Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Thirsty Thursday with Paleontologist Tony Martin!

Anthony (Tony) Martin is a Professor of Practice in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University, where he has taught geology, paleontology, and environmental science classes for nearly 25 years. He is a paleontologist, geologist, author, public speaker, and artist, and his main research interest is ichnology, the study of plant and animal traces, such as tracks, trails, burrows, nests, and feces. His most recent books are Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils (2014, Pegasus Books) and Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (2013, Indiana University Press), both of which he also illustrated. He also wrote two editions of a popular college textbook, Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs (2001 and 2006, Wiley-Blackwell) and two shorter books, Trace Fossils of San Salvador (2006) a guidebook on trace fossils of the Bahamas, and El Dinosaurio que Excavo SuMadriguera (2009). He is the co-discoverer of: the only known burrowing dinosaur (Oryctodromeus cubicularis); the oldest known dinosaur burrows, fossil crayfish, and bird tracks in the Southern Hemisphere; the best dinosaur tracksite in southern Australia; as well as fossil insect nests, fish trails, trilobite burrows, worm trails, plant root traces, and other trace fossils from the past 550 million years. He can be followed on Twitter (@Ichnologist) and his Web site and blog are at:

Photo taken by Ruth Schowalter.
Question 1: You are one of my heroes in the field of paleontology. Who did you admire growing up?

I’m one of your heroes? Really? Thanks for having such low standards! No, seriously, I’m very flattered, so thanks for the ego boost.

You’re absolutely right to ask about people I admired as a kid, because good role models are crucial for cultivating our interests at an early age. For instance, neither of my parents went to college, and I grew up in a low-income, blue-collar family. Yet they greatly valued higher education and I’ll always be grateful to them for supporting my early interests in natural history.

What’s funny about growing up in the 1960s, though, was how few famous paleontologists were around to admire back then. Jack Horner, Bob Bakker, Karen Chin, Paul Sereno, and other dinosaur paleontologists we all know about now weren’t on TV until much later. Sure, I’d read a few books about Roy Chapman Andrews and thought he was the kind of adventurer-scientist I’d like to be some day. But I also was interested in extant animals and their behavior.

Sinstead of paleontology programswatched Wild Kingdom religiously, and the person I wanted to be was Jim Fowler. He got to outrun grizzly bears and wrestle anacondas while Marlin Perkins stayed safely back in the jeep. Two other role models who stood out for me as a kid were Jacques Cousteau and Amelia Earhart, neither of who were paleontologists.

For Cousteau, I remember watching his TV specials, which encouraged me to later study marine biology, despite growing up in land-locked Indiana and not seeing an ocean until I was 21 years old. Amelia Earhart might seem like a strange choice to mention as a hero for someone who later became a paleontologist, but it fits when you know I had a wander lust building inside me. (Let me repeat the wordsland-locked Indiana.) When I was about 10 years old, I read a biography of Earhart and was awestruck by this amazing explorer, who also overcame all sorts of societal barriers. Her accomplishments made me think, “Hey, she did it, so can I!”

Photo taken by Ruth Schowalter.
Question 2: At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology? 

SurprisinglyI didn’t start thinking about becoming a paleontologist until late in college. I’d taken a good number of biology classes and a few geology classes, but didn’t realize that I could combine those two disciplines until I took an invertebrate paleontology class in my senior year. I liked it so much that I started thinking about doing graduate studies in geology and paleontology.

One of my undergrad professors advised me to try Miami University (Ohio) for my master’s degree in geology, which I did. I thought I’d stop at a master’s and go work for an oil company, but my thesis advisor, John Pope, steered me toward working on a Ph.D. I was then lucky enough to work on my Ph.D. in the late 1980s with Robert (Bob) Frey at the University of Georgia. He was one of the best ichnologists in the world at the time, and I ended up being his last Ph.D. student before he died in 1992.

I’m still pursuing a career as a paleontologist and plan to be one some day. If ever grow up, that is.

Question 3: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?

My favorite dinosaur was Allosaurus from the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation. Most kids nowadays would probably say “Tyrannosaurus rex.” But there was something about Allosaurus that appealed more to me. It was a compact (but still big), no-nonsense predator that would have scared the bejesus out of me if it came back to life. TyrannosaurusApatosaurusTriceratops, and Stegosaurus were also in the running for my favorite dinosaurs, but the one large plastic model dinosaur I had in my room was Allosaurus.

