Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Education & Outreach
Here we will explore how Adriane and Jen reach out to the public to explore geology, paleontology, evolution, and climate! We are very involved with getting young minds engaged in science – enjoy a peek inside the outreach aspect of our careers.
I’ll preface this entire post by saying that I identify as a straight, cis, white woman, and I recognize that I still have a lot of learning and work yet to do when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of my professional as personal life
I’ve been involved in diversity initiatives in my department, including organizing a speaker series aimed at addressing gender disparity in my department. In 2016, we lost our only female geology faculty member (out of a faculty of ~50 people). This meant that most of our undergraduate and graduate students would never get the chance to interact or learn from a female role model and professor during their geology degrees. In response, a group of female graduate students launched an initiative to create a speaker series (the Grace Anne Stewart Speaker Series) to bring female geoscientist experts to the department so that students still had the chance to interact with and learn from female role-models and world-class experts in geoscience. Fast forward to today, and several women have been hired as faculty in the department, and we have expanded the series to directly address representation of other groups, specifically racial, and mental or physical disabilities. It has been a rewarding and challenging experience, and I have learned so much. So when I had the opportunity to teach a class of my own in the department, recognizing I might still be one of the only female teachers they might have during their degrees, I wanted to try and incorporate some of these lessons and experiences into the classroom.
Integrating Inclusion into the Curriculum
The class I taught was Introduction to Invertebrate Palaeontology – a required second year class for geology and palaeontology majors. For most, this class was either the first biology, or the first palaeontology class of their degrees. I already had some course materials available from the previous instructor, and our course syllabi and learning objectives had to be approved by our department. So how was I to include a new topic that wasn’t necessarily “integral” to the course goals? It was really easy! I just included diversity as a course topic and created an extra credit assignment! I also included a diversity statement in my syllabus. For a nice example of a diversity statement to include on your syllabus, see this example by Dr. Rowan Martindale (University of Texas Austin).
In terms of class time, I dedicated about 5 – 10 minutes once a week to a diversity in geoscience topic. I showed the students some recent research and statistics on diversity in geoscience, introduced some of the terminology used (e.g., representation, intersectionality, implicit bias), and shared data from a paper by Bernard and Cooperdock (2018), which gives breakdowns of the number of Ph.D.’s awarded by race and gender in the U.S since 1973, showing little progress towards achieving diversity in 40 years. Another awesome topic I was able to include by chance was showing the class a documentary that was being offered for free on International Women and Girls in Science day. The Bearded Lady Project made a 22 min doc about challenging the stereotypes of what a palaeontologist looks like. The documentary interviews female palaeontologists about their experiences and some of the discrimination they have faced in their careers or in the field. I showed the short doc in class and then gave the students a chance to discuss some of their thoughts on the documentary. The class really enjoyed it!
Showcasing Diversity with “Student Choice” Extra Credit Assignments
I created an extra credit assignment to encourage students to learn about geoscientists who have made important contributions to the field, but perhaps haven’t received the attention or recognition that others have, such as Charles Darwin, Richard Owen, or Charles Lyell. I asked students to tell me about “non-traditional” (as in, not straight white men) scientists they felt were important role models or had made important contributions to science. I tried to leave the assignments as open-ended as possible so that students could be creative with their choice of person (e.g., could be living or dead), but just asked they include 3 – 5 facts, a picture of the person or their research topic/discovery, and their references. They could turn in the assignment as a document or slide, and if they gave me permission, I would then share it with the class. I also said that each week, I would present a choice of my own if no one handed in an assignment. This was to try and encourage the students to hand in assignments earlier in the term before their choices were selected by myself or another student. It also allowed us to plan to showcase certain scientists during important relevant events, such as Black History Month, and Pride Week.
The idea of this assignment was to encourage student creativity, expose students (and myself) to new and/or important faces and discoveries in science, and allow us all the opportunity to learn something new about the history of our discipline. Importantly, I wanted this to be a student-driven list. I wanted to know the students’ perspectives on who they thought were important people in geoscience and palaeontology. For copyright and security reasons, I won’t include student names or their assignments, but I will offer the names and a bit of info on some of the people the students and I chose to highlight (in no particular order):
Geerat Vermeij – Dr. Vermeij is one of the world’s leading palaeontologists and experts in malacology (the study of molluscs) and predation. He is a professor at UC Davis, and has won numerous awards for his ground-breaking research, including a MacArthur Fellow. He has published several books (in addition to hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers), including Privileged Hands, and A Natural History of Shells, which are great reads for scientists and non-scientists alike! Dr. Vermeij has been blind since the age of three, but still conducts both field and lab research. I chose Dr. Vermeij as an example for the class of the kind of scientist they might choose, as I admire Dr. Vermeij’s research.
Mary Anning – Known as the “mother of palaeontology”, Mary Anning was a fossil hunter in 19th century Britain. Her discoveries include the first Plesiosaurus, ink sacks in belemnites (cephalopods), the first British pterosaur, and was the first to attribute coprolites as faeces. Despite all of her knowledge and contributions to the field, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London because she was a woman.
Franz Nopcsa – Nopcsa was a 19th century Transylvanian aristocrat, palaeobiologist, explorer, and ethnographer, and was open about his homosexuality, traveling with his partner, Bajazid. He was a pioneer in the field of palaeobiology, and came up with the concept of Island Dwarfism. He was also an early supporter of plate tectonics and the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. Unfortunately, he was faced with financial difficulties and physical illness which led to him tragically killing Bajazid and himself.
Florence Bascom – Dr. Bascom was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1893, and only the second American woman to receive a Ph.D. in geology. Dr. Bascom went on to be the first woman to work for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), first woman elected to the council for the Geological Society of America (GSA), and founded the geology department at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Tilly Edinger – Dr. Edinger was the founder of palaeoneurology, the study of the relationship between braincases, skulls, and the brain. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Frankfurt in 1921. Dr. Edinger achieved much during her career, and won numerous awards and recognitions for her contributions to palaeontology. She also served as the President of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology (1963 – 1964). As a Jewish woman in Germany during WWII, she had to work in secret, and eventually fled to London, and then the U.S., where she spent the rest of her career. To learn more about Dr. Edinger’s life and legacy, please visit our Who is Tilly Edinger page, and consider donating to our Tilly Edinger Travel Grant for students and avocational scientists!
Louis Purnell – Purnell was the first African American curator at the National Air and Space Museum. However, before working at the National Air and Space Museum, he worked as an invertebrate zoology specialist and expert in fossil cephalopods at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, but experienced a lot of racism and academic jealousy at the museum and was passed over for promotions, and he left for the National Air and Space Museum.
Bolortsetseg Minjin – A world-renowned leader and advocate for Mongolian palaeontology, Bolortsetseg Minjin has been instrumental in protecting Mongolia’s fossil heritage, addressing fossil poaching, and providing palaeontology education opportunities to Mongolians. She founded the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs, and has won numerous international awards for her work, including a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Ramond M. Alf Award.
Cameron Muskelly – I included Mr. Muskelly as an example of a young avocational scientist who is making amazing strides in palaeontology and outreach, and is an advocate for not only Black geoscientists, but those with mental disabilities and autism in science. Mr. Muskelly has accomplished much for education and outreach in geoscience and palaeontology in his home state of Georgia, and recently won the Katherine Palmer award from the Paleontological Research Institution for his outstanding contributions to the field as an avocational palaeontologist. Read more about Cam on Time Scavengers on his Meet the Scientist blog post!
Riley Black – Author of the books My Beloved Brontosaurus, The T. rex Handbook, and Skeleton Keys, Black is a well-known popular science and palaeontology writer.In 2019, Black came out as transgender, and has been an advocate for LGBQTIA+ voices in palaeontology, writing an article called “Queer Voices in Paleontology” for the journal Nature, which outlined the challenges faced by queer palaeontologists, as well as her personal experiences on the struggles of transitioning and fieldwork. Read more about Riley on Time Scavengers on her Meet the Scientist blog post!
I’ll end by saying that I have a lot more growth I’d like to do in terms of being a better ally and advocate for diversity in science, but this was a really fun and rewarding experience that the students and I really enjoyed, and I would definitely do again. One additional resource that I have found really helpful is this recent article by Dr. Christy Visaggi: Equity, Culture, and Place in Teaching Paleontology.
Special guest blog by the organizers of the Paleontological Research Institution’s 14th Annual Summer Symposium, which was virtual and had the theme of: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Paleontology. The event was recorded and links to the YouTube channel can be found at the end of the post!
Who organized this event and what are your backgrounds?
Caren: My name is Caren Shin, and I’m a PhD student at Cornell University in the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, advised by Dr. Warren Allmon.
Corey: My name is Corey Hensen and I am a PhD student at Cornell University. I completed an undergraduate degree in geology at the State University of New York at Geneseo and now study stratigraphy and paleobiology under Dr. Warren Allmon.
Dana: I’m Dana Friend and I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, NY. I received a B.A. from Cornell College (Mt. Vernon, IA) and a PhD in Paleobiology from Cornell University. Broadly speaking, my research field is phylogenetic systematics and macroevolution. I’ve planned PRI symposiums for years as a graduate student but this year I served primarily as an informal advisor of sorts and #1 cheerleader for the new cohort of graduate students and the symposium planning committee.
Jaleigh: My name is Jaleigh Pier and I have worked at PRI the last two years on a variety of projects in both the Science Communication and Collections Departments. This fall, I will be starting my PhD at Cornell under Dr. Greg Dietl, which is how I joined the PRI Summer Symposium Planning Committee since graduate students normally plan this event.
Matthew: My name is Matthew Pruden; I am a PhD student at Cornell University in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department. I completed my undergraduate degree in paleontology at the University of Alberta, and now I am studying Conservation Paleobiology under Dr. Greg Dietl.
Vicky: My name is Vicky Wang and I am the Collections Assistant at PRI. My undergraduate degree is in biology from Brown University and later I took classes in paleontology and geology. At PRI I’ve worked mostly on specimen digitization projects (including EPICC) and also helped with a major revision of the collections policies. I don’t have formal training in collections work, so I’ve been supplementing what I learn through work with books, articles, and free resources. From everything I’ve seen so far, the collections stewardship and digitization communities are incredibly generous and collaborative.
