such an ecologically traumatic events, as well as for their role in restoring an ecosystem after it is nearly destroyed.” – pages 266-267, “The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet,” by Dr. Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

I want more books like “The Evolution Underground” and “Dinosaurs Without Bones.”  Books that tickle my intellect and my sense of humor.  Books that pull me in with their interesting anecdotes, their engaging playfulness, their sensitivity to all genders (ie: not referring to all humans as “mankind” or simply “man”), and their ability to make me think outside the pages.

When I read a book and am left not only with the satisfaction that comes from something that I’ve enjoyed but also an eagerness for more, I know I’ve found a talented author.

Dr. Anthony Martin is, indeed, a talented author.

 

******

A sincere and enthusiastic THANK YOU to Dr. Anthony Martin for his willingness to connect by phone and for his generous responses to my questions!  It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to speak with him, and—like his writing—he made it fun!  I eagerly (if impatiently) await any possible future work.  

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this blog loved Dr. Martin’s previous book with Pegasus, “Dinosaurs Without Bones,” and thus, jumped at the chance to review his latest work (fully predisposed to embrace it) by requesting a review copy from the publisher.  I am very grateful to Pegasus Books for the opportunity to do so. I am specifically grateful to Deputy Publisher, Jessica Case, with whom it was wonderful to work!

Dinosaurs Without Bones

Rewriting the Story of How They Died – Columbian Mammoths in Waco

[[The following text has been edited from the original post.  Email me for the original post: mostlymammoths (at) gmail.com or read the full scientific paper by the authors here.]]

*****

Sometimes, it just takes a different point of view.

The largest known potential nursery herd of Columbian mammoth fossils in the world exists in Waco, Texas.  Of the 25 mammoth skeletons found to-date, 16-22 of them died at the same time. Something catastrophic occurred to these animals in the Pleistocene, but just what remains inconclusive.

While some speculate death by lightning, disease or miring, the predominant theory maintains that this is a herd of mammoths that died and were buried in the same flash flood.  It’s an idea that has stuck for many years given the existence of aquatic fauna and the evidence of an ancient river upon which many of the fossils have been found.

Female W - Waco Mammoth NM - Larry D. Moore

Image of Female Mammoth “W” at the Waco Mammoth National Monument, photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0, 2013

 

But Logan Wiest, Don Esker and Steven Driese of Baylor University have a different hypothesis, one published this past December in Palaios.  By studying traces on the bones available in situ, as well as those available in the nearby Mayborn Museum, they offer an entirely new idea: water didn’t kill them; its absence did.  Struggling to find water in a drought, these animals may have collapsed and died at a watering hole that could no longer sustain them or anything else.

Columbian mammoths were enormous animals.  In general, they are known to be much larger than woolly mammoths and considerably larger than mastodons, both of which were behemoths in their own right.

The mammoth skeletons at Waco are thought to be a matriarchal herd, consisting mainly of females and youth (no calves).  The evidence suggests a herd, and there is more research to be done to prove it using stable isotopes.  A single bull has been discovered in a different geologic layer.  Separate fossils of other species—none of them complete except for a western camel—have also been found throughout the site.

Don admitted he didn’t have an alternative explanation for the death of so many animals. He invited his colleague, Logan Wiest, to take a closer look at the fossil evidence.

“I’d brought [Logan] in hoping he’d look at the [site’s paleosols],” Don said. “I knew he was a trace fossil expert, so I’d hoped he [might] tell me a little bit about the conditions based on worm burrows, [for example].

“What he found instead was much more interesting! He found that there were all kinds of bite marks on the bones.  We didn’t find those all at once.  It actually took quite a while [before] we recognized what we were seeing as bite marks.  A lot of literature research and a lot of staring at bones.  Those bite marks shouldn’t have been there if the mammoths were immediately buried.

“One of the first things he noticed and was able to identify quickly were dermestid beetle bite marks: pits that the beetles dig in the bones when they’re going to lay eggs.

“I thought that perhaps [evidence of dermestid beetles] might be there, but I didn’t realize the significance of [that evidence].  He’s more of an expert on this than I am.

“And he knew that dermestid beetles don’t eat wet meat.  It actually has to be almost completely dessicated–no moisture left at all, just the fats and proteins–before the dermestid beetles will touch it. And that didn’t fit well with animals that were killed in a flood and rapidly buried.

“Dermestid beetles also don’t burrow. Even a single inch of soil is enough to keep dermestid beetles from digging down to perfectly good meat.  They can’t dig.”

Figure 7 - Palaios

FIG. 7.—Cubiculum isp. on various skeletal elements. A) Slightly elliptical, hemispherical bore on in situ rib of mammoth W. B) Hemispherical boring on mammoth U phalanx (545-BU-MMC). C) Shallow bore on femoral articulation surface 761a-BU-MMC. D) Shallow bore on eroded long bone of mammoth D limb fragment (203-BU-MMC). E) Hemispherical bore in cancellous bone on the surface of a spiral fracture (20-BU-MMC). F) Comparative trace generated by captive hide beetles on a wild-hog skull (Sus scrofa). Note the similarities in size and morphology to Figs. 7A-E.

 

Used with permission, PALAIOS, v. 31, 2016, © SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology 2016.

 

“So, it was Logan looking at this and trying to think about what might be causing this instead of a flood, and he said, ‘Well, how about a drought?’

“I knew about some other evidence that really fit with that. So that clicked with me very quickly, particularly the fact that we’ve got both aquatic and terrestrial animals—a great diversity of them all in the same place.  What that suggested to me was a diminishing watering hole. And I wouldn’t have realized that if Logan hadn’t noticed the dermestids and figured out the drought angle.”

Beyond studying the available literature for trace fossil search images, they tested their ideas on the heads of deceased wild hogs using extant dermestid beetles. In effect: they put the fleshy heads into a contained area and let loose the beetles, who proceeded to consume all of the flesh, leaving clean skulls. It’s an efficient and chemical-free method used by scientists and museums the world over.  But for Logan, Dan and Steven, this provided more data for comparison. Traces left by the beetles on the wild hog skulls are similar to traces on the fossils in Waco.

 

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Screenshot of a tweet regarding the use of dermestid beetles from Dr. Lisa Buckley, paleontologist and ichnologist at the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre

 

“Previous studies have attributed trace fossils of this size and morphology to dermestid beetles,” Logan wrote in response to what prompted them–of all insects that might have left traces on fossils–to think of dermestid beetles.  “We simply wanted to test this notion by providing bone to dermestid beetles and seeing if these traces could be duplicated under controlled conditions. The beetles came from a nearby museum, but they are also native to Texas. We used the head from a hog simply because wild hogs are easily accessible in central Texas.”

A true ichnologist, Logan added, “I’ve also spent a great deal of time observing bones of modern cattle that were scavenged upon in pastures near my home.”

They didn’t just find evidence of ancient dermestid beetle traces; they found traces of animals who gnawed at the bones: rodents and carnivores, including a possible saber-toothed cat.  It is important to consider that animals drowned and then rapidly buried in a flash flood would not be accessible to these terrestrial scavengers.  This indicates that these Columbian mammoth carcasses were exposed on land long enough to be at least partially devoured.

That, too, is key. Remember that most of these mammoth fossils are articulated skeletons, complete except for missing tails and parts of their feet.  In an area devastated by drought, even scavengers would lack the energy to completely devour and tear apart a carcass.  All of these clues add more weight to the scenario proposed by these authors.

Figure 5 - Palaios

FIG. 5.—Brutalichnus brutalis on M. columbi skeletal elements. A) Arcuate grooves on femoral head 761a-BU-MMC. B) Relatively deep, arcuate grooves on mammoth Q in situ patella. C) Isolated arcuate groove on proximal radius (40-BU-MMC) of mammoth B. Note the similarity in curvature between the arcuate groove and the saber-toothed cat canine recovered from WMNM. The tooth is 6.4 cm for scale. Also note the faintly colored lines that are parallel to the arc of the groove. Dashed white box highlights the area depicted in D. D) Close-up image of groove depicting the microfractures within the trace on 40-BU-MMC. Notice how the fractures are all open towards the upper-right corner of the image, indicating the trace was generated from a force moving from the upper right towards the lower left. E) In situ femur of bull mammoth at WMNM. F) Arcuate grooves on mammoth Q phalanx 522-BU-MMC.