My favorite dinosaur now is Oryctodromeus cubicularis, the so-called “burrowing dinosaur” from the mid-Cretaceous of Montana. Yeah, I know, there’s some major bias behind that choice, considering that I was lucky enough to have co-named it. But it would be in my top five dinosaurs anyway because of how it was found in its burrow. You don’t get those body- and trace-fossil combinations very often in the fossil record, and it’s especially rare with dinosaurs.

Photo taken by Ruth Schowalter.
Question 4: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

Get outside, read lotsdraw often, and do math. Repeat. But just to avoid being too simplistic, let me elaborate a little more on each of those.

Getting outside often and being comfortable in outdoor settings in a variety of conditions is still absolutely necessary for success in paleontology. More and more paleontology is being done inside museums and labs, and using computers, laser scanners, CT scanners, and other fancy equipment. But unless you get into the field often to directly experience geology and paleontology, you’ll end up with an incomplete understanding of these as sciences.

Reading helps you to become a better paleontologist so you can learn how people express themselves and communicate ideas. And I don’t mean just reading what people say about paleontology, but also science in general, as well as history, literature, art, and other topics. I even read fiction and poetry to better appreciate how stories are constructed and told: what works, what doesn’t? One of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read good writing. Along those lines, don’t waste your time reading bad writing.

Drawing helps you to observe, and even if you’re not very good at drawing at first, you get better with practice. It’s also not about being a “good artist” (whatever that is), but about seeing more through the process of drawing. This is an invaluable skill both in the field and in a museum or lab setting.

Last but not least, you have to do math. I take lots of measurements when in the field and do a fair amount of statistics in my work. So try to quantify whenever possible. If it can be measured, measure it, and then ask yourself how those numbers matter.

Photo by Jim Whitcraft.
Question 5: Going to college these days and then on to grad school has become a daunting task.  Many people are unaware of how long it takes to make it to the finish line. The rewards are great, but what would you say to someone pursuing professional studies after college?

“Finish line” is a great metaphor to use, because getting a degree in college or grad school seems like running a long-distance race. Speaking as a former long-distance runner, I can tell you when that race gets the most discouraging: when other people drop out. So you can’t think about doing that yourself, or look behind you, or dwell on how far you’ve gone. Instead, you have to keep looking ahead and not give up.

For someone pursuing professional studies after college nowadays, all I can say is to be prepared to do something different from what you originally thought you’d do. Academia is a brutish and emotionally demeaning environment right now, especially for anyone who’s under the illusion that they’re going to turn out exactly like their mentors. You know, getting a Ph.D., securing a plum job at a prestigious institution, pulling in million-dollar grants, running a lab with mincing and prancing minions, giving TED talks, all while accompanied by a Sheila E.soundtrack.

The reality is that fewer than 25% of all positions at U.S. universities are tenure-track ones, state and federal government institutions have cut back on science-related jobs, and museums are having a tough time funding research or educational positions, tooSo be ready to have Plans B, C, and D for when you graduate(Just skip Plan F, though. That’s never a good plan.) In other words, don’t put all of your eggs in one nest structure.

Regardless of what you do, make sure you really enjoy the experience of grad school and have a great time with the people who are learning with you. I have incredibly fond memories of grad school, of finally being with “my tribe” of people who likewise were enthused about learning geology and paleontology. Because of this camaraderie, I always feel at home whenever in the field with other paleontologists and geologists, or when visiting a geology department and going to our professional meetings.

Photo taken by Ruth Schowalter.

Question 6: What was or is your favorite research project? What are some of your current projects?

My favorite research project? Tough call! It’s a tie between two coasts, in Georgia (USA) and Victoria (Australia).These two coasts have fueled my passion for exploring, searching, and discovering all sorts of cool traces and trace fossils while in the field.

For instance, my book Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (2013) involved studying a wide range of modern plant, invertebrate, and vertebrate traces of the Georgia barrier islands, with field work stretching out over about 15 years. The main purpose of that book was to help everyone realize how much information can be gleaned from modern traces and applied to fossil ones. And by everyone, I mean way more than just paleontologists and geologists, as it’s written for educated lay people, too. I’m very proud of that book, and of the places that made it real.

In Victoria, I started studying Cretaceous trace fossils there on the coast in 2006, and spent about a month walking along the Victoria coast in 2010 looking for more trace fossils, and have made a few discoveries during my times there (such as thisthis, and this). It also doesn’t hurt that both the Georgia and Victoria coasts are gorgeous, and the people in each place are warm and gracious. So yeah, it’s a tie.