How did you come upon this theme? What inspired you all?
In early May, our weekly discussion group read an article that discussed gender parity among palaeontology authors and discussed gender, race, and lack of general diversity in our field. A few weeks after that was George Floyd’s death and the beginnings of widespread protests in the US. In the following week, as emotions and difficult conversations surfaced on social media, we found it particularly hard to focus on work. These events coincided with the beginning stages of planning for Summer Symposium, and we felt very strongly the need to do what we could to change the way things were in our field, and elsewhere.
Changing the way Summer Symposium was run seemed like a good way to translate those feelings into action. Originally we were going to have three short sessions, each with a different topic, including one on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in paleontology. But when we reached out to presenters, so many people wanted to contribute to the DEI session that we quickly decided to expand it and make DEI the focus of our entire event. We wanted to create a space to continue these difficult but necessary conversations, especially for one of the least diverse STEM fields. We wanted to bring together a wide swathe of the paleo community to share information and ideas for solutions, to affirm the importance of addressing DEI issues in our field, and to encourage others to begin or continue to make change where they are. Of course we understand that one event can only do so much, and we see our symposium as a link in a chain of many sustained efforts by many different people.
What were the biggest challenges of organizing the symposium?
The biggest challenge was navigating the virtual conference world, since none of us had experience in planning or running a virtual conference. The organizers of the recent Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) virtual conference were kind enough to meet with us and impart valuable advice. They shared numerous materials with us and patiently answered all of our questions to where we began to feel comfortable with our abilities to run a successful virtual symposium.
Another challenge was managing speakers across several time zones and coming up with a schedule that allowed enough time for an extended Q&A while also striking the right balance between ample breaks, time to manage potential technical difficulties, and not making the event too long for people in different time zones. Lastly, we collectively put in over 300 hours for this event, and with some of us working full-time jobs and others teaching summer courses or doing their own research, it took a coordinated effort for all of this to come together.
We think it’s also important to point out that, although our event relied on volunteer labor, we don’t think that’s the necessarily ideal model. We would like to have offered speaker honorariums if we had the funding to do so. We also want to acknowledge the hard work of many other organizers of virtual conferences who are doing this work as volunteers.
How many attendees were there? How does this compare to last year’s in person event?
More than 200 people attended the event, with participants tuning in globally. We had just under 300 registered for the event. Many of the registrants were interested, but unable to attend on the day of the event and expressed interest in watching the recordings at a later time.
What are the benefits of having online conferences and symposia, in regards to both invited speakers and attendees?
The virtual format allowed us to address the field broadly and gave us more options in terms of who we could invite as speakers (they didn’t have to be in driving distance!). Attendees were able to join from all over the world (North and South America, Asia, Europe, etc.) and across many time zones. In the past, the PRI Summer Symposium has been a highly local event of around ~50 attendees. This virtual format clearly allowed us to reach a much larger (4x larger!) and a more diverse audience. Many people wrote in the feedback survey that not having to pay for travel or an expensive registration fee is what allowed them to participate. We would not also have been able to invite all the speakers we did. We are very grateful to all our speakers, who volunteered their time and effort to support us in this difficult time.
What do you all see as the greatest success of this symposium?
One success is reaching such a broad audience, it was thrilling to see people from literally all over the world attend our symposium! Another was being able to do something to continue the conversation on DEI in paleontology, and hopefully invoke change. It was very gratifying to hear from attendees at different career stages that they wanted to make the field more diverse and inclusive and that they learned a lot from the speakers. A lot of attendees also praised us for sticking to the posted schedule and really appreciated how well-organized the event was. Lastly, to see all of our hard work come to fruition and being received so well was truly amazing! We kept anticipating something to go wrong, but it turned out to be a huge success and was worth all of the effort to make it happen.
One of our attendees, Dr. Kristina Barclay (a collaborator with Time Scavengers) said:
“As someone who has been working to increase accessibility and diversity in geoscience, this symposium was incredibly valuable! I learned so much, and it was great to learn where I was on the right track, and what other things I can do in the future. It was great to hear from experts and see all of these resources in one place for a highly targeted palaeo/geo audience. Thanks for hosting such an important, successful event!”
What advice do you have for future online event organizers?
Plan ahead! Especially if you will have time constraints due to other commitments, planning ahead will give you time to learn about transitioning to a virtual format, from researching other similar events and how they were run, to defining your own event logistics and making a plan for advertising the event. Include cushion in your schedule for transitions and in case some speakers need a little extra time, and to make a plan for how to handle things if something goes wrong. If your event is long, it’s also important to include substantial breaks. Have a thoughtful code of conduct and enforce it.
Ask for help! Being able to ask the SPNHC and iDigBio organizers for advice helped tremendously and gave us a starting point for developing our own materials (which you can find and use here: Moderator Guide, Presenter Guide, Code of Conduct). Our own organization team grew as the event planning picked up momentum!
Seek support! Although this was an all-volunteer effort from both the organizing team and speakers, if you are organizing an event and you are aware of the types of resources required (e.g. financial, technical), see if a nominal registration fee, or other ways to support your event are available. In our case, we opted for speaker-nominated organizations that attendees could check out and support, if they were able.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began I have attended several virtual conferences. I wanted to give my honest experiences as we head into a still very virtual fall in academia. I think it is also important to consider how long conferences had to create this virtual switch, I will try to be thorough in my reviews.
Each of these conferences was slightly different – different duration, style, format, and user experience. I will try to discuss the pros and cons for each event and also discuss how I managed my time during the events.
Palaeontological Virtual Congress
Dates: May 1-14 2020
Venue: WordPress, virtual
Cost: 5 euros
The Palaeontological Virtual Congress (PVC) is a new (this was the second annual event) event that is completely virtual. They did not have to modify how they were structuring their event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This event is hosted through a WordPress site and attendees are given login information to explore the different sessions and talks. Talks and posters are updated as mp4 type files and you can view them in your web browser of choice. The entire event is asynchronous and available for a two week period to attendees. This allows attendees to explore content at their own pace and comment on content.
This past year, I participated as a judge of content for the early career researcher symposium. It was relatively easy to navigate through the different content and view talks. There was seemingly no set time requirements for the talks and posters, this allowed users to upload whatever was best for them. Content ranged from 5 to 20 minutes in length. It was really nice to have the two week period to stretch viewing content. However, this is very unlike normal conferences where during this ‘away’ time you are solely focused on the event at hand. It was difficult to give/assign parts of my time to the conference experience. At large, I was still working my normal 8 hours / day.
Digital Data in Biodiversity Research Conference (iDigBio Digital Data)
Dates: June 1-3 2020
Original Venue: Indianapolis, Indiana
New Venue: Zoom
Virtual Cost: $0
The 4th annual iDigBio Digital Data conference was set to take place the first week in June in Indianapolis, Indiana. Event organizers pushed quickly to move into a virtual format. The symposia, discussions, and social events were all hosted through Indiana University’s Zoom account. Registration for the event was done through Eventbrite and each day you were sent an email with the zoom links for the events that day. There was also a thorough Wiki page outlining details, working documents, or discussion docs. This landing page was so convenient! I could bookmark it and return to specific days to explore the talks or pop into other docs of sessions that I missed. The events were largely synchronous with the exception of the posters which were available to view for the duration of the event. In some instances pre-recordings of presentations were (and still are) available to view.
The organizing team had staff in each of the event rooms to help monitor the chat, troubleshoot problems, and ask questions as they were brought up in the Q&A, chat, or Google docs. During this time I had the conference sort of on as background noise while I did regular work – largely easy tasks like cleaning up the database or searching to verify data. For sessions that I was particularly interested in I focused more deliberately on the content. During this conference time I was probably working 6 hour days on average on top of attending the conference.
The conference was structured on a block schedule largely based in EST since that is where the hosts were located. This usually meant there was a morning block, afternoon block, and evening events – which usually included a social event or two. They did run concurrent sessions so in some instances you had to decide which session you would attend. All of this information can still be found on the Wiki page and is worth exploring if you are working to go virtual.
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections
Dates: June 8-12 2020
Original Venue: Indianapolis, Indiana
New Venue: Zoom
Virtual Cost: $0
The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) converted rapidly to an online format via Zoom. Similar to the Digital Data conference, they used Eventbrite to send out mass communication daily. This included a schedule of the day’s events, Zoom links to the various session rooms, and other helpful information about the conference.
SPNHC has a longstanding Wiki page with lots of information and the poster presentations were hosted through this same platform. Posters were available for the duration of the conference and all talks and discussion groups were recorded and posted on SPNHC’s YouTube Channel after the conference ended.
In each session at SPNHC, organizers were present to help troubleshoot and help the session chairs with finding and fielding questions in the chat. Talks were uploaded ahead of time via Google Drive and both the slides and a recording of your talk were requested. This was to ensure folks outside of the active time zones could still participate and also those who may not have a secure internet connection. I chose to participate live, the session chair screen shared the PowerPoint slides and presenters would say ‘next’ to carry on through the presentation. If I were to do it again, I would just have the chair play the recording. Giving a live talk on Zoom is very distracting – especially with an active chat room! The chat room notifications, my face, the faces of others, was horribly distracting. I also had much better lighting and sound capabilities on my recordings – so I would urge others to use that route.
During SPNHC, I was probably working half days on my normal work and even during the conference sessions I was watching I was doing simple work on the side managing my database and emailing various people. I only stopped all activity for a committee meeting, my talk, and a session I was running. I didn’t feel horribly burnt out but I did after the week ended. The session blocks were morning and later in the day in my time zone. So I would get ready to start at 8 AM and then sessions went until 9-10 PM some evenings with a large break in the day (which is when I would work). My work-life balance was non-existent this week. I would recommend setting clear boundaries with yourself so that you maintain sanity and get the chance to move around. Being stationary all day can be a huge negative for our bodies and minds!