 

Used with permission, PALAIOS, v. 31, 2016, © SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology 2016.

 

Describing the tools they used to study the fossils in situ, Logan wrote, “The low-angle light creates a shadow which makes the small structures on the bone surface to be easier to see and photograph. We used a Dino-Lite portable microscope to study the fossils mainly because we are unable to transport the mammoth remains from the site to the laboratory. Studying the fossils in place is the best way to ensure preservation of the original positions.”

In other words, because the fossils remain where they were found, they studied those available directly at the site.  Their paper states that the in situ fossils comprise 30% of the available Waco fossils.  The rest reside at the Mayborn Museum, some of which are available in their collections, but most of which remain unopened in their plaster jackets.

“It’s an amazing site,” Don enthused, “and there’s decades and decades of research there, on top of potentially a lot more excavation, too, because they are in NO WAY finished excavating. What they’ve got probably represents a fairly small fraction of the whole deposit.

“One of the things that Logan and I were speculating about [is] if you’ve got a really big regional drought, that should show up in multiple places in the geologic record, especially right in that area.  The bed that we’ve got marking the drought as this depositional hiatus could be covered with bones for acres and acres in every direction.

“And we know that it’s covered in bones at least 80 or 90 feet away from where the known deposits are because we’ve done core sampling that have pulled out large bone fragments.  We only did a couple of them—a couple at random!—and they hit bones both times.”

 

Figure 4 - Palaios

FIG. 4.—Machichnus regularis on various skeletal remains of M. columbi (unless otherwise noted). A) Rodent gnaw marks on rib 764b-BU-MMC. B) Rodent traces on mammoth E limb fragment 203a-BU-MMC. C) Rasps on vertebra of in situ camel. D) Rodent gnaw marks on in situ neural spine of juvenile mammoth T in L1. E) Rodent traces on in situ left scapula of bull mammoth (Q) in L2. F) Close-up image of the same trace depicted in view E.

 

Used with permission, PALAIOS, v. 31, 2016, © SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology 2016.

 

 

The Waco Mammoth site itself has been around for 39 years, but it has only been part of the National Park Service since July 2015, thanks to President Barack Obama and the work of many people years beforehand who helped bring that to fruition.  Don and I discussed this by phone, given the current political climate and the fears that some National Monuments might lose their status.

“That’s really worrisome,” he remarked. “And what really sticks in my craw about the Waco Monument in particular is that it’s costing the Federal Government almost nothing.  The city of Waco is paying for almost all of the upkeep.  The original buildings? That wasn’t tax money. That was done by good old fashioned fund-raising. And the day-to-day operations are almost all city.  There are a couple of rangers there alongside city employees and some signage and brochures. And that’s really all the Federal Government’s paying into it.”

“It’s a really incredible place.  There are not a lot of sites like this anywhere, as far as in situ fossils sites go.”

*****

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Don Esker and Logan Wiest for their remarkable generosity in answering my questions and for sharing their research with me.  It was an enormous pleasure speaking with and communicating through email with them.  I loved reading their research and hearing more of the history behind it!!

You can read the paper here.

A sincere and enthusiastic thank you to Kathleen Huber, Managing Editor at Palaios, for her gracious permission to use the figures contained in this post!

References:

  1. The Waco National Monument may represent a diminished watering-hole scenario based on preliminary evidence of post-mortem scavenging, Wiest, Logan A.; Esker, Don; Driese, Steven G., Palaios, December 2016, DOI: 10.2110/palo.2016.053
  2. Waco National Monument, Waco, TX
  3. City of Waco, TX – Waco Mammoth National Monument, Waco, TX
  4. Mammoth Opportunity, Jeff Hampton, Baylor Arts & Sciences Magazine, Fall 2016
  5. What is Ichnology? from Introduction to Ichnology, Anthony J. Martin, Emory University (This page offers a great explanation of some of the more technical ichnological terms included in the scientific paper referenced for this post. I also recommend Dr. Martin’s book, “Dinosaurs Without Bones” for a more comprehensive look into ichnology.)
  6. Flesh-Eating Beetles Explained, Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, National Geographic, January 17, 2013

 

waco-mammoths-3-from-city-of-waco-video

Screenshot of the entrance to Waco Mammoth National Monument from a video done by the City of Waco

Minute Trace Fossils Offer Major Implications For Extinction Recovery

Large body fossils of extinct creatures capture our imagination.  It’s understandable.  These were fascinating behemoths, and we can see something of their life in the bones that remain. While our collective attention might be focused on these very big things, researchers published a paper this past November that centered on some very tiny things.  And what they found has enormous implications for our understanding of ancient life.

Fossi leaf with insect damage - Michael Donovan

Insect feeding damage on a fossil leaf, including holes and a leaf mine (bottom right), made by a larval insect that fed on tissue within the leaf. The fossil is 67-66 million years old and from the Lefipán Formation in Patagonia, Argentina; photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

 

The authors Michael Donovan, Ari Iglesias, Peter Wilf, Conrad Labandeira, and N. Rubén Cúneo studied trace fossils of insect feeding damage on over 3000 fossil leaves from Patagonia (an area that encompasses the southern part of Argentina and Chile).

Remarkably, fossil leaves number in the tens of thousands in the Western Hemisphere alone.  But studying them for insect damage during the end Cretaceous and early Paleocene is relatively new.  Keep in mind that the end Cretaceous marked the last mass extinction this planet has known thus far.  The early Paleocene marks the time when life was, however slowly, working its way back into existence.

There is a preponderance of fossil leaves in the western interior North America (WINA) from this time period, and they have been studied.  In “Rapid recovery of Patagonian plant-insect associations after the end-Cretaceous extinction” published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the authors compared the relatively smaller number of fossil leaves in Patagonia to the much larger numbers of such leaves from WINA.

What interested them was the diversity of insect damage to these Patagonian plant leaves.

pl2-585

Tiny insect piercing and sucking marks on a fossil leaf from the fossil locality Palacio de los Loros 2 in Patagonia, Argentina (approximately 64 million years old). Piercing and sucking damage is made by insects that use their straw-like mouthparts to feed on fluids from within plants; photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

pl2-585-closeup

Close up of the picture above; photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

The type of insect damage—the different ways insects fed upon a leaf–relates to the diversity of insects. That diversity of herbivorous insects, in turn, relates to a much larger food web.  In other words, the traces these ancient insects made indicate that there was a growing population of different types of insects. That growing population suggests a growing, thriving food web.  Life in Patagonia, after the last mass extinction, may have been returning at a much faster rate than its northern counterpart.

Embed from Getty Images

 

“If we’re just looking at the raw numbers, there are way more fossils, but less insect-damage diversity,” explained Michael Donovan in a phone interview referring to the WINA fossil leaf damage.  “In the Western US, there’s around almost 20,000 leaves included in those data sets. Maybe a little less.” He chuckled. “And that’s compared to the 3,646 [fossil leaves] in Patagonia. So, it’s a big difference!”

“We can’t always say exactly what insects were making the damage,” he wrote earlier in an email.  “During this study, we found many different kinds of damage representing the work of a wide range of plant-eating insects. Some types of damage can be made by a variety of insects. For example, many different kinds of insects with chewing mouthparts, such as beetles or grasshoppers, can create holes in leaves by feeding through the plant tissue. Other types of insect damage provide more specific information about the culprit. Leaf mines, for example, are made by larvae of some species of moths, flies, wasps, and beetles. The mines act as a detailed record of the behavior of the insect, which we can use to infer the type of insect that may have made the mine.”

palacio-de-los-loros-2

View of an excavation at the Palacio de los Loros 2 fossil plant locality in Chubut, Patagonia, Argentina. The fossils there were formed in the early Paleocene around 64 million years ago;photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

 

Michael was the one responsible for studying these 3,646 fossil leaves to see if any had any damage to begin with, and then to see whether that damage may have been insect-related.  (In a nod to how I may have organized such things, I wondered whether museum collections separate out fossils with traces of damage.  They do not. Or rather, as Michael explained, “How they are organized usually depends on the collector or museum. The collections used in this study are organized by plant morphotype/species. To collect the data, I inspected all of the leaf fossils under a microscope for insect damage.”)