Right now I’m trying to finish up a few projects on traces made by a variety of critters in sediments ranging from the Ediacaran Period to todayFor example, I’m writing a paper about a few Cretaceous dinosaur tracks from Australia that have been in a museum collection there since the 1980s, but never described. After that, I’m finishing a study of Cretaceous invertebrate burrows at a world-famous Cretaceous dinosaur tracksite in Texas, trying to figure out how these burrows relate to the original environments where the dinosaurs walked.

also have a couple of “fishy” studies to do, too, about trails made by fish fins when they swam or otherwise moved on a lake bottom. For modern traces, a few colleagues of mine and I have done GIS mappings and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) on gopher-tortoise burrows and alligator dens on the Georgia barrier islands. We really need to publish on these, as they’re really cool examples of how paleontologists can use modern examples of large vertebrate burrows to better recognize and understand fossil ones.

Question 7: Jurassic Park was the movie I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

As a kid, I loved King KongGodzillaThe Beast of 20,000 FathomsCreature of the Black Lagoon, and just about any movie that had primeval monsters in it. But probably my favorite movie was The Valley of Gwangi (1969). I mean, cowboys and dinosaurs: how could it get any better than that? Along those lines, I also remember watching The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), which even involved cowboys tracking an Allosaurus. That movie might have even planted a seed in my mind that I could track dinosaurs and interpret behavior from their traces.

Photo taken by Ruth Schowalter.

Question 8:  I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist.  Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck?  

The first paleontologist I met was John Pope at Miami University, which was when I visited the Miami campus in 1982 just before going there for grad school. He was very nice, which I think made it a lot easier when I met other paleontologists later. He was one of the world’s experts on Ordovician brachiopods and other fossils in the area around Cincinnati (Ohio), and gave me a great foundation in paleontology early on in graduate school.

Question 9: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

One of the best explanations I’ve read about why children and adults alike are so fascinated by dinosaurs and similar large, extinct animals is because “They’re big and scary, but they’re dead.” Still, what’s happening now with dinosaurs is incredibly exciting, as much of it revolves around the realization that they’re not all big, scary, and dead: they’re still around as birds! Watch a Carolina wren at the bird feeder, and you’re observing dinosaur behavior. I’ve also tracked big flightless birds, like cassowaries, emus, and rheas, which feels very much like connecting to that pre-human past.

Question 10: What is your favorite time period?

Right now it’s the Cretaceous, with most of my projects connecting to Cretaceous trace fossilsBut I used to be an Ordovician kind of guy, having done both my M.S. and Ph.D. theses on Ordovician rocks and fossils, and still really enjoy studying Paleozoic trace and body fossils whenever I can. And of course I spend a lot of my time in the present, so the Neogene Period figures pretty prominently in my life, too.

Photo taken by Ruth Schowalter.

Question 11: The time span in which the dinosaurs lived in was huge. How do paleontologists remember all that information from such a vast era? Do paleontologistfocus on one particular subject?

Remembering geologic time units, fossils, and earth history in general requires practice mixed with humility. For example, even though I can rattle off the geologic time eras and periods, and teach my students to do the same, I still get stumped by the stages of the periods. There are just too many time units for us to remember them all. So it makes sense that most paleontologists pick a particular time interval or group of related fossils for their studies.

Question 12: So you are a geology man, like me. Why is geology such an important subject to know for studying paleontology among other subjects? For example, a lot of people are unaware of how much coursework in the field of geology is used for studying dinosaurs. For example, GIS, Geographic Information Systems, is a tool and course being taught more and more in geology departments these days. This system is very effective in mapping a dig site.

That’s a great point! You never know when the courses you take in college and graduate school will come in handy later as a paleontologist.

For example, I took graduate-level courses in hydrogeology, geochemistry, clay mineralogy, structural geology, geophysics, and geostatistics. All of these classes helped make me a better geologist and paleontologist. Think of a fossil that had groundwater percolate through it, which chemically altered that fossil or the clays around it. Then think about how the rocks holding that fossil might have been folded and faulted, and how those folds and faults go below the ground surface. Lastly, when you gather numbers about that fossil or others like it, how do you describe these or compare samples to one another? The classes I listed address all of those potential facets of a fossil found in the field.

Earlier I also mentioned projects with colleagues on gopher-tortoise burrows and alligator dens. We’ve used both GIS and GPR to study those, methods I never would have expected to use in my study of traces, but here we are.

Photo taken by Ruth Schowalter.

Question 13: You have a new book out, Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by their Trace Fossils.  Absolute brilliant read and one of my new favorites! Can you give a brief insight about what inspired you to write this amazing book? Brief, only because I want out readers to explore this fascinating book for themselves! Tease us Anthony!