Know when you need to get up and walk around (wireless headphones can help you here)
Make sure you are staying hydrated
Don’t try to do ‘too much’ talk with your supervisor on how to best manage your ‘normal’ work on top of these virtual events
Set boundaries for yourself
Virtual conferences are different but allow for the participation of so many others – let’s keep working together to create better events to be more inclusive and accessible.
Stay tuned, I am running a session at the Geological Society of America Meeting this year and am attending several other events as we move into the fall semester! Hopefully each event becomes easier and easier on attendees! I am also collating accessibility resources for presenters and will share those in another blog post!
Not long ago we were invited to talk about Time Scavengers with our friends Gabe and Brittney who are staff at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology and the Western Science Center, respectively. Every Friday for the past few months Gabe and Brittney host two chats with folks about their research and educational projects! These discussions start with a brief presentation explaining science or projects or ideas to the audience as it is streamed live on Facebook. Then Brittney collects audience questions and we have a discussion at the end of the talk!
We talked about different aspects of Time Scavengers, most importantly the three foundations for which our site is built upon: Science Literacy, Science Identity, and IDEA+J (inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, and justice). We also discussed briefly what we have done so far and what we would like to accomplish in the future! If you are interested in learning more please check out our slides by clicking here or watch the full presentation as it is still available on Facebook by clicking here.
It can be tricky giving a talk with two people, but we made it work! We met a few times before our presentation date with Gabe and Brittney. The first few meetings were to outline the talk and decide on what information we wanted to share and how to structure that information. Then, we began to build the slides. This is always the fun part, as we get to look through our data and pick out fun graphics and images of ourselves and our team. Lastly, we went through and decided who would present which sections of the talk. Jen did the introduction, we both talked about our backgrounds, then Jen continued to discuss the more in-depth introduction slides and overview of Time Scavengers. Adriane then talked through the Science Literacy section, Jen the Science Identity section, then Adriane presented the IDEA+J section and our future goals slide. Lastly, Jen wrapped up the talk with our acknowledgements slide. We think this worked quite well, as we both were able to split the talking time. The questions our audience members asked were excellent, and really made us stop and think! We had a ton of fun throughout the entire process, and very much appreciate the opportunity Gabe and Brittney gave us to talk about Time Scavengers and share our love of science communication!
To take a deep dive into different paleontological concepts, the Time Scavengers team is starting to conduct interviews! We start with a list of questions that we share ahead of time with our speaker and then we move with the flow of the conversation. Our first interview was on ichnology, or the study of trace fossils, with Dr. Tony Martin.
Ichnology focuses on studying the preserved behaviors of animals in the fossil record. These behaviors can look similar and quite different throughout time and play an important role in understanding past and future environments here on Earth. Tony, Adriane, and Jen chat through various ichnological topics, explore SciComm, and there is even some surprise dancing!
We touch on the idea of ichnofacies and their importance in unraveling the complex history on Earth. If you are interested in learning more about how groups of ichnofossils can tell us about ancient environments here are some links:
Jen: Hi everyone! Thank you for tuning into Time Scavengers’ first interview. Today we are talking about ichnology with Dr. Tony Martin. Dr. Adriane Lam and I will be conducting this interview. Tony is a professor at Emory University and an author of popular science books surrounding ichnology, the Georgia coast, and the intersection of the two. Join us as we chat about what ichnology is, how Tony became an author, and there may even be some surprise dancing near the end.
Adriane: I’m Adriane Lam from Time Scavengers and I’m here today with Dr. Jennifer Bauer and Dr. Tony Martin and we’re going to be talking with him about ichnology. So hello, Dr. Martin!
Tony: Hello! And I am so happy to be here to talk about ichnology because I consider myself an ‘ichno-evangelist’ and I’m ready to convert everybody to the Church of Ichnology. Which has a holy trinity: substrate, anatomy, and behavior. Amen, sisters!
Adriane: I love it! I’m sold. So let’s start off by just talking about, for those who are listening who are unfamiliar maybe, what is ichnology?
Tony: Ichnology is the study of traces, tracks, trails, burrows, borings, tooth traces, gnawings, anything that an animal, or a plant, can leave on a substrate that shows its behavior. And that’s really important to the difference between, say, a trace and a drag mark of a stick going along the bottom of a lake. The latter is not a trace because it’s not behavior. There has to be behavior. And that’s what I really love about ichnology is that it reflects behavior. You can actually tell what an animal was having for lunch 500 million years ago, through ichnology!
Adriane: That is so cool and very interesting. So, I’m a big fan of ichnology, um, obviously I am a big fan of coprolites, I think they’re just the coolest things ever!
Tony: Coprolites are the best!
Adriane: They are so cool! So for those that are listening coprolites are fossil poop, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, as you well know Tony. But, you know, a lot of paleontologists study coprolites but also these other trace fossils to get a sense of animal behavior through time. So why is it important that we study this animal behavior in the geologic past?
Tony: What’s great about trace fossils as a way of looking at animal behavior is trace fossils oftentimes are in the same place where the tracemaker was living. So this gives us insight not just of the behavior of the plant or animal that was making these traces at that time, but the place. And it tells us how that animal or plant was interacting with its environment. For instance, if an insect walked across a Permian dune 260 million years ago, we can look at that and say ‘that insect was walking across a dune’. We don’t just say ‘yeah, there’s an insect and it was walking’. We know something about the environment and the context of the environment in which that insect was living. So that gives us kind of a snapshot of behavior that was happening in the ancient past related to the bigger picture of how that trace maker fit into its environment.
Adriane: So what is your favorite trace fossil then, and why?
Tony: That’s kind of like asking a parent what’s your favorite kid. It’s a tough one to narrow down. One I picked out that I always like to point to is a study I’m very proud of published about 10 years ago in PLOS One, was about a fish trail. Where the fish had swam along a lake bottom in Wyoming about 50 million years ago. This fish, when it swam along the lake bottom, first of all it showed there was enough oxygen at the bottom of that lake for that fish to be there, to be swimming in the first place. But it left fin marks, and the fin marks, I’ll try to do it with my hand, the fin marks kind of made these double sine curves. So those were from the pelvic fins. Then there was the caudal fin. The caudal fin was doing a bigger sine wave. Then it had a smaller anal fin that was on the bottom of the fish, and it was leaving a smaller sine wave. In the middle of all those traces were these little ‘pop pop pop’ pock marks made by its mouth. That’s when I looked at this trace fossil I think in 2008 was the first time I saw it, and I was like, ‘it was feeding!’. It was feeding along the bottom of the lake. And there was only one fish in this formation, the Green River Formation from Wyoming that had a mouth that pointed down. And that was Notogoneus osculus. So I knew which fish made it, what it was doing, when it was doing it, it told me about the lake like I was saying earlier, you have it in the context of its environment. And using a little bit of math, we were able to figure out how big it was because the sine waves told us a bit about, uh, putting it into a formula that told us how big it was! This is the one that got away, and it was this big.
Adriane & Jen: Whoa!
Tony: That was 50 million years ago! That’s a pretty darn good trace fossil. So yeah that one’s my favorite I think.
Jen: So, I have kind of a follow-up question. So that one is kind of easier because we can watch how modern fish behave and make interpretations based on the fossils and kind of match up the different fin types and think about movement, but not all animals have these modern comparisons. So how do you interpret trace makers when things are maybe a bit murkier.
Tony: Oh boy, yeah, that’s a tough one. So there are ways we can, we can look at something like a sauropod dinosaur; those sauropod dinosaurs, we don’t have anything like that alive today. The biggest elephants we have today are maybe around 7 tons. Some of these sauropod dinosaurs may have been more than 50 tons. So we have no modern analogues for anything like that. In that case, we have to look at, through maybe computer modeling, or experiments, to look at weight loading, and other ways that we can mathematically predict ‘here’s what those traces should look like’. But then again we also have the trace fossils themselves. So we have sauropod tracks, and we have traces made by other animals that there’s no modern analogue whatsoever. So there we have to be really good detectives. We have to look at what was left by the animal that was a part of its behavior but also taking into account that this behavior may be unlike anything we have today. It’s a really tough problem for when we don’t have the exact modern analogues, then we have to use something that’s close enough. Does that kind of answer your question? It’s a really tough one to answer, especially when we get into really big animals.
Adriane: And I kind of have a follow up question to that as well. And I don’t know if a lot of people listening are aware that when we name these ichnofossils, we don’t name them after the animal, right? And, can you just elaborate why that is, and I think you pretty much touched on that but just to restate it.
Tony: Yeah, there’s a little rule in ichnology is that one tracemaker can make many traces. Related to that then, you can also have many different tracemakers, many different species of tracemakers, can make very similar looking traces. So if you started naming trace fossils after the tracemaker you think made it, mmmm, you might be wrong. If you start naming trace fossil based on, well I think a variety of different tracemakers made it so I’m going to put all their names in the name, that’s not going to work either. So what we try to do with naming trace fossils is base it on consistent form. So if we see a trace fossil that has a form and it occurs in a substrate, such as sand or mud or wood or stone, if it occurs consistently in a particular kind of substrate then we give it a name that’s consistent. One example I can think of, for instance, is Ophiomorpha nodosa. ‘Ophiomorpha’ refers to it’s snake-like form, because when these were first named, they looked kind of snake-like. The ‘nodosa’ part refers to little nodes, and these are fecal pellets, well not fecal pellets, but pellets that were put on the side of the wall of these burrows. These were actually burrows made by crustaceans similar to, say, modern ghost shrimp, that makes this form Ophiomorpha, and then it has these nodes, nodosa, that I can say to another paleontologist, say in Poland, or Czech Republic, or China, I can say Ophiomorpha nodosa, and I just communicated what that trace fossil is and what it looks like. Without going into ‘well it’s kind of snake-like, and it branches, and it has little nodes’. That would get lost in translation pretty quickly.
Jen:Ophiomorpha is one of my favorite trace fossils!
Tony: As it should be! It’s a gorgeous trace fossil.