But how can one determine the difference between disease-related traces and insect-related traces in a fossil leaf?

“One good thing to look for is reaction from the plant to the insect damage,” he answered.  “So, for example, if an insect chews through a leaf and makes a hole, [scar] tissue [will form] around the edges of the hole. On the fossil, it looks like a little dark area surrounding the hole.  That’s where the plant healed itself after the damage was made, and that shows that [the insect ate the leaf] when the plant was still alive. If it happened when the leaf was dead, it wouldn’t form that scar tissue. So if there’s something like a tear that was made when the leaf was already dead, reaction tissue wouldn’t form. Then some other types of damage are very distinctive, such as leaf mines, and look very similar to damage we see on modern leaves.”

pl2-2506

Skeletonization (feeding on leaf tissue between leaf veins but leaving the veins intact) caused by a plant-feeding insect. The leaf is from the Palacio de los Loros 2 fossil plant locality in Patagonia, Argentina (approximately 64 million years old); photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan.

 

Their research determined that there is a greater diversity of insect-damage to fossil leaves in Patagonia, and that this diversity occurred 4 million years after the meteorite crashed into Earth at Chicxulub, Mexico.  Contrast this to the western interior North America, in which insect-damage indicates that same recovery took 9 million years.

“The fossil plant collections that we studied were collected relatively recently by my coauthors (Ari Iglesias, Peter Wilf, and Rubén Cúneo) and other scientists as part of a larger research program on Patagonian fossil floras from the end of the Cretaceous through the Eocene,” Michael described. “The Paleocene floras have been dated with a variety of methods, which show us that the fossil sites were formed during three time slices in the early Paleocene. Using these dates, we were able to observe how plant-insect associations in Patagonia recovered in the 4 million years after the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact.”

Co-authors Conrad Labandeira and Peter Wilf were part of a 2014 study published in PLOS One (“Insect Leaf-Chewing Damage Tracks Herbivore Richness in Modern and Ancient Forests,” also by Mónica R. Carvalho, Héctor Barrios, Donald M. Windsor, Ellen D. Currano, and Carlos A. Jamarillo) in which extant insect leaf damage was correlated to the larger food web of two tropical rainforests.  The variety of insect traces on today’s leaves represents a healthy variety of insect species.  Like keystone species in any ecosystem, these traces indicate a thriving web of life.

Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

 

How remarkable to then extrapolate that insects so many millions of years ago, simply eating the leaves available to them in the Southern Hemisphere, can offer important clues to the state of life after the devastation our planet endured.  The traces of these tiny creatures—and the fragile plants that survived fossilization—are extraordinarily significant.

“It was pretty exciting to see what was happening in another part of the world,” Michael enthused.

When asked why fossil leaves and insects interested him, he responded, “Plants and insects are the most diverse multi-cellular organisms on Earth, and their interactions are important components of food webs on land. By studying insect feeding damage on fossil leaves, we can learn how insects and plants responded to major environmental changes in the past and have a better idea of how they may be affected in the future.”

“This is what I’m interested in continuing doing. This is a relatively newer field within paleontology, so there are lots of projects to pursue, lots of periods of time in the ancient past where we don’t know much about how insects and plants were interacting.”

“The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction was a major event in the history of life and the most recent of the big mass extinctions. The plants and animals that we see today are all descended from organisms that survived this asteroid impact. We observed a faster recovery of plant-feeding insects in the Southern hemisphere—in Patagonia—compared to the Northern hemisphere—[in WINA.]  These patterns from the early Paleocene may be related to biodiversity patterns that we see today.”

 

pl1-634

Leaf mine made by a larval insect that fed on tissue within the leaf. The fossil is ~65 million years old and from the Palacio de los Loros 1 fossil site in Patagonia, Argentina; photo and caption courtesy of Michael Donovan. 

 

An absolutely ENORMOUS thank you to Michael Donovan for making so much time to answer my questions, both in email and by phone.  The number of pictures he sent, and their detailed captions, was AMAZING.  I did not include them all here. I encourage you to read the paper done by him and his colleagues to see how many and beautiful they are. THANK YOU, MICHAEL!!

 

References:

  1. Donovan, M. P., Iglesias, A., Wilf, P., Labandeira, C. C. & Cúneo, N. R. Rapid recovery of Patagonian plant–insect associations a er the end-Cretaceous extinction. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 1, 0012 (2016).
  2. Carvalho MR, Wilf P, Barrios H, Windsor DM, Currano ED, Labandeira CC, et al. (2014) Insect Leaf-Chewing Damage Tracks Herbivore Richness in Modern and Ancient Forests. PLoS ONE 9(5): e94950. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094950
  3. Monocots versus Dicots, University of California Museum of Paleontology
  4. Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, Trelew, Argentina
  5. Check out more research done in Patagonia! Patagonia Paleofloras Project

 

Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio

Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, home to the fossil leaves used in this paper and many other exciting fossils; photo by Pedrochubut (Template:MEF Photo) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sousatitan: Brazil’s oldest sauropod bone found in a sea of trace fossils

One man happened to see the bone; one scientist happened to see the picture he posted online.

These two chance occurrences brought about a remarkable discovery: the first fossil dinosaur bone to be found where none have been found before.

Not only is it the first dinosaur bone in the area, it is also the oldest sauropod bone in Brazil to-date, a new as-yet-unnamed species of titanosaur.

Luiz Carlos Gomes was looking for fossil footprints in Sousa, Brazil. Hundreds upon hundreds of trackways, footprints and other trace fossils have already been found in Paraíba–a state in the West coast of that country and where Sousa is located–in an area known as the ‘Valley of the Dinosaurs‘ (‘Vale dos Dinossauros‘). But actual bone fossils? None.

None, that is, until he recognized actual bone within rock.

“He was the main [person] responsible for the discovery,” wrote Dr. Aline Ghilardi, paleontologist at Universidade Federal de São Carlos, in an email. “Luiz Carlos is a very curious retired gentleman whose hobby is to look for dinosaur footprints. He found the bone by chance (it was still inserted into the rock, so he knew it was not only a recent bone), took a picture of it and posted on the internet. Searching information about the area, I found the photo by chance, and, knowing the importance of the discovery, immediately got in touch with him.”

 

Trackway from Bone Collectors Video - Brazil

More tracks in Brazil from Bone Collectors video

Images of fossil footprints found in the Valley of the Dinosaurs (Vale dos Dinossauros) in the state of Paraíba, Brazil; screenshots from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Luiz Carlos and Aline from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Image of Luiz Carlos S. Gomes and Dr. Aline Ghilardi; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

That bone was the subject of a paper published this past July in Cretaceous Research by Aline Ghilardi, Tito Aureliano, Rudah Duque, Marcelo Fernandes and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan (“A new titanosaur in the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil“).

 

DSC_0025 - Sousa fossil in-situ

Fossil of the sauropod bone found in-situ in Sousa, Brazil, nicknamed ‘Sousatitan’; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi.

 

Through its bone histology, they believe this fibula belonged to a young titanosaur, rather than a small adult.  They noted rapid growth, and they highlighted an aspect within the bone that intrigued them.  In their paper, they point out that “…the lateral part of the bone wall has what appears to be bone tissue not formed in laminae and a predominance of longitudinally orientated vascular channels within a woven bone matrix.”

“This suggests that different parts of the bone wall [are] growing at different rates,” wrote Dr. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, paleobiologist and professor at the University of Cape Town, “i.e.: the rate of bone formation is not constant around the whole cross section of the bone wall.”

Research from Anusuya Chinsamy from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Image of “fibrolamellar bone tissue in the process of being deposited on the medial side of the bone wall” and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

Their comparisons with other titanosaur fibula indicate it is a new species, although the authors are cautious about this.  And using a complicated mathematical formula, they can estimate the size of Sousatitan, the nickname they have given this dinosaur.

Tito Aureliano, a PhD student at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, helped elucidate how, equipped with a single fossil bone, they could make an educated guess about its size. His solution involved tweaking a previously published equation and quite a bit of ichnofossil measurement.  Keep in mind that the Valley of the Dinosaurs has at least 74 known sauropod footsteps.

Tito Aureliano from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Tito Aureliano; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

“We used equations in two steps in our paper,” he explained by email, “because we needed to relate and compare one single fossil specimen to the abundant ichnospecimens from Sousa. The most accurate and mathematically secure way to do that (and [to avoid] speculation) was calculating hip height joint from footprints and total leg height from the bone we found.  We didn’t work with total length because that varies quite a lot in Titanosauria, and it wouldn’t be [scientifically useful].”

“First, we observed titanosaur tracksites from the same age as Sousatitan’s leg size.  We measured the diameter of every ‘back leg’ footprint available at Rio Piranha Formation outcrops.  Then, we calculated the hip height of all titanos that roamed the area at this formation and noticed there were a variety of sizes in individuals.

Comparative image of titantosaur fibula

 

 

Fig. 4.; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

“Previous authors developed equations to predict general dinosaur hip heights from tracksites, but if you are working specifically with titanosaur ones, you should work with the Argentinian equation.  González-Riga found a complete articulated titano leg in the same area he has encountered large footprints that fit exactly in size with his fossil.  By using this evidence, he was able to develop this accurate equation to estimate hip height from a single titanosaurian footprint.

“Secondly, we had to estimate Sousatitan’s leg size. We had just one single bone. How did we do that?  In González-Riga’s paper I mentioned before, he also presented a formula to calculate total leg length from its skeletal elements.  The major problem is that it had so many variables and geometry elements in it.  It would be impossible [to use] if a scientist has only one or two of these elements.  So, I worked on the equation to simplify it into just three variables: femur, ulna and fibula length. H = ¼1.106*(0.96F + T), where H represents hip joint height, F is femur length, and T is tibia length.  Now colleagues with less titanosaur limb bones [can use] González-Riga’s original idea with what they have.”

 

Sousatitan fossil from Colecionadores de Ossos video

A view of Sousatitan’s fibula (or ‘DGEO-CTG-UPFE-7517’), viewed from every angle; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Size comparison Sousatitan

 

Great depiction of the estimated size of Sousatitan (in black) with the fossil found; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

 

Tito continued, “‘Ok, a cool new formula with three elements. But you have just one! How did you do it then?’

“It’s simple morphometry.  I gathered limb bones from a lot of different titanosaur genera and measured the ration between these three bones. Then, I could estimate the theoretical size of the other limb bones.”

Sousa Basin stratigraphy

Sousa Basin stratigraphy; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

 

Coming from an area of the United States known more for ichnofossils than bone fossils, I share their excitement.

And yet, “internationally, for now, we have only observed colleagues’ mentions regarding the work and its importance,” wrote Dr. Ghilardi.

Fortunately, this sense of excitement seems to permeate Brazil.

“The discovery is getting lots of attention in Brazil, from both our colleagues and the popular media,” she continued. “The bone’s discovery was announced in all major newspapers of the country and, [thus far], in two of the largest television channels of Brazil.  Visits to the ‘Vale dos Dinossauros’ Park (where the bone is now housed) increased significantly after the first announcement of the discovery in popular media.  The dinosaur’s nickname got very popular and soon reached even Wikipedia in Portuguese.”

Aline Ghildardi from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Dr. Aline Ghilardi; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

When I asked what brought these six scientists–from Brazil and South Africa–together on this research, Tito Aureliano explained that he and Dr. Ghilardi are married.  In addition, he explained, “our friend, [Rudah] Duque, is a technician in paleontological preparation at PaleoLab (UFPE, Recife city). Prof. Barreto is the chief of the PaleoLab. We have been working together for the past four years visiting the least explored areas of NE Brazil in search of new Cretaceous fossils.

Prof. Anusuya had previously assisted us in pterosaur research [that included] some histological observations. She possesses not only great knowledge on the subject, but she is also very polite and friendly. Aline and I think it was wonderful to work with her and to learn from her.

“Our friend Marcelo is the chief of the Paleontological Museum of the Universidade Federal de São Carlos. He is a renowned specialist in dinosaur ichnofossils (he is that guy that published the first urolite, ‘dinosaur pee‘).”

Marcelo Fernandes from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Dr. Marcelo Fernandes; screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video;  courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Urolites from Fernandes et al paper from Colecionadores de Ossos video

Trace fossils from paper by Fernandes et al corresponding to liquid wastes (urolites!); screenshot from the Colectionadores de Ossos (Bone Collectors) video;  courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

 

Without doubt, the authors will continue to search for additional bone fossils in the area.

“The intention is to seek funding to continue doing searches in the region.  We hope to find more material in [the] Lagoa do Forno site (including other parts of the same individual) and also other promising localities,” Dr. Ghilardi wrote.

 

Sousatitan map of discovery

 

Location of the find and map of Brazil; image from A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Cretaceous Research.

 

“I believe it is worth mentioning the importance of the contact between researchers and the population,” she added.  “It is always a good partnership and yields good results.  The locals are interacting every day with the fossiliferous rocks, therefore, they are the most likely people to find materials such as this bone.

“[Making] people feel part of the scientific knowledge process is a very effective way to preserve paleontological heritage for future generations. And not only create a sense of protection about it….but also a sense of pride in their heritage and their land.  Finally, this can be a fundamental social change factor for the local population, which is so needed in so many respects.”

Referencing Sousatitan’s discoverer, Luiz Carlos Gomes, she wrote, “Today, he is very proud of [what has transpired since the initial find].”

 

Sousatitan by Marcos Paulo

Depiction of Sousatitan amongst larger sauropods of the same species; artwork by Marcos Paulo; courtesy of Aline Ghilardi and Tito Aureliano.

You can help the Bone Collectors continue to educate the public by donating here

 

It was a remarkable honor and pleasure connecting with Dr. Aline Ghilardi, Tito Aureliano and Dr. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan. That cannot be stated enough! It was exciting to learn more about their incredible discovery, and they were very generous with their time and help. From New England to Brazil and South Africa: THANK YOU!!

 

References:

  1. A new titanosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil, Aline M. Ghilardi, Tito Aureliano, Rudah R. C. Duque, Marcelo A. Fernandes, Alcina M. F. Barreto, Anusuya Chinsamy; Cretaceous Research, Vol 67, December 2016; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cretres.2016.07.001

Videos by the Bone Collectors (Colecionadores de Ossos), several authors of this research:

Further Information:

  1. Bone Collectors – Colecionadores de Ossos: http://bonecollectors.org (website of several of the authors in this paper)
  2. The Bone Collectors’ Blog: http://scienceblogs.com.br/colecionadores
  3. Bone Collectors – Colecionadores de Ossos on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/ColecionadoresOssos
  4. Um novo dinossauro Brasileiro: blog post about the Sousatitan discovery by Aline Ghilardi on the Bone Collector blog
  5. Occurrence of urolites related to dinosaurs in the Lower Cretaceous of the Botucatu Formation, Paraná Basin, São Paulo State, Brazil, Marcelo A. Fernandes, Luciana B. R. Fernandes, Paulo R. F. Souto, Revisita Brasileira de Paleontologia, July/August 2004
  6. Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony J. Martin, 2014, Pegasus Books — (Dr. Martin includes an illustration of one of the urolites discovered by Fernandes et al in this book; he also discusses their research on pages 245-246!)

 

Pegasus - Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony Martin

 

A Personal Fossil Journey in New England

“Can you please help me find the Beneski Museum?”

This was the second student I’d asked. Initially, I’d asked a student for help finding the museum—no thank you, GPS–and then help with elusive parking. My request to the young woman in front of me was to help re-find the building I’d lost sight of amongst many other brick buildings.

She pointed me in the right direction, gave me detailed instructions, and added, “It will take you approximately three minutes to get there.” A thoughtful detail that made me smile that much more broadly.

Students with backpacks dotted the campus and passed me as I headed forward: some lost in thought, some in conversation, others laughing. Their presence, just as much as the rolling hills of manicured lawns, towering trees and historic buildings, made me feel right at home. Although not where I’d attended school, it felt similar, and I basked in the feelings that surfaced. Of course, none of these feelings included the stress or the struggles I felt throughout college. Long gone are the days of working most of the night on papers, studying for exams or the abject terror of oral presentations. No. These days I learn on my own, at my own pace, as I wish, and where I wish. I adore it.

But learning in this fashion is not at all linear.

A recent trip back to see Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT, enabled me to re-read exhibits that didn’t mean as much to me when I’d first seen them so many years prior.

DSP - entrance

DSP - great view of tracks bridge diorama

Images of Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT, taken by the author

 

Since that time, I’d read Dr. Anthony Martin’s “Dinosaurs Without Bones”—a fascinating journey into the science of learning more about extinct creatures through fossil traces. I’d also spoken with paleontologist, Dr. Karen Chin, about both ichnology (the aforementioned science) and the work of Dr. Martin Lockley—a man who has spent a lifetime learning about and collecting fossil footprints.

Pegasus - Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony Martin

Book cover to”Dinosaurs Without Bones” by Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

So when I saw a small note about Edward Hitchcock and his collection of footprints, I decided to check it out.

DSP - sign New England ichnology

Informational panel at Dinosaur State Park that mentions Edward Hitchcock and Amherst College, taken by the author

 

Which is a long way of explaining why I had traveled a couple of hours south to Amherst College.

I knew the museum offered other fossils along with Hitchcock’s fossil footprint collection, but I did not expect them to be as diverse or as impressive.

 

 

Beneski - mammoth front

Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, Amherst College, taken by the author.  Smilodon and dire wolf skeletons are on the right.

Beneski - Irish elk

Irish elk (Megaloceros hibernicus) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - mastodon front

American mastodon (Mammut americanum) at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

Beneski - mastodon close-up jaw

Close-up of the American mastodon mandible at Beneski Museum, taken by the author. The lower tusk on this mastodon surprised me, and I spoke about this with Museum Educator, Fred Venne.  Conversations on Twitter prompted very interesting comments by @maxthemastodon from the Western Science Center, @dr_mastodonna (Dr. Katy Smith) and @chriswidga (Dr. Chris Widga).  It is important to note that this mastodon is comprised of components from at least two or more different mastodons.

 

Asking whether I could take pictures in the museum is how I first met Fred Venne, a tall, gracious man who walked toward me the moment he saw that I had questions.
I had never previously met a Museum Educator in person. Fred has now set the bar exceedingly high. It seems artful, his ability to share knowledge and offer insight, yet step away and enable someone to learn on one’s own—a very considerate balance. I marveled at this, just as I marveled at everything around me.

 

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall full great

Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall sign images

Images corresponding to the skeletons on the Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - view of bottom and first floors

A view between two of the three floors at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author; notice the hint of fossil footprint slabs a the bottom right.

Beneski - gryposaurus - hadrosaur

Triceratops skull and Gryposaurus (a hadrosaur) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - racks of Hitchcocks trace fossils

Beneski - great wall of tracks

Beneski - footprint on rack of trace fossils

Various images of the many trace fossils collected by Edward Hitchcock over his lifetime at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

It was Fred who informed me of a nearby excavation site. Searching online in his office and writing down the address for me, he then called the owner of the site to make sure he knew I was coming.

(Fred also introduced me to a member of the team who discovered Tiktaalik and visiting scholar, Steve Gatesy. Dr. Gatesy very generously proceeded to explain a bit about his current research, picking up and showing me specimens of single fossil tracks. For a day in which my expectations were simply to see fossil footprints and maybe a handful of bone fossils, this was proving to be extraordinary.)

My GPS almost got it right. I pulled in to the driveway just short of the actual destination, the neighbors smiling and waving good-bye after explaining it was just down the road.

At first glance, Nash Dinosaur Tracks has the air of a campground. Situated in a rural area, one drives up a path to a large opening, surrounded by forest. There is a single building in the corner, a cozy construction with hand-made signs.

Nash Dinosaur Tracks sign

Entrance sign to Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - road to the fossil store

Path leading into Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store outside

Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - dilophosaurus sign

Sign depicting Dilophosaurus, the type of dinosaur thought to produce the type of tracks in the area.  “Eubrontes” is a name coined by Edward Hitchcock to describe these tracks.  Image taken by the author.

Beneski - types of Hitchcock tracks2

Image of two types of tracks believed to be made by two different (as yet unknown) types of dinosaur, as defined by Edward Hitchcock: eubrontes and grallator.  Sign at Beneski Museum, image taken by the author.

 

I feel it’s important I mention two conflicting feelings I had when Fred first described Nash Dinosaur Tracks, an area of active excavation with a fossil shop: ambivalence and overwhelming enthusiasm.

I’m not a paleontologist.  I don’t even work in a museum. I’m still learning many of the very basics of paleontology. And I know that in this country, fossils found on personal land belong to the person who owns that land. I’ve read quite a bit about the sale of fossils throughout the world. I’ve communicated with paleontologists who have differing views on the subject.

It is enormously complicated.

Large, beautiful skeletons arrive on the market for auction, sold to those who can afford their extravagant prices and then lost to the general public.  Sometimes, those skeletons are donated to a museum (or sold at a lower price). But in some places, the sale of important fossils means survival for those who sell them, a much different type of economic exchange. The biggest lightning rod right now is the sale of ivory, a turbulent conflict that affects both human and elephant lives, and extends into the sale of mammoth tusks.

Do fossils belong to the general public?  And if so, what public? (Country of origin? International groups?) Do museums or scientists have a right to them above all?

I don’t have answers.

But I do know that I cringe every time I read about fossils being sold, and this colors my perspective on the sale of any fossil any where.  Even on personal land, such as that of Kornell Nash.

So it was with mixed feelings that I walked into the fossil shop and called out, “Hello?”

Nash - store inside

View inside Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store footprints and fossil for sale

Examples of fossils for sale, some under $100, some $3000 in the shop; image taken by the author

Nash - store Kornell Nash - displaying layers of stone

Kornell Nash, holding a fossil footprint on its side to display the layers of rock; image taken by the author

 

Kornell Nash appeared and introductions were made. He seemed a very gentle, unassuming man.  I learned later that this had been his day off; he had, in fact, just awoken from a nap.  But he mentioned none of that initially.  When I asked about the quarry, he indicated where it was, pointing to a door leading behind the shop.

“Feel free to look around,” he said and disappeared.

Nash - store - outside door - footprints in stone

Stone outside of the door leading from the fossil shop to the quarry.  Can you find the fossil tracks?  (According to Kornell Nash, this stone was obtained by his father, Carlton Nash, from a different location.) Image taken by the author.

 

The word “quarry” in my mind conjures enormous stone and cavernous holes.  This was not such a place.  As I eagerly walked on a pine needle-strewn path, I kept expecting something bigger, something huge. Something to match my expectations of a place that had produced fossil footprints for decades.

What I came upon was a modest outcrop on an incline.

 

Nash - quarry - whole thing from path

View of the fossil quarry from the path, taken by the author

Nash - quarry looking up

View of the entire quarry, looking up, taken by the author

 

As I got closer, something crunched under foot.  I looked around me and saw bits of shale everywhere and I panicked.  Was I crushing fossil footprints?  Shale littered the ground; there was no where to walk without stepping on it, so I continued….gingerly.

Kornell had indicated there were large footprints across the top of the stone, but I didn’t see anything at first.  It wasn’t until I literally stepped upon the stone outcrop that I found them.

 

Nash - quarry footprint and pieces taken out

Example of an area of stone cut out by Kornell Nash, taken by the author

Nash - quarry shale segments

Segments of shale detritus that lines the back of the quarry, taken but the author

Nash - quarry footprint detail

One of the many fossil footprints in the quarry, taken by the author

 

This was my first experience with fossils in-situ.  More importantly, this was my first experience actually touching the evidence of the life of an extinct creature.  While I love fossil skeletons, there was something much more significant–something inordinately more meaningful–in seeing where an actual dinosaur had STEPPED. And it is no exaggeration to say that putting my fingers into these footprints was the closest thing to a spiritual moment for me.

This, from private land with a fossil shop. Not from a museum, my normal haven and revered institution, but from the very thing that caused my self-righteousness.

I thought about this when I eventually walked back to the shop.

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall2

Newspaper articles of Nash Dinosaur Tracks (formerly known as “Dinosaurland”) and Kornell Nash on a wall in the fossil shop, images taken by the author

Nash - store pictures of Hitchcock and Mignon Talbot (blurry)

Pictures of Edward Hitchcock and Dr. Mignon Talbot–a paleontologist from Mount Holyoke College who discovered Podokesaurus in 1911. Kornell Nash’s dad, Carlton, corresponded with Dr. Talbot. Image taken by the author.  

 

There is so much history to the place, in and around the fossil shop.  Echoes of it hang on the walls, yellowed newspaper articles with edges curling and wrinkled.  Letters are tacked to a post.

Looking later on the Nash Dinosaur Tracks website, I was surprised to learn that Carlton (and George) Nash purchased the land in 1939 for $85.  Carlton Nash–Kornell’s father–is mentioned in the book “Bones for Barnum Brown” by Roland T. Bird.  Bird describes his visit with the family and seeing the fossilized remnants of what Carlton believed was an animal lying or sitting down.

Nash - store picture of how his dad found the footprints and animal lying down

Image of a picture of the fossilized trace of an animal lying or sitting down, according to Carlton Nash; picture of this picture taken by the author at the Nash Fossil Shop. This was described in a book by Roland T. Bird.

Nash - store footprints and impression of animal with tail lying

Image of that actual fossil with a slab of tracks above it in the fossil shop; image taken by the author

 

He communicated with numerous well-known scientists, including Dr. Mignon Talbot of Mount Holyoke College, discoverer of the Podokesaurus.  He donated a section of tracks to what is now known as Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.  A response was sent from Grace Coolidge, the wife of former US president, Calvin Coolidge.

Carlton Nash passed away in 1997.  Kornell Nash has been the owner since.

I asked him if he shared his father’s passion for paleontology and geology.

“In a different way,” he emailed back. “I really enjoyed the travel growing up.  We traveled all over the United States at a time many of my friends didn’t even get out of the Northeast. In a way, dinosaurs are quite common to me. Doesn’t everyone’s father dig dinosaur tracks?”

Nash - store Kornell Nash describing detail of footprint

Kornell Nash describing the detail of a footprint in his fossil shop, taken by the author

 

I had a long way to drive home, and it was a beautiful drive on a beautiful day.  Autumn in New England means brisk air, pumpkins on the side of the road, corn stalks decorating porches. My head churned with what I’d experienced.  I pondered the people I’d met and the things I’d witnessed.

It was but one page in the chapters of my life thus far, but this page, I savor.

Nash - quarry footprints

A fossil footprint path in the quarry behind Nash Fossil Shop; image taken by the author

———-

Fred Venne made what might have been a good trip to the Beneski Museum one that was an absolutely outstanding adventure.  He is a superb ambassador for Amherst College, and I am profoundly grateful for his thoughtfulness.

A sincere thank you to Dr. Steve Gatesy for his time and his willingness to share details about his current research!

I am indebted to Kornell Nash for letting me explore his fossil quarry alone and for being able to actually touch fossil footprints in-situ.  I am grateful for his willingness to connect with me and share more insight into his father’s communication.

I am sincerely thankful to Amherst College for making the Beneski Museum open to the public (and for free!) It is a marvelous museum, and I encourage all interested to make the trip to see it!

And I remain consistently grateful (and awed) by the generosity of so many paleontologists who have helped me as I learn more about their field. You are all extraordinary!

Strange Monsters and Turkey Tracks

Mary Anning was only 5 or 6 years old when she started down the path of discovery; Edward Hitchcock was in his late 30’s. Born on different continents 6 years and 3 days apart, both contributed to a world in which science was blossoming in new and exciting directions.

Their lives couldn’t have been more different.

Mary Anning was born May 21, 1799, to Molly and Richard Anning.  She and her older brother, Joseph, were the only children out of ten to survive to adulthood.  They learned from their father how to find fossils along the shore of their home in Lyme Regis, England. Mary accompanied her father on these hunts from age 5 or 6.  She learned how to excavate fossils from the rock, how to polish them, how to sell them to local tourists.

Lyme Regis, Dorset looking along the beach towards Charmouth, with the promenade to the left. The coast contains many fossils in the rocks which draws tourism from around the globe. Photo by Chris Hopkins, courtesy Getty Images. This is where Mary Anning searched for fossils throughout her life.

*****

When she was 11, Mary found her first major discovery: the complete skeleton of the first known ichthyosaur. Her brother had found its skull the year before—the same year that their father died—and she had gone back to excavate further.

Its discovery puzzled scientists at the time. Extinction and evolution were concepts that had yet to be introduced. The first dinosaur, Megolosaurus, would not be named until 13 years later; the actual term ‘dinosaur’ would not appear until 1842.  So this skeleton, with components recognized as those of lizards and fish, was utterly alien to the world.

 

Yale Peabody - Ichthyosaurus detail

Yale Peabody - Ichthyosaurus

Images of Stenopterygius quadricissus at the Yale Peabody Museum; this is a “thunnosaur ichthyosaur”, as described here at Wikipedia.  In any case, not the exact type of ichthyosaur–a marine reptile that co-existed with dinosaurs–discovered by Mary Anning, but it is something similar. Photos taken by the author.

*****

And it was just one of many new species Mary would go on to discover in her lifetime.

In 1823, she would find the skeleton of what was eventually known as Plesiosaurus giganteus. Five years later, she would find a pterosaur (Dimorphodon).  She discovered a transitional fossil—one that actually demonstrates in its skeleton traits that show it is evolving from one form to another—in 1829. That became known as Squaloraja polyspondyla. In 1830, she found another plesiosaur: Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.  Ultimately, she would also discover 34 new species of ancient fish.  She correctly identified fossilized dung within ichthyosaur skeletons, a type of fossil newly named coprolites and described by William Buckland after discussions with Mary Anning and Gideon Mantell.

 

DSP - diorama detail

Part of a life-size diorama at Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT; replicas of Dimorphodon, a pterosaur discovered by Mary Anning in 1828, can be seen in the top right. Photo taken by the author.

Squaloraja_polyspondyla

Image of Squaloraja polyspondyla, a type of fossil discovered by Mary Anning in 1829. You can read about this in more detail at the blog Mary Anning’s Revenge here

Plesiosaurus_macrocephalus_mary_anning

Drawing of Plesiosaurus macrocephalus discovered by Mary Anning in 1830; image courtesy of Brian Switek and Wikipedia

Beneski - great vertebrae from ichthyosaurus

Beneski - great vertebrae ichthyosaurus sign

Images of a polished section of Ichthyosaurus communis vertebrae in a drawer at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College.  Not only does this come from Lyme Regis, but this is the type of Ichthyosaur discovered in 1832. Mary Anning found the skull and was convinced that there was nothing more to be found. Fellow-fossil hunter Thomas Hawkins, however, believed there was more.  She led him to where she’d found the skull, and he and his team did find the rest of the skeleton.  When the skeleton shattered as they moved it, Mary Anning helped Hawkins put it together.

*****

Her discoveries fueled scientific revelations, were studied by the most prominent scientists of the age, and were discussed in the relatively new Geological Society of London.

As a woman, she was never allowed to attend any of their meetings or lectures.  Moreover, she was almost never credited for her remarkable fossil finds.

Her male friends could attend university (as both a woman and a member of the Dissenter religion, this was not an option), join scientific organizations, have papers published, discuss the latest scientific research among peers in professional institutions, travel extensively (without chaperones) and make substantial financial gains in their careers.

Mary’s life was marked by periods of financial gain and of teetering terribly close to financial ruin. She had three years of formal education.  She traveled to London once.

And yet, she constantly persevered. Her work enabled her to buy a home for her family at the age of 27, the first floor of which she created her fossil shop.  Although she was not privy to university resources, she taught herself scientific illustration.  Using marine life from the local beach, she taught herself anatomy through dissection.  She was in communication with and visited by scientists from all of Europe.

Embed from Getty Images

Illustration of Mary Anning selling fossils by Dorling Kindersley (DK), courtesy Getty Images.

In fact, some of the very same people in communication with Edward Hitchcock were communicating with or visiting Mary Anning: Charles Lyell, Roderick Murchison, Richard Owen, Gideon Mantell, and William Buckland.

Across the ocean, Edward Hitchcock was born in Deerfield, Massachusetts on May 24, 1793, several years before Mary Anning was born.  He would also outlive her.  While she died of breast cancer at the age of 47, Edward died at 70.

Had he been African-American (or simply African) in the newly-formed United States or a woman anywhere, his opportunities would have been severely limited, but he was none of those things.  Still, although he hoped to study astronomy at Harvard, he ultimately never attended college.

He did, however, become the first state geologist for Massachusetts in 1830 (the same year Mary made one of her major fossil discoveries).  He created the first geologic map of Massachusetts—only the 2nd ever created in the country—in 1832.  He believed the state exhibited proof of the Great Flood referenced in the Bible; it was later found to be remnants of the Ice Age.

 

DSP - sign New England ichnology

Sign at Dinosaur State Park that offers a brief history of ichnology in New England. Edward Hitchcock is pictured at the very top. Below that, a drawing of the fossil tracks found by Pliny Moody–a name you will see in marble in the “Donors to the Footmarks” frame further below. Photo taken by the author

*****

Remarkably, he believed that women should receive education and learn about science. One of his well-known students was Mary Lyon, a woman who went on to found Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now known as Mount Holyoke College), among some of the country’s first academic institutions for women. Orra White Hitchcock, who married Edward in 1824, was a prolific artist and scientific illustrator.  She created many of the illustrations he used in his classes.

Classroom chart on linen drawn by Orra White Hitchcock, Amherst College.

Drawing of plesiosaurus skeleton by Orra White Hitchcock, 1828 – 1840, Classroom chart on linen, courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College

 

In 1835, things changed abruptly.  Dr. James Deane, from a nearby town, wrote to Edward about tracks found in stone slabs that were to be used to build a sidewalk.  Edward dismissed their importance until the surgeon sent him plaster casts of the tracks.

Most people referred to these tracks, seen in other local stone slabs, as “turkey tracks”.  Edward believed they were created by birds.  It was a belief he would defend for the rest his life, despite new discoveries that may have indicated otherwise.

Wild turkey tracks in snow

Wild turkey tracks in the snow, late Spring, New England; photo taken by the author

Wild turkey in Fall

Wild turkey in the Fall, New England; photo taken by the author

In part, his theory made sense.  The tracks looked remarkably similar to the familiar tracks of extant turkeys, and fossils of any ancient creatures responsible for the tracks in stone were not found.  New England, with its acidic conditions and lack of fossil-preserving stone, is not fossil-friendly.

Edward created a new science he named “ornithichnology,” a name that references birds, but was later shortened to just “ichnology” by William Buckland.

Beneski - 1802 footprints

Beneski - 1802 footprints

Images of the first documented fossil footprints, discovered in 1802, displayed at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, part of the Hitchcock collection. Photos taken by the author

Beneski - gem of Hitchcocks collection

Fossil tracks displayed at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College. According to Window into the Jurassic World by Nicholas G. McDonald, these tracks were the “gem” of Hitchcock’s collection (pg. 58, Figure 6-8). This slab was originally used as paving. Photo taken by the author (of this blog)

*****

While major discoveries of reptiles and dinosaurs were starting to pepper European science, Edward continued studying fossil tracks and traces.  He wrote about his work and his theory to the men on the forefront of these discoveries (as mentioned earlier, women were not allowed or, apparently, credited). He began publishing books and submitted papers to the Yale American Journal of Science.

Richard Owen disagreed with Edward’s findings at first.  He would eventually change his mind after describing an extinct bird in 1939 (the ‘moa’ of New Zealand).  In 1841, Charles Lyell actually visited Edward and became a prominent supporter.

Although Mary Anning discovered and identified coprolites more than 15 years earlier, Edward discovered these fossils in 1844 in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts.

Beneski - coprolites

Coprolites displayed in a drawer at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College.  These are not necessarily those discovered by Edward Hitchcock in 1944. Photo by the author

 

His two major works outlining his life’s work were published in 1858 (“Ichnology of New England“) and then two years following his death in 1865 (“Supplement to Ichnology of New England“).

He maintained that these fossil tracks were made by birds, and his work was heavily influenced by his desire to find proof of God in nature. In his own words, he taught “natural theology.”

 

DSP - Ichnology Hitchcock

The book Ichnology of New England, written by Edward Hitchcock in 1858; copy displayed at Dinosaur State Park. Photo taken by the author

DSP - Supplement Ichnology Hitchcock

The Supplement to the Ichnology of New England, written by Edward Hitchcock but published posthumously in 1865copy displayed at Dinosaur State Park. Photo taken by the author

Beneski - Hitchcock - donors sign

Framed marble sign highlighting donors and the amount donated; displayed at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College; photo taken by the author

 

His efforts as college president in the 1840’s prevented the closure of Amherst College.  One of his particularly successful years was the same year that Mary Anning passed away, 1847.

Today, his vast collection–thousands of fossil footprints and traces–reside in the elegant Beneski Museum of Natural History.  We are extremely fortunate, as Edward Hitchcock made it very clear he did not want his collection owned by anyone who did not share his evangelical Christian views.  Although the college moved to a more secular philosophy, his family did not honor this request.

Beneski - racks of Hitchcocks trace fossils

A small section of the Hitchcock collection of fossil tracks and traces at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College.  This author encourages anyone interested to visit this amazing museum. Photo by the author

*****

Did Mary Anning and Edward Hitchcock know of each other across the Atlantic?  Did their names or their work ever come up in conversation? Did their mutual friends in science discuss them with the other?

There is no evidence to suggest this.

But the world would be increasingly changed thanks to their contributions, their dedication and their lifelong efforts.

Mary Anning Painting

Mary Anning painting” Credited to ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996) – Two versions side by side, Sedgwick Museum. According to the Sedgwick Museum, there are two versions. The earlier version is by an unknown artist, dated before 1842 and credited to the Geological Society. The later version is a copy by B.J. M. Donne in 1847 or 1850, and is credited to the Natural History Museum in London. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

———–

References:

  1. The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World by Shelley Emling, 2009, Palgrave Macmillan
  2. Window into the Jurassic World by Nicholas G. McDonald, 2010, Friends of Dinosaur State Park and Arboretum, Inc.
  3. Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock’s Dinosaur Tracks & Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College by Nancy Pick & Frank Ward, 2006, Amherst College Press
  4. Amherst College Archives & Special Collections – Edward & Orra Hitchcock: https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/holdings/hitchcock
  5. Amherst College Digital Collections: https://acdc.amherst.edu

 

Locations:

  1. Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT
  2. Beneski Museum of Natural History, Amherst College, Amherst, MA
  3. Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, CT
Classroom chart on linen drawn by Orra White Hitchcock, Amherst College.
One of 61 drawings done by Orra White Hitchcock for use in Professor Edward Hitchcock’s classes on geology and natural history. This is a reproduction of a preexisting drawing. Pen and ink on linen, Mastodon maximus skeleton, 1828 – 1840, courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College

Fossilized Footprints – Dr. Karen Chin on the work of Dr. Martin Lockley

There is something uniquely spectacular about trace fossils.

Trace fossils—or ichnofossils—are fossilized remnants of animal activity. They are echoes of animal life, many that are millions of years old, that we can see and touch, tantalizing clues into their behavior and environment.

These traces take a number of forms, including coprolites (feces), gastroliths (stones ingested to help digestion), burrows, nests, and footprints.

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

[image of dinosaur tracks, Colorado, courtesy of David Parsons and Getty Images]

Footprints are the focus of Dr. Martin Lockley’s work.  Over 30 years of his fossilized track research now resides at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Dr. Karen Chin, another trace fossil specialist with decades of experience, is widely known for her work on coprolites.

Coprolite - Dr. Chin MOS

 

MOS - Dr. Karen Chin coprolite

 

[images of coprolite and display info from the Boston Museum of Science, taken by the author]

The work of these two scientists comes together in the exhibit “Steps in Stone,” now at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.  Showcasing some of Dr. Lockley’s extensive collection, the exhibit is curated by Dr. Chin.

Steps in Stone entrance

[image of exhibit entrance, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

Originally from the UK, Dr. Martin Lockley began teaching at the University of Colorado Denver in the 1980’s.  He retired in 2010, but his research continues today.

“When he decided to retire from his professor position,” Dr. Chin explained in a phone interview, “he wanted his research collection to go to a place where it would be cared for in perpetuity and would still be available for people to study.  And since the University of Colorado Boulder is a sister institution to the University of Colorado Denver, it made sense for the collection to come to us.”

An accompanying website, with text written by Allison Vitkus—one of Dr. Chin’s graduate students—Dr. Karen Chin and Dr. Martin Lockley, describes in more detail the type of tracks Dr. Lockley has collected and donated to the University.

“Because of Prof. Lockley’s efforts, the University of Colorado’s Fossil Tracks Collection is exceptional in having specimens that represent tremendous temporal, taxonomic, and geographic breadth. It includes around 3,000 original or replica specimens of footprints and trackways, as well as about 1,600 full-size acetate footprint and trackway tracings. These specimens come from over 20 countries on five continents (including 21 states within the USA).” – Allison Vitkus, Dr. Karen Chin

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/science/trackways/index.php

Moving such a collection from one university to another is not a small enterprise.

“Martin Lockley and I applied for and received an NSF (National Science Foundation) grant to help us transfer the tracks to our museum.”

Dr. Chin described the process of creating the current exhibit, a team effort of about 15 people from various departments within the Museum of Natural History.

“Allison and I had already been writing about different aspects of fossil track research.  We sat down and asked, ‘what are the things that we think are the most fundamental and interesting concepts of fossil tracks that would be interesting for people to learn about?’  We then put together a list of things we wanted to write about and matched that with tracks in the collection.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents

 

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and exhibit docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“We decided we wanted people to think about the concept of ‘moving’ and to recognize that fossil tracks tell us about locomotion in the past. ”

In other words, it is not just a look backward in time; it encourages the visitor to think about movement in all forms today and the evolution of that movement over Earth’s history.

Consider, for example, how fish might make tracks: fins brush the ground while swimming in shallow water.  Consider, too, the tracks animals make while running, walking, limping, or even swimming.   The type of footprint remaining and the length between each step (or stroke) offers valuable insight to scientists. Insects, mammals, birds, pterosaurs, dinosaurs….all of these species have left their marks in stone, and all of them are represented in this exhibit.

To help highlight how different body structures affect the type of tracks an animal leaves, members of the museum’s educational department procured imitation animal tails that kids can wear.  Kids are also encouraged to ‘Walk Like a Pterosaur!’ in which they can don representations of pterosaur forelimbs with wings.

“There’s a portion of the exhibit that’s called ‘Locomotion Without Legs,’ that reminds us that not all animals that leave tracks or traces have legs,” said Dr. Chin. “Modern snails and sea urchins and are good examples of this.”

“We discuss the oldest evidence that we know of for movement in the fossil record, which is about 565 million years. We don’t know what kind of animal made the trace. It may have been something like a sea urchin, but we just don’t know.”

“There are a certain number of deposits around the world that preserve weird impressions of animals from before the Cambrian,” she continued. “Actually, we don’t even know whether all of them were animals or plants! There are no modern analogues of these organisms because they went extinct.”

“One of the oldest deposits of this particular biota comes from Newfoundland.  Researchers found an unusual trace in this deposits that extends for several inches.  The trace appears to provide evidence of locomotion.  This suggests that an animal had the capacity to move itself, which further suggests that it had muscles.  This is a huge deal because the fossil trace is so old. I think this is very cool because we often take our ability to move for granted.”

This particular trace fossil was described by Dr. Alexander Liu, Dr. Duncan McIlroy, and Dr. Martin Brasier in 2010.  How fascinating to think that something this small and from an organism that remains a mystery provides important evidence for movement when the Earth was still relatively young. (First evidence for locomotion in the Ediacaran biota from the 565 Ma Mistaken Point Formation, Newfoundland) The actual trace fossil is not part of the exhibit, but its image is available for visitors to see.

“We often automatically think that animals have the ability to move from point A to point B,” Dr. Chin mused. “But there are a number of very successful animals that live without relocating from one place to another, such as sponges and corals.   So it is interesting to think about when animals first developed the ability to move. ”

Another example of the variety and importance of tracks are the Laetoli trackway: a set of prints from Tanzania.  The exhibit displays a life-sized cast of the trackway, footprints from two hominin adults and a smaller set of footprints that might have been a child.

“Their footprints were preserved when they walked on recently deposited volcanic ash. These tracks are important because they provide some of the earliest evidence that our ancient relatives, the australopithecines, walked bipedally.”

“As Dr. Lockley has continued his research on tracks,” explained Dr. Chin, “he has often acquired replicas of fossil tracks from around the world.  That is what is great about tracks: that you can make a lot of different casts of them.”

“It’s an intense process,” Dr. Chin stated, referring to the creation of an exhibit. “There are so many details. But I gained new appreciation for the great work that the exhibit designers and the museum education people do.”

In response to whether it was a positive experience, she said, “I did enjoy it!”

“Now, I have to say,” she laughed, “it’s a lot of work.  I didn’t mind the work, it’s just that I’m also teaching and doing research, so it’s kind of hard to juggle doing all of that at the same time.”

“I think there are two larger points that I’d like people to take away from the exhibit.

“I want people to gain a sense of appreciation for the tremendous amount of research Dr. Lockley has done on fossil tracks all over the world.

“I also want people to appreciate the informative value of tracks and other trace fossils.”

Dr. Karen Chin and docents 2

[image of Dr. Karen Chin and docents, courtesy of the CU Museum of Natural History]

“At many times we tend to focus on body fossils: the bones of mammoths and the bones of dinosaurs, for example. They are very interesting, and they really fire up our imagination in considering what those ancient animals were like.

“But, I also want people to appreciate that trace fossils–which provide evidence organisms’ activity—also offer important information on the history of life.

“It’s very much akin to walking on a trail these days and looking for animal sign.  You look for tracks and scat and scratches and toothmarks.  And we do the same when we look for trace fossils in the fossil record.  Tracks are just one exciting example of trace fossils.”

 

Embed from Getty Images

——————–

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Karen Chin for her time, her fascinating insight and for generously helping me understand Ediacaran biota!  It was a tremendous honor and pleasure for me to connect with her.  An enormous thank you to Cathy Regan as well for providing wonderful images of the exhibit!

Steps in Stone” is available through December 31, 2015: http://cumuseum.colorado.edu

If you are interested in learning more about trace fossils, Dr. Martin Lockley has written a number of books.  Dinosaurs Without Bones by Dr. Anthony J. Martin was published this year, and this author highly recommends it!