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.

beneski-tracks-and-raindrops

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.

 

beneski-not-tracks

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.

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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!!

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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.

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.

Image of burrowing fairy penguins, courtesy of Getty Images

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.


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

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

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.

 

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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