Jen: That brings up a question that I’ve had as a museum professional. So a lot of my work recently has been database management, and the taxonomy of ichnofossils is a very hard thing to reconcile. And the way that databases are kind of structured are in like a hierarchical model, so similar to Linnaean taxonomy. So I have essentially a tree that’s my taxonomy tree, and I have bins that I can bin the different types of animals into, but I’ve kind of just put ichnofossils as a phyla, and that’s what I’ve seen done in other databases. But, do you have advice for people who have this problem, like me?
Tony: Huh, yeah, short answer: no. And it’s funny because I’ve sometimes been labeled by my ichnological colleagues as a ‘hyper-lumper’. In paleontology, we have lumpers and splitters, and this is very useful because, of course there are people in between; I guess that would make them splitters, hmm? Ok but yeah, with the people in between they say ‘well, sometimes we need to lump in these different names that are really the same fossil’. The splitters say ‘no, we actually need to have a lot of different names’. I’m more of a lumper in that, does this trace fossil show these 3 or 4 characteristics? Then OK, let’s call it that ichnogenus. Ichnospecies, then I start going ‘oohhhh, no no no’. I don’t necessarily want to do ichnospecies. But I understand if some of my colleagues, again for communication purposes, start classifying them differently. For your purposes, for putting them into a database, in a museum collection, it’s probably best to do at least the ichnogenus if you can. That at least narrows it down. Then, I would hand it over to the experts who know more about how do you split it from there in that ichnogenus. So for instance, Ophiomorpha is an ichnogenus. Under that, you can have, gosh, I think I’ve seen 4 or 5 ichnospecies. And I’m only going to name nodosa because people get annoyed and get in arguments after that. Does that kind of make sense?
Jen: Yeah, I’m having more of a problem with everything in between. So I have a phyla, or phylum, and I have ichnogenera and whatever is underneath them. But the in-between is just empty.
Tony: Yeah, so for example, I have a cast of a dinosaur track here, that I’m going to hold it up next to my head. And it’s um, I bought it, it’s an epoxy resin cast that was taken from a real dinosaur track, there you can see some of the 3 dimensions of it. I think it was labeled as Late Triassic, and it was Grallator. So Grallator is the ichnogenus we give to that dinosaur track. Then the people who study dinosaur tracks, they can communicate with one another by saying ‘Grallator’. They have ichnospecies under that. Now me, I see that and go ‘Ah, that’s a therapod track!’. And I might write down ‘Grallator, question mark’, and leave that up to the experts to classify further. ‘Therapod’ is an interpretation, so then I’m interpreting this dinosaur track, I’m interpreting this as a dinosaur track. Leaving open that it could have been made by another animal, though. That’s a hypothesis. But the name we give is based on the form, the form of the track. And that leaves it open for the possibility that something other than a therapod dinosaur made it. How’s that for an explanation?
Adriane: So do you want to move on to talking about your book and your science communication?
Tony: I would love to, yeah! So I’ve been, oh, since 2013, I started writing books. I’d written a few books before that, but 2013 is when I published this big thick book called ‘Life Traces of the Georgia Coast’. It’s more of an academic-y book, but I wrote it for a general audience too; for people who are naturalists, interested in, when they go down to the Georgia coast, and they’re on the barrier islands, they see burrows, they see tracks, or other traces, and they go, ‘hmm, I wonder what that is?’. So it was a book to answer those questions, but also something that my academic friends in paleontology could use. It was published by Indiana University Press and part of their Life of the Past series and their paleontology books that Indiana Press puts out. So I was really proud to do that. Then I started following that up. In 2014 I did ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’, here’s the paperback version right here. That beautiful cover by the way, the cover art is by paleoartist Peter Tressler, he’s an Australian paleoartist, so you should look up his work. That was about the concept of, what if every dinosaur skeleton disappeared tomorrow? Every dinosaur bone vanishes; how would we even know dinosaurs existed? And I was like, well, fortunately we have trace fossils! So the book is about that, and I wrote that overtly for popular audiences. It’s a trade book, but it has a lot of references back for, again, for my academic friends if they wanted to learn more from that. I followed that up in 2017 with ‘The Evolution Underground’. And the subtitle is ‘Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvellous Subterranean World Beneath Our Feet’. The subtitle should have been ‘How Burrows Change the World’, but Malcolm Gladwell probably would have sued me. Ah, with that, I want you to think about how burrows helped animals survive, especially mass extinctions, and then how burrows changed the world in marine environments, terrestrial environments, all environments, and actually changed everything. Kind of a big-picture book. That was a fun one to write! Now my newest one is ‘Tracking the Golden Isles’, and this is again a trade book meant for a general audience, it’s more about a specific place. So the subtitle you see is ‘The Natural and Human Histories of the Georgia Coast’. So it’s returning to the Georgia coast, but I wanted to give more of a view for people who live here in Georgia, as well as outside of Georgia, of how traces give us stories. That there are stories written in the sands, in the muds, in the bones, in the driftwood, that we see that tell us what happened in this place, then give us insights on how humans and other organisms interacted with those places through time. So this is part of my ichno-evangelism, I want to teach people about traces and why traces matter.
Adriane: Perfect. So a follow up question to that is: You’re a scientist and you are trained as such, just like Jen and I are, and through grad school, we learned how to do science writing, we publish these journal papers. How did you transition, and teach yourself, how to write for a scientific audience, um, or transition from writing for a scientific audience to a more general public audience? Was that something you practiced over the years? Is it self-taught? Because, it’s a, it’s a hard skill to learn.
Tony: Yeah, you’re, yeah I agree one-hundred percent; it’s a hard skill to learn. And in the case of people who are trained to write academically, there’s some un-learning to do too. That we are oftentimes rewarded with our scientific writing, to be as technical as possible and use a lot of jargon. So there was, in my writing process, I had to un-learn. This is where I thank my students, because for years at Emory, I taught non-science majors. And I still do sometimes. But non-science majors, I had to strip out the jargon in my teaching. So there was part of that training I think in the classroom, being able to clearly communicate different scientific concepts, particularly in geology and paleontology, that would translate well to people who are non specialists. Then if you can do that on the page, if you can write on the page, then that helps too. Here’s where I credit blogging. So I started blogging in the late two thousands. That was writing I did, then through practice for a general audience. That’s also how I got more of a, what we call, an author voice. I started finding my voice as an author and a distinctive style. I didn’t want to be, say, like Stephen Jay Gould, or Pat Shipman, or some of these other writers who I really admire. That I read their writing and I go, ‘Oh, I love their writing! I’m going to write exactly like them’. I needed to find my own voice. I think after about four to five books, I have found that voice. But it came through teaching first, and then blogging, and writing, really getting into a daily practice of writing, however small. Two-hundred and fifty to five hundred words a day, that’s my typical book-writing regime. I just try to do a little bit everyday, and then when you do the math, it adds up. Next thing you know, over the course of a year, year and a half, you have a book! And that’s where the editing comes in. That’s part of the process too.
Adriane: So can you tell us a little about the editing process. Because, Jen and I, you know, we blog, and that’s mainly what Time Scavengers is; we have a lot of blogs. But we’ve never written anything as substantial as a book, and we know that the peer review process and editing process for a paper is much different from a book. But can you kind of walk us through that process, what is it, how long does it take?
Tony: Yeah, and writing a book, especially for a general audience, I oftentimes, I will write it first, without criticisms, self criticism. So I have to put duct tape over my mouth, silence my inner critic, and just ‘zzzzzzzz‘. You know the GIF of Jim Carrey doing that? Ok so I do that, I just type, I put down the words, then I set it aside. Later, I’ll come back to it and then I’ll go through it and edit it. Sometimes along the way I’ll self-edit. But usually I just set it aside, come back to it, and then go through and edit. My favorite way to edit for a trade book is actually, I’ll print it. I know, poor trees. But I do recycle. I’ll print it, and I’ll hand-edit. That’s actually my favorite way to edit. In my most recent book ‘Tracking the Golden Isles’ I was so grateful that University of Georgia Press actually did send me a printed copy of the page proofs and I went through and I hand-edited through those page proofs. So the editing process is multi-layered, it’s multi-stepped. Once I’ve gone through it in a way that I think it’s pretty good, and I’m not embarrassed, then I’ll hand it over, say, to a copy editor or other peer reviewers. And actually, my last four books have been peer reviewed as well, or I’ve had other experts read the book, look for factual content, as well as how well does it read. Does it read, does it read okay? ‘The Evolution Underground’, for instance, I think the peer reviewers I had on that were Sally Walker, Dr. Sally Walker, and Dr. Patricia Kelley. They were really good peer editors, being able to look at it in terms of content, but also, did it make sense. And they also are fantastic teachers, so I really trust their instincts on, ‘did this sound good enough that a, someone who’s not an expert will get what I’m writing about?’
Adriane: That’s awesome. Do you also get, during this process, do you have other friends that are non-scientists read the book?
Tony: Oh, yeah, absolutely! And I’m really glad you mentioned that, because ‘Life Traces of the Georgia Coast’, the people who actually read that book first were non-scientists. I was in a small writing group at Emory, and there were just three of us. One of them, you’ve probably heard of her, she’s famous: Isabel Wilkerson. She wrote this absolutely fantastic book that should be required reading of every American. It’s called ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’. It’s about the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North. And she tells it through three different people. She was in our writing group, and she’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, who’s writing this award-winning book and the other member of our group, Christine Ristaino, she was writing a book that was about more personal, more about personal traumas, that she had had happen in her life. Three very different books, three very different people. We got together once every two weeks or so, over the course of two years, we read our writing to one another. Which I now do in our classes when I teach my students writing, I have them do that as an exercise: read it out loud to one another. When you read it out loud, as an editing process, and that person reading your work out loud, that’s right, hand it to the other person, they read your work out loud and they’re not an expert in your field. They’re going to find where you’re unclear. They’re going to stumble over your words; they’re going to go ‘rrmmmrrm, uhhh, what, Ophio-what?’ And they’re going to help you find how to make it better. So I am forever grateful to Isabel and Christine for being in this group with me, where they really taught me to be more clear with my writing for people who are non-experts in my field. Yeah thanks for asking that, that’s [chuckles].
Adriane: Yeah of course. But with Time Scavengers, we have an editor, and she is not trained as a geoscientist, and you know, her feedback for us is invaluable for us too, and we owe her a lot too for saying..
Tony: Absolutely. Yes.
Adriane: … ‘what are you talking about?’ Yeah, it’s, it’s such a critical part of science communication that I think a lot of scientists don’t realize, is getting outside of your science circle, get in touch with your friends, and hand them something and say ‘Does this make sense?’ And I’ve even had my mom email me and say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about in this blog, fix it!’
Tony: Right, right, yeah isn’t that perfect?
Adriane: I love it!
Tony: Even if your mother has a PhD in some other science, she might read your blog and go ‘Oooh, I didn’t quite get that?’ So that, that really helps when you have somebody from outside of your field helping you. And especially the non-scientist, people who may be experts in whatever field, political science, or sociology, if they can read your blog and go ‘Oh yeah, I get it!’, then that’s a high compliment. It means that you’re using a minimum amount of jargon and you’re using it in an engaging way, hopefully with a good narrative structure too. That people are following a story along the way.
Adriane: Exactly. And you touched on something that I think is really important too when we’re doing science communication, is storytelling. When you’re writing your book, do you keep this in mind, that you want to write it as a story? Are you trying to bring people in, and then bring them along on a journey with you; do you think that’s the most effective way to do this?
Tony: Yes, I do. And there’s a class I teach at Emory that, uh, I’m going to be teaching it every Spring, I’ve taught it three times now, called ‘Environmental Science Communication’. In that, I work with them on narrative structure, making sure they have some sort of narrative structure. Now what’s that? The very simple way to do this is how Randy Olsson, science communicator, has written several books on this. He uses uh, he calls it the ABT: the And, But, Therefore Framework. So that’s something I work with the students [on] and we experiment with it. We test it throughout the entire semester. We’re good scientists while we’re doing our communicating! And this ‘And, But, Therefore’ is that we give information, so ‘I was following these tracks, they were in the sidewalk, preserved in the cement, BUT I’m not sure what animal made them?’ Suddenly I’ve created some dynamic tension in that story. ‘BUT I don’t know what made them’: Now there’s a mystery afoot. Ah! ‘THEREFORE, I need to come to some conclusions towards the end to resolve that, I can’t just leave the audience hanging. There has to be some way, then, to carry on the narrative. So the ‘And, But, Therefore’ as a framework works really well, then, for me to hang my stories. That I make sure that when I’m writing that, and oftentimes I start the chapters in my books with a, with a little story typically told in the field. That structure helps me, keeps me on track, pun intended, to keep the narrative structures so that the reader is going to be engaged and interested. The deadliest mistake we make is when we do the ‘and and and’. ‘And then I looked at the tracks, and then I saw it had four toes, and then I saw it had claw marks, and then I looked at the heel…’ Oh my gosh, you are snoring already! Just stop, kill me! You want to make sure you have some sort of structure there, and you’re not doing the information overload.
Adriane: That is excellent advice and so true. So, just to finish wrapping up talking about your book, where can people find your book if they wanted to go and read these and buy them? Are they available online?
Tony: Oh I’m so glad you asked that! So ‘Tracking the Golden Isles’, what’s great right now, go the University of Georgia Press website. They have a coupon code there. You can get fifty percent off! Can’t find a better deal! So do that, don’t, don’t buy it through that thing, ya know, that Amazon… Instead, go save yourself fifty percent, go the University of Georgia Press website, U-G-A Press dot org, go there, the coupon code is there, look it up, use the coupon code. And that’s good until the end of June. They did it in may, they’re going to do it in June. Now my other books, you can get them, those, look for those through, there’s a website indie bound dot org. I-N-D-I-E, indiebound.org, that you can look up your nearest independent bookstore. Because right now, with the pandemic still going on, independent bookstores are having a really tough time. I LOVE independent bookstores. So what you can do, is uh, I think you can just put in your zip code, and that will tell you the nearest independent bookstore, order the books then through those bookstores. What’s great is now ‘The Evolution Underground’ is available in paperback, so you can save some money there. And then, same with ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’, also in paperback. So you can save money there. And then some people prefer either on Kindle, or Nook, or other e-readers, you can get your e-version as well. And occasionally there are good sales on those. So wait for the sales, too. Because I want people to save money for important things, like pizza and beer.
Adriane: Very important things.
Jen: I’m sure they’re also available through, like, public libraries.
Tony: Absolutely! Yes! Yeah, I’m always happy when somebody says ‘hey, look what I found at my library!’ and they post a picture on Twitter. I’m like, thank you, I love hearing that libraries have my books too! So if your library, your public library, does not have my book, then please persuade them to get them. But do it quietly, you don’t want to get shushed.
Adriane: So we have three more questions we were going to ask, just getting into more of the ichnology side of things, and traces and tracks. Um, so the other question we have for you, along the lines of ichnology is, sometimes traces are found within or around other fossils that can tell us a compelling story from a snapshot in time. Can you tell us about one such trace fossil?
Tony: Yeah, one that comes to mind is, I was working with a group from Indiana University Fort Wayne, and it was Jim Farlow working with the group. They were studying dinosaur tracks in Dinosaur Valley State Park, outside of Glen Rose Texas. It’s a world famous track site. I was there of more of the invertebrate ichnologist, where I was looking at the invertebrate burrows that were associated with the dinosaur tracks. So there were these U-shaped burrows that, we give them the ichnogenus name ‘Diplocraterion’. It’s a mouthful, but, people who know it know what it is. Those were associated with some of the horizons below where the dinosaur tracks were. But there was one place where a dinosaur actually stepped on one of the burrows. So this brings in the question: Did that dinosaur step on the burrow while there was a little, say, crustacean, inside the burrow. And I think the answer is ‘no’. The reason being it looked like the burrow was barely compressed. And this was a big therapod dinosaur that stepped on it. It probably weighed at least a ton. It should’ve compressed it more had it had been muddy and it had been squishy. This tells me that the invertebrate burrow, with the dinosaur track, tells me something about aaahhhhh, that burrow was probably long abandoned, its maker was probably dead, maybe for decades, then it was buried, then it was emerged, and this dinosaur stepped on it while it was a firm ground. While it was firm, and not muddy. This is the way you can tell sometimes the gap in time between trace fossils; that despite they’re being together, doesn’t mean they were there at the same time. This also gets you thinking about how these gaps in time, trace fossils are sometimes valuable for us to be able to figure those out. Another example I’ll give you is, again using dinosaurs, is thinking about dinosaur bones. I wrote about this in ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’, that, I cheat a little bit, I do talk about dinosaur bones in it, but there are bones that have tooth marks in them. Tooth traces where another dinosaur chomped on the dinosaur. So I think Stephanie Drumheller and Julie McHugh, for instance, published a paper recently about this with Allosaur tooth marks. Those tooth traces, then, tell us that the dinosaur that was being eaten had to have been dead, because to get through all that meat, to get down to the bone, it wasn’t just sitting there, saying ‘yeah, ok, you got down to my bone’. It was dead. So this tells us again a little bit about the gap in time between when did a dinosaur eat another dinosaur but also what dinosaur ate another dinosaur. These are ways that you can take trace fossils, put them together with other fossils, and be able to figure out some of the relationships between these different organisms, and sometimes at different times. How’s that?
Adriane: That’s really cool!
Tony: Yeah it is!
Jen: I think that is also really cool because Adriane and I used to collect Diplocraterion in the Ordovician, um, and you’re talking about a much younger example. So just thinking about the same shape burrow, maybe different tracemakers, maybe very different tracemakers, given hundreds of millions of years in between. But that’s, that’s a really cool thing I think about ichnology, is that maybe is lost a little bit on people.
Tony: Thank you for mentioning that because I actually got my start as a paleontologist in the Ordovician. I did my master’s thesis work in the, uh, in the Cincinnati region, I went to Miami University.
Jen: All of us did, that’s awesome!
Tony: The ‘real Miami’, as I like to tell people. Miami was a university before Florida was a state, they had the t-shirts there. But what was great were the trace fossils there, a lot of those trace fossils that I saw then, again, yeah, like you said you can see some of the same ichnogenera in rocks of much younger, much younger rocks, geologically speaking. The Ordovician, more than four hundred million years ago, and then the ones I was talking about from Glen Rose, those are a mere ninety-five million. Yeah, those are baby traces compared to the Ordovician. So yeah, that’s pretty cool that we can look at these trace fossils then, and we can think about the very different animals that would have made those very similar-looking trace fossils, maybe representing the same behaviors, and behaviors that are repeating through time.
Jen: I had kind of a wild-card question. So I remember taking Ichnology, uh, with Dan Hembree at Ohio University, and we got on the topic of eggs, and are eggs trace fossils. Because technically there’s some sort of biomineral, but technically they’re not a hard part of an animal. What are your feelings on this?
Tony: Oh, I, I don’t just have feelings, I have certainty!
Jen: [laughing] Okay!
Tony: Eggs are body fossils. They’re body parts. This is one of my favorite quiz questions, test questions for my students. So any Emory students that are going to be taking my classes, you’re learning this now. Any that have taken my classes, they’ve already learned this. Eggs are body parts because it’s an extra body part for the developing embryo. So the eggshell itself, it’s like a body part. Same with a, uh, same with a pupa, for instance. And because you had classes from Dr. Hembree, he’s into insect traces. So a pupa, pupal case, is a body part of that insect, of that, of that insect as it’s developing. A cocoon that’s preserved as a fossil that shows the actual silk weave, that’s a trace fossil.
Tony: Yeah. So eggs, what’s also cool though is that there are trace fossils of hatching windows, of where a little baby dinosaur poked its head out of the egg. That hatching window, that’s a trace fossil. If you had an egg, that a dinosaur stepped on it, that would be a trace fossil of the dinosaur stepping on the egg. If you had, uh, the old stereotype of the mammal eating an egg, if you had those tooth traces in the eggshell, that would be a trace fossil, but of the mammal. So you can have trace fossils in the eggs themselves, but the egg, eggshell, that’s [not] a trace fossil.
Adriane: Well I learned something new!
Tony: Yeah, there you go! Now, just to complicate it even more though, if a Troodon, which was a therapod dinosaur in the Late Cretaceous about seventy-five million years ago, its eggs are paired. So it actually had the eggs paired which has been hypothesized as indicating it had dual oviducts. They are also long eggs that are oriented vertically that were probably partially buried by the mother and or father dinosaurs. In the nest, that orientation and the duality of those eggs, those are trace fossils. But the eggs are body fossils. See, we could do an entire exam on this! But I won’t.
Jen: I figured you would have an opinion on it.
Jen: I just remembered that from class, like, it’s debated, and heated arguments.
Tony: Oh you could go on and on with it; it’s fun!
Adriane: Really cool stuff. So getting back to Georgia specifically, because you live there, you write a lot about it, what can ichnology tell us about Georgia’s future specifically?
Tony: Yeah, the Georgia coast, I write about this in ‘Tracking the Golden Isles’ in the last couple of chapters. In fact, chapters I talk about sea level change, and how sea level change, and especially storms, we’re going to have an increasing number of storms, we’ve had two hurricanes hit the Georgia coast recently, uh, Matthew and Irma. Those are going to change those environments very quickly, literally overnight. What happens then is that’s new real estate that the trace makers come in, and they start occupying that real estate right away. So for instance, there’s a salt marsh on Sapelo Island that over the past ten years I’ve watched it disappear. And it’s gone. The last time I was down there in, um, February, it was gone. It is now under several sheets of sand. So the salt marsh that had fiddler crabs leaving there little burrows in it, that had mussels attaching to the surface, that had root traces from Smooth Cordgrass, those traces have now been replaced by a layer of sand that has fiddler crabs, sand fiddler crabs, and ghost crabs, and now insects that are burrowing in the top of that. These traces give us a prediction, a prediction of what’s going to happen with climate change on the Georgia coast as sea level goes up, but also storms. That storms are going to go over the pre-existing environments, and we’re getting what we call Walther’s Law happening in real time. We’re actually watching these laterally-adjacent environments go over one another vertically. And we’re seeing this happen over the course of just, in a few years we can watch it. This is where traces give us a prediction. We can say that this environment is going to change into this environment, and these are what animals and plants are going to be moving into that new neighborhood once that change takes place.
Adriane: So, relatedly then, this can probably be extrapolated to other states along the eastern coast of the U.S., right? Because we’re all kind of part of the same, you know, in North Carolina, we have the Outer Banks barrier island systems, um, so what can ichnology tell us about the more global implications of anthropogenic climate change?
Tony: Yeah, this is, this is a really good question because I like to point to the east coast of the United States, and particularly its barrier islands, as being kind of canaries in the coal mine. We have, on the east coast of the United States, going from Florida all the way up to Maine, we have barrier islands that people have modified a lot of them, but then there are a good number that have not been modified so much. The Georgia coast has some of the best examples of that, of barrier islands that have not been modified so much by humans. What we can do is look at those as canaries in the coal mine and think about how as climate change starts impacting those environments, how do traces inform us about those changes all the way up the east coast? Now, globally, globally a lot of geologists, sedimentary geologists, study the barrier islands of the eastern U.S. as examples, that they then apply worldwide. So of course barrier islands vary worldwide, but the east coast ones are often a model for what we see worldwide with coastlines, and how coastlines are changing. Especially because of human interactions with those coastlines. Traces, I think, are another tool that we can put in our toolbox. That we can use traces and ichnology to better understand these changes as we go into this uncertain future with storms, greater storms, fiercer storms, and then sea level rise. What’s going to happen? Traces are yet another tool in our Swiss Army Knife of tools that we use to predict how the, how the present is going to tell us something about the future.
Jen: I think it’s also important to mention, um, we’ve been talking a lot about how we think about like different groups of traces, being in certain areas, um, there’s a lot of, uh, like seminal work that really explained things like oxygen content, the type of substrate, and why you expect to see these different types of traces in these assemblages. So some things do better in high energy, some animals do not like high energy and need something a little bit away from the coastlines to kind of really thrive and establish their burrows. Uh, but maybe, uh, Adriane and I can include some links, and maybe you have some links you could send us so we can include them in a little document for people who are interested in kind of diving more into getting a better understanding of these assemblages. Because they are very valuable.
Tony: I agree completely and I’m really glad you’re going to do that because one of the, um, I think one of the applications to paleontology that we’re seeing today with climate change and thinking about how climate change fits in with paleontology, is this whole field of conservation paleobiology. And both of you have expertise in this, and then we have lots of other paleontologists who are working in this discipline. Now working with biologists and conservation biologists in particular for how can we, how can we use our knowledge of the past to better inform ourselves about what to do in the future. Particularly with conservation biology and preventing extinctions, and those kinds of, those kinds of measures that we need to act now on it. And, we’re here to help. So, great idea! I’m looking forward to helping with that.
Jen: I have sort of a, sort of a question I think uh, our followers would be interested in. So you’re a faculty member, who teaches, does research, and you’re also an author, but there are other jobs for ichnologists if people are interested in studying trace fossils. Do you have any suggestions for them?
Tony: Yeah, traditionally, with ichnology, a lot of the ichnologists have been employed in the, um, well in the energy industry, for lack of a better term. They used to say petroleum but then it became petroleum natural gas and all the fossil fuels. As that is waning, as we are seeing this transition now from a fossil fuel intensive economy, as we’re going into alternative fuels and the future is happening now in that… It’s not necessarily those ichnologists are going to be out of a job. So what I just said is, our working with conservation biologists, I see that as part of the future of more traditionally trained ichnologists. However, I would also like to point out that there’s a whole discipline of conservation biology of people who work with tracks. And they work with tracks, of say, endangered animals, or doing surveys of animals in protected ecosystems. I think this is something where we ichnologists can also contribute to the people who are out there tracking animals, taking data, uh, GIS data, say through CyberTracker, or other GIS mapping. I think this is something where we can contribute to, that we can work together with conservation biologists, and better see, I guess what you would say is the unseen biota, the, the animals you don’t go out and just witness everyday. Traces add an extra dimension, and really expand your, your world view of what lives in a given place. Does that help?
Jen: Yeah that’s an excellent answer!
Tony: It gets…Yeah, and it gives hope for those, those people who love ichnology now, that yes you will get a job somehow! You’re not useless.
Jen: Yeah I was remembering in ichnology class, I don’t think we focused on cores, but I remember Dan brought out some cores, and I was like, oh boy! Like trying to look at the like, just the side and the little squiggles. But, like that is also like, that is a challenging puzzle to try and do if you’re interested in really examining these minutia of bioturbation long ago, in these core segments.
Tony: Here’s what’s really great though about, you’re all trained as geologists, and a lot of ichnologists are trained as geologists, is we really get these basic principles though, like cross-cutting relationships. Once you have that little Steno principle, you can apply it with trace fossils where, with cores you can say ‘this burrow is cutting across this burrow; this burrow is cutting across this one’, and you can work out the sequence. And then you can see where it goes from a soft ground to a firm ground, to a hard ground, you can work out that time sequence relatively speaking. This is where we, being trained as geologists, we really have a, I won’t say an unfair advantage, but I’ll just say, yeah, we’re pretty darn cool! That we, we actually have those skills that we can apply in universal ways.
Adriane: That’s so neat that you mentioned cores, and that came up and you can see these 3D relationships within the core. So I also sail with the International Ocean Discovery Program, and we sailed in 2017 to the Tasman Sea. And when we were coring there, we brought up this core, and they had, I think the sediments were of Oligocene or Eocene age, beautiful Zoophycos in them, and a lot of them were pyritized. And going back to what you talked about, certain traces mean certain things, and I was like ‘Ah, I’ll bet this means it was really deep, you know, deep water, maybe low oxygen, maybe low nutrients if I’m remembering correctly from our ichnology class years ago’. I got really excited over that, and I don’t know if other people did but…
Tony: I’m excited now!
Adriane: I think I have… Hold on, I might have that pyritized zoophycos piece in my desk.
[Tony and Jen gasp with excitement]
Tony: Can it get any more thrilling?!
Jen: It can! So actually Alycia used to do these dances, and I’m pretty sure she has a Zoophycos dance. Am I wrong? I think, I’m pretty sure. I’m pretty sure she would go like this, and, she, like, this is supposed to be like simulating the feeding, and she would turn around in circles.
Tony: Oh, we need to get that.
Jen: And she’d dance in front of her classroom!
Tony: And by Alycia you mean Dr….
Tony: Yeah that’s what I thought; okay. I think we need to get video and we need to post that sometime.
[see video for Alycia’s Zoophycos dance]
Jen: Yeah she has one for lophophores, Zoophycos, and I, I’m sure I’m missing a couple.
Tony: Yeah, yeah. So this is something I do in my classes is I will sometimes imitate trace making behavior. So I’m really glad to hear Dr. Stigall does this too.
Jen: It’s not just you!
Tony: Yeah! It’s not just me.
Adriane: Yeah unfortunately I can’t find that pyritized Zoophycos; this is really mean, oh I wish I had it!
Jen: Well if you find it, get a picture of it and we can pop it in
Adriane: Oh true, yea!
Tony: That’s fair. Yeah. Yeah and what’s really, what’s neat is that you mention the pyrite, and I got really excited about that because pyrite, people who don’t even know paleontology or ichnology they know about prite; it’s fools gold. That really tiny pyrite that they call framboidal pyrite, that is facilitated by, uh, sulfate-reducing bacteria. So there’s a story there! You have these anaerobic bacteria that are facilitating the reaction of iron, and sulfur, causing those to react. And that pyrite then, this is kind of a trace of the bacterial behavior, if you want to call it that, interacting with the organic substrates made by the Zoophycos making animal. And absolutely, yes! It tells you something about what was happening with the oxygen levels on the seafloor. That’s why I got so excited when you said that.
Adriane: Yeah it was really great when we pulled up this core and sliced them open, and they were on the table and I went ‘Oh my God, look at all these Zoophycos!’. It was great fun!
Tony: I’m so glad you shared that.
Adriane: I’m just sorry I wish I had thought about getting that specimen earlier. That’s okay I’ll keep looking for it and I can put a picture in.
Tony: That’s okay.
Jen: I don’t think we had anticipated coming to cores in this conversation, it just happened.
Adriane: It did, it was….
Tony: You never know! It’s kind of like, I don’t know, uh, a meandering trace fossil. Sometimes it just meanders all over the place and you never know where it’s going.
Adriane: Exactly. Well Tony that’s all the questions we had for you, we’ve been going for about an hour. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about that we wanted, that you wanted to cover that we didn’t cover. Jen was there anything else?
Tony: Yeah I guess, I guess as a, just an inspirational message for everybody is that traces are everywhere. Traces are everywhere, and even in quarantine conditions, you can go out and you can find traces. So this morning I went out for a little walk, I’m in my neighborhood here in Decatur, Georgia, next to Atlanta, just walking through my neighborhood and my, I took pictures of, um, dog tracks in cement, cat tracks in cement. I even found what I’m pretty sure are mourning dove tracks that were left in cement. That, I was doing field work this morning, and it felt like paleontology, it felt like ichnology. But if you want modern traces, you can go to your local park, look at ant nests, look at some of the bee nests, that were, um, just a month ago were bee nest, ground nesting bees that were in the park next door. Traces are everywhere! Once you start looking, you’ll find them. So, if you’re, if you’re quarantining and you’re just like ‘uh, I’m so bored!’, go out, you’ll find some traces, you’ll get excited! They’re everywhere, just look for them.
Jen: And it would be cool, oh sorry. I was going to say, it would be cool to think about every trace fossil like my cats could make. Do they make similar trace fossils or different trace fossils, and what behaviors are represented with like the suite of what remains.
Tony: Yeah, yeah. I’ve thought about doing a book like ‘The Ichnology of Cats’; it would have a catchier title! But we have two cats here and oh man, uh, yeah that’s, that’s a book that would write itself pretty quickly.
Adriane: Yes. Well I have a question, thinking about modern traces, I had this weird question. Are mosquito or bug bites on us, are those traces?
Tony: Oooohhh, yeah. So, yeah, here’s the thing: if you have a wound, okay so a wound, it is a trace temporarily of that mosquito’s behavior, or parasitic dipterans in general. So it’s a trace of its behavior however temporary. But then, if it heals, you don’t see it, well, then, then it’s not preserving it. Now if you had some sort of scar, like if you had a good, a good bite from something, or a pinch from one of those, I don’t know, shell crushing crabs, I wouldn’t want that. If it left an actual scar, then that’s a trace that lasts. So then it, it really does depend on, is the substrate conducive to preserving that trace. In my book ‘Dinosaurs Without Bones’ I actually talk about, there’s a wound that was in dinosaur skin. I think it was a, a Hadrosaur that actually had a wound preserved in that fossil skin. So that’s a trace fossil of whatever inflicted that. Now, the authors thought maybe it was a tooth trace, but I also allow for the possibility that it stumbled into a thorny plant. In which case, that would be a trace of the Hadrosaur being really derpy and clumsy and ‘whoops!’ stumbling into a plant. That’s not a trace of the plant. So good question, and yet another question that I can ask my students to torture them; thank you.
Adriane: Yeah, of course, yeah. Speaking of scars and cats, I’ve got some scars on my arm from where my cats have bitten and scratched me over the years, so that’s cool now that I can say those are Felis catus tooth traces.
Tony: That’s right. See if they make it into the fossil record.
Adriane: Yeah I doubt it, but we’ll see!
Jen: There are cool fossils of echinoderms, they actually heal. So if something, like, bites them or like nibbles on something, sometimes you can find, find the like trace of that in their skeleton. It’s like, it was clear that it wasn’t a postmortem, because you actually see them trying to patch their body back together. Which is so cool!
Tony: Absolutely, yeah, and there are bite traces, I’ve seen them in modern sand dollars on the Georgia coast, that yes, it heals, then you see fossil examples that are healed bite traces in, uh, trilobites too. Um, yea, this is actually, yeah I can’t reveal it, but the next book I’m going to do is getting more into hard substrates and those kind of really cool traces too.
Tony: Yeah! So that’s neat. Thanks for mentioning echinoderms, which are among the coolest animals ever, right?
Jen: I had to!
Tony: Well, yeah! Okay, anything else?
Adriane: I…. I could probably keep going and talk all day, but….
Tony: Yeah, this is, this is such fun!
Adriane: I know, yeah, I really enjoyed talking trace fossils. I haven’t really thought about them so critically in so long, so this has been a really fun, dredging back up what we learned in ichnology.
Jen: Yeah, we’ll have to send that to Dan! The video, when it’s done, see what he thinks of it.
Tony: That’d be great! Yeah, I would love his input on it. And we’ve got to get that dance on tape.
Jen: Oh Alycia’s? Yeah! I’ll ask her about it. Maybe we can get Dan to do it?
Tony: Even better!
Jen: Doubt it!
Adriane: That’s so great. Well thank you Dr. Martin for coming and talking to us today about trace fossils and ichnology and what they can tell us about the past and the future. We greatly appreciate it! Um, and we hope everyone goes out and looks for traces, modern day, on yourself if you even feel the need to, through scars or bug bites, and around ponds and nests, um, so thank you so much for joining us today, we greatly appreciate it!
Tony: You’re very welcome! Thank you for asking me to be on Time Scavengers; it’s been a pleasure!
Jen: Thank you everyone for sticking with us to the end of our first interview. This was certainly an interesting learning process. So we had a really great time chatting with Tony. If you have any questions for Tony, Adriane, or myself, please leave them in the comments below and we’ll do our best to address them. We look forward to sharing more areas and facets of paleontology with you through these interviews.
Admittedly, the title of this post is a bit misleading; I didn’t actually go to Ireland to give a talk, in the midst of a pandemic. Rather, I was invited to discuss my research, path into science, and science communication by a graduate student, Luke O’Reilly, at the University College Cork through video conferencing software.
Luke recently began his journey into outreach by establishing a virtual seminar series for the graduate and undergraduate students and professors in his community, as a way to come together and continue learning about topics related to marine science. Luke’s endeavors have been highly successful; not only are those in academia participating, but also members of the general public! To date, about 300 people have signed up to tune into the talks! You too can sign up for this seminar series by clicking here.
Most of the talks to date have included folks presenting their research using figures and text on slides in a ‘traditional’ talk format. But Luke indicated that he wanted to do a more free-form format, to see how that worked with his audience. We both agreed that a lighthearted, off-the-cuff talk would be fun for us both, and we hoped this format helped our audience engage more with us and participate. Neither of us had done such a presentation in this format before.
To prepare for this talk, I didn’t spend copious amounts of time making a slide show or modifying figures. Instead, I pulled up videos, images, Google Earth, and some slides from previous talks I’ve given. This way, I was able to screen share these resources with the audience when certain topics were touched upon. Personally, this format and style was really fun, kept me on my toes, and allowed me to share a lot of information pretty quickly. Luke indicated he received positive feedback about the talk format as well from audience members!
The topics we covered ranged all over the place, which was really fun! We began by just talking about living at sea for 2 months, and what that is like. I showed the audience a drill bit I had with me, and also showed a short video explaining how we conduct drilling in the middle of the ocean. Topics also then ranged from foraminifera and their ecology, the importance of the Kuroshio Current Extension to the Japanese fishing industry, how this massive current may change under human-induced warming, and we even touched on the topic of tectonics! Audience members asked questions throughout the talk via typing them into a chat box. Luke and I paused for questions throughout the talk, which really allowed for some more in-depth discussion of topics. We also had an additional Q & A session at the end of the presentation.
The cool thing about working in science communication is that I am always learning from other people, and this experience was no different. From experimenting with this talk format, I realized that mixing things up and doing something in a different way can be hugely successful. So take chances! Be bold! You never know how successful an endeavor will be until you try.
You can watch some of the recorded UCC Marine Geology Lectures here on YouTube!
This year was the second iteration of an entirely online conference, Palaeontological Virtual Congress, open to abstract submissions from anyone studying paleontological sciences. A broadly accessible conference as the digital means provides increased access to scientific content. There is flexibility with file format, presenters can be visible on camera augmented by images and slides edited into the video, upload their slides without an overlaying audio, or walk through their slides while providing audio narrative.
Talks can be uploaded as recorded .mp4 and like files by the presenters prior to the conference and then the content is available for two weeks for attendees to view and comment on through the WordPress site. The organizers answered some questions for us on the event:
Who organized this event? The organising committee was formed by 10 people, with 3 professors (Carlos Martínez-Pérez, Evangelos Vlachos and Paolo Citton), 3 post-doc, and 4 pre-doc students. In the first iteration of the congress, it was expected there would be around 100 participants, and the final attendees were near 376. This year there was a total of 161 projects presented and 398 participants from 44 different countries.
Were there any issues with the COVID-19 crisis? This congress was first made having in mind only online mechanics, so the Corona crisis did not change how the congress work. But we have noticed an increase in the media exposure that this congress has achieved, and also, a biggest interaction in the participants during the congress and outside the congress. Specially, the congress has been very active in Twitter and the interactions with the palaeontological community in this social media has increased in this edition.
What do you take away from the congress? What did you especially like, and what would you do differently next time? We created this congress as an opportunity for those palaeontologists that do not have enough resources to go to most (or any) palaeontological congress. For that reason, the members of the organizing committee don’t take anything away from the congress… apart form stress! We are proud of the work we have done these two editions, and we are awfully glad of the way the palaeontological community has welcomed this congress, so we can say that that is our award.
Some of the aspect that we like the most about the congress are the video presentations and the virtual field trips. People can be highly creative when given the opportunity to present their work with the video presentations, and the virtual field trips are a nice way to expose interesting places that would not be known otherwise.
We are still struggling making the interactions between the participants as “natural” as possible. This edition, the comment section for the different works have been very active, and we have seen very interesting debates in some of them. This is a problem if you think that we have participants from all around the globe, and our time zones don’t match; but we are sure that we will be able to overcome this for the next edition.
Will there be a 3rd PalaeoVC? Yes, of course! We want to rest for a bit, so it is most possible that we will have the 3rd edition by 2021, although we still cannot tell for sure about the dates.
This year, there was an Early Career Session to highlight the work of early career paleontologists. Time Scavengers team member, Jen Bauer, was invited to aid in judging the session and as a result the winners selected from this session will be promoted via Time Scavengers Meet the Scientist blog.
Congratulations to Marie, James, and Thomas! Follow the PalaeoVC tag on Time Scavengers to see their posts.
If you’ve been following Time Scavengers, you may have seen the paleo news posts that my students have written, which have been great! This post is a summary post about what I learned and what my students learned throughout the course of this project. I teach an upper- level class for geoscience majors at The University of South Florida called paleontology and stratigraphy. When I was designing what the course would look like, I tried to think about the skills I most wanted my students to have upon leaving. As most of my students in my classes won’t become paleontologists— they’ll go into a wide variety of science jobs— I wanted to find skills that will help them, no matter where they go. A lot of the things I want them to learn are already skills emphasized in a lot of college classes, including the ones I teach— critical thinking, evidence- based arguments, hypothesis testing, and other things. But one thing that I value a lot in science is the ability to communicate clearly with anyone, not just scientists.
The talks, seminars, and papers that I see and read and resonate with most are those that are easily accessible. It’s hard to get engaged and get excited about a topic (even something in my field!) if I have to continuously stop and think about what the person might be trying to say— I think most people would probably feel the same. I wanted my students to practice explaining scientific concepts in a way that anyone who wanted to read it would understand, so that when they wrote papers, presented research talks, talked to future clients, or even chatted with people about their science in cabs or at family gatherings, they could remember how to break down complicated concepts in an effective way without removing the main points of the science.
Students chose a recently published paper of their own interest and wrote a draft of their summary. Then, they had a chance to learn a bit more about the peer review process scientists go through (check out more on how peer review and publishing works here) by trading drafts with a partner and reviewing their work for clarity, accuracy, and grammar. I made final suggestions as the editor. Finally, the posts were published on this site! You can read all of my excellent students’ work here: USF Paleo/Strat
Students really seemed to enjoy this project, so much so that I had an idea for this spring and summer: to get students involved in a long term project to develop their scientific communication skills. Over the next few months, you’ll start seeing posts from my students who are writing a series of blogs and paper summaries as they work to develop their scientific communication skills. If you haven’t yet had a chance to meet Kailey, Lisette, Baron, or Mckenna, check out their bios now!
While schools across the nation close their halls of learning, millions of Americans are considering how they will continue their children’s education while under quarantine. Why not experience the National Parks from your own home with the Junior Rangers Program? Developed by the National Park Service, the Junior Rangers Program broadens students’ educational experience at national parks across the nation through activity workbooks, ranger presentations, and visitor centers. After completing a specified number of activities in their workbooks, participants can present their studies to a ranger, who will then award them with a Junior Ranger badge. While many national parks design their own specific program, several Junior Ranger badges may be earned from home, including the Junior Paleontologist, Junior Archaeologist, and others. Several national parks, such as Aztec National Park, also provide their workbooks online which, once completed, may be mailed to the specified office. Once you earn your Junior Ranger badge, do not forget to visit a relevant national or state park to learn more about your area of interest!
If you ever find yourself in Canada and have an interest in palaeontology (yes, we spell “paleontology” with an extra “a” up here) and the geosciences, Alberta is a treasure-trove of cool fossil sites and excellent museums. For those of you that might not be familiar with Canadian geography, Alberta is one province east of British Columbia, separated by the Rocky Mountains, and shares the Canada-U.S. border with the state of Montana. Alberta is known for its ranch lands (beef production), prairie crops, great ski hills in the Rockies, and the “oil sands” (“tar sands”) – Canada’s major oil and gas deposit which is, for better or worse, still an important part of the local economy. Oil and gas deposits are often referred to as “fossil fuels”, and as you might have guessed, Alberta also has a LOT of fossil deposits! Alberta is one of the best places in the world to find dinosaur fossils, but there are so many other amazing fossil sites too! I’m here to tell you about a few of the highlights.
But first, some background. Why does Alberta have so many fossils? Rocks in Alberta are part of what is known as the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), a massive package of sedimentary rocks nestled to the west of the Canadian Shield (part of the original continent, or craton, of North America). Throughout its geologic history, Alberta has been part of various shallow seaways next to this North American craton, and at times has been above sea-level, meaning that there is a mix of shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits. Generally, both shallow marine and low-land terrestrial deposits have the best rock records, as eroded rock material tends to get swept easily into these environments, creating the perfect conditions for fossil formation (rapid burial of organisms is key for forming fossils). For example, during the time of the dinosaurs (Mesozoic), the Rocky Mountains were forming, meaning all of the rocks on the western side of Alberta were getting pushed up, while at the same time experiencing erosion that carried all of that sedimentary material down and towards the east, where there was a shallow seaway called the Western Interior Seaway that acted as a giant catch basin for all of that material. The result? Lots and lots of awesome fossils! Here are just a few notable sites:
Alberta’s badlands have some pretty spectacular geologic formations. The term “badlands” refers to an area where there has been interesting erosion of large packages of clay-rich sedimentary rocks, usually caused by wind and water (rivers). Sedimentary rock layers can have different hardnesses, so the layers might erode at different rates, causing interesting erosional features like hoodoos. In southwestern Alberta, the Red Deer River has cut through these layers over time to form badlands.
Alberta’s badlands are best known for Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, but there are many important microfossil sites containing other small reptiles, fish, and mammals, as well as plants, and invertebrates too. Some of the more famous fossils to come out of the area include: Albertosaurus (a tyrannosaur that is smaller, and slightly older than T. rex), the first dinosaur found in Alberta (hence the name); a massive bonebed of Centrosaurus, a horned and frilled dinosaur (Ceratopsian); another ceratopsian called Chasmosaurus, including a beautifully preserved juvenile (baby) discovered a few years ago; and a lot of hadrosaurs (the duckbilled dinosaurs). Alberta is arguably one of the best places in the world to find duckbill dinosaurs!
Most people think of the badlands when they think of fossils in Alberta, but fossils can be found just about everywhere in the province. There’s even a bonebed in the capital city of Edmonton! If you travel northwest of Edmonton to the town of Wembley (near Grande Prairie), you can visit another museum called the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum (named after famous Canadian palaeontologist Phil Currie, who helped found the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and is now a professor at the University of Alberta). The most famous fossil from the area is Pachyrhinosaurus, another of the horned and frilled (ceratopsian) dinosaurs that has one of the most heavily-built skulls of any vertebrate animal. There are also other dinosaurs found around the area, as well as other reptiles.
Fort McMurray Area
On the northeastern side of the province, is the town of Fort McMurray. Fort McMurray is situated on the very edge of the oil sands, and its population is mostly tied to the oil and gas industry. The oil sands themselves are a very large deposit of Early Cretaceous sandstones, called the McMurray Formation. Most of the fossils within the McMurray Formation itself consist of trace fossils like Skolithos, burrows of small marine animals. The combination of these sandstones and trace fossils became a massive trap for the thick, tarry oil, known as bitumen. Because of the oil exploration in the area, crews occasionally unearth larger fossils, including an exceptionally well-preserved armoured dinosaur called Borealopelta. It was discovered in 2011, and was only recently prepared and described. I was lucky enough to see this specimen in person just last week, and it honestly took my breath away with its incredible preservation. It’s basically a mummy with the skin and armour still intact and truly does look like it was frozen in time.
Beneath the oilsands lies a large unconformity where a large piece of time/rock record is missing. The package of rocks underneath the McMurray Formation is called the Waterways Formation which is where the oil itself often comes from. The Waterways Formation is mid-late Devonian in age (about 390 million years), meaning that there is about 200 million years of time missing between the Waterways and McMurray Formations! At the time when the Waterways Formation was being deposited, Alberta was mostly underwater and near the equator, meaning that conditions were perfect for giant reefs to form. The Waterways is full of a diverse assemblage of marine invertebrates that lived either on or near this reef system, which was built mostly by a type of sponge called a stromatoporoid. There are also abundant brachiopod communities in the Waterways Formation, and they are great for studying things like functional morphology (the relationships between an organism’s shape and how it lived), biotic interactions with encrusting organisms, and community evolution. I did my undergraduate and M.Sc. projects on these brachiopod communities, and still love working on Waterways fossils.
Other Important Alberta Fossil Sites:
There are too many awesome fossil sites in Alberta to describe in detail, but other notable fossils and areas include:
Korite Mine near Lethbridge – The only mine in the world to produce ammolite, a gemstone made from the unique preservation of Cretaceous ammonites (a shelled cephalopod, relative of octopus and squid).
Insect and dinosaur feathers in amber – some of the most fossil (inclusion) rich amber in the world is found in southern Alberta and Canada.
Joffre Bridge – an amazing Late Palaeocene deposit of incredibly well-preserved fossil plants, including leaves, seeds, whole plants, and trees. Fossil flora include lycopsids, Ginko, Equisetum,Metasequoia, and many others.
The Burgess Shale – technically in Yoho National Park in B.C., but people passing through Banff and the Rockies into B.C. often come from the Alberta-side. The Burgess Shale is one of the most important and oldest fossil sites in the world, containing a diverse assemblage of bizarre late Cambrian fossils, including Hallucigenia, Anomalocaris, and trilobites, and many soft-bodied organisms.
A note about fossil collecting in Canada:
Don’t. The rules in Canada are much more strict than in the United States. It is illegal to collect fossils in Canada without permits, and those can only be given to professional palaeontologists that work for the government, museums, or universities. Fossils in Canada are considered “Crown Property”, meaning that they are property of Canada and the Queen (we are part of the Commonwealth), and are protected by the Heritage Resource Act. Even palaeontologists cannot claim ownership over the fossils on which they work.
Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Leighton, L.R. 2015. Breaking