Thanks for the compliments, and I promise to be a total book tease about it!

I was inspired to write this book because I felt ichnology – the study of traces – deserves a lot more recognition and respect as a science. And what better way to teach about ichnology than through one of the most popular of science subjects, dinosaurs?

The main premise of the book is that if all of the dinosaur bones in the world vanished tomorrow, we would still know a lot about dinosaurs. Even better, I argue that dinosaur trace fossils are often better than their bones for telling us where dinosaurs lived and how dinosaurs behaved.

The book starts with a dramatic (but fictional) story that takes place in the Late Cretaceous Period – about 70 million years ago – that then connects to real dinosaur trace fossils. This story thus gives readers a preview of what they’ll learn in the rest of the book about dinosaur tracks, nests, burrows, tooth marks, gastroliths, feces, and other trace fossils that non-bird dinosaurs made during their 160-million-year history. A special bonus is a chapter on bird traces, titled “Tracking the Dinosaurs Among Us.”

Something else people should enjoy about the book is a central insert that includes plenty of my photos and original illustrations of dinosaur trace fossils. Yes, I illustrated my own book: remember what I said about the importance of drawing as a skill in paleontology? Some of my drawings are also of “speculative ichnology,” depicting traces that haven’t been found (yet), but demonstrate how you could interpret certain dinosaur behaviors from them. For instance, what if a dinosaur puked: what sort of traces would show that behavior?

Question 14: The new book is amazing.  Your amazing and clever wit shines through every page. Communicating geology to the general public can be a daunting task.  I believe there should be more students, graduate students, and professionals communicating with the general public about science.  What are your thoughts on "some" over opinionated writers out there that haven't paid their dues in the academic world?  What are your thoughts on communicating science to the general public?

Thanks for the compliments about my “amazing and clever wit,” which also happens to produce a lot of groan-worthy puns. But that’s part of the fun! I’ve always been a jokester and just can’t stay totally serious for very long, especially for the length of a typical book. Even the most arid of my booksIntroduction to the Study of Dinosaurs, has humor sprinkled throughout it for those students who stayed awake long enough to read it.

You reminded me how another reviewer of Dinosaurs Without Bones said, “Martin’s writing makes clear that he spends a lot of time with college students.” This was meant as a criticism, but came from a writer who (as far as I know) has never taught a college course. In contrast, I’ve taught college students for more than 30 yearsBut hey, most film critics have never written, acted in, or directed a film, either. So I try to consider the background of someone making judgments about my work and react accordingly, which is mostly to shrug, laugh, and carry on.

Given a choice, my approach to science communication is always going to be more like Mel Brooks and less like Werner Herzogor for science writing, more like Mary Roach and less like Richard Dawkins. This connects to what you’re advocating, that more graduate students and professionals should be writing blogs or otherwise making their science more public. This helps scientists find their own voices, ones that fit their personalities. Are you a really serious person? That should come out in your blog. Are you more of a goofball, like me? That should come out in your outreach, too. It’s a challenge to communicate geology and other sciences effectively, but it should also be done in a way that’s true to who you are as a scientist and a person.

Photo taken by Ruth Schowalter.
Question 15: What do you like to do for fun? Any hobbies outside of paleontology?

Tracking is my main, fun outdoor hobby, although I also like biking and hikingIf indoors, cooking is one of my favorite activities, along with reading nonfiction and fictionOh, and drinking good beers: I’m lucky enough to live in the Decatur-Atlanta area, which is the good-beer epicenter of Georgia. Not incidentally, I’m a firm believer that this activity is essential for much producing good geology and paleontology.

Photo taken by Ruth Schowalter.

Question 16: Ever been to Jersey?  If so, what do you like about our hair gel state?

Yes, I’ve been to Jersey three times, and all for ichnological reasons! Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I took three courses from The Tracker School in New Jersey, including their Advanced Tracking and Expert Tracking. These courses were invaluable learning experiences for me, because I desperately needed to learn more practical skills in tracking to augment my “book learning” of vertebrate tracks and other traces. So I have great memories of New Jersey, almost all of which came from tracking critters in the Pine Barrens. That’s a heck of a lot better than hair gels, spray-on tans, and “Which exit?” jokes.

Thank you so much for your time!

You’re very welcome! Thanks so much for asking such great questions and giving me the opportunity to share my answers with whoever wants to learn more about paleontology, geology, and, of course, the greatest science of all, ichnology.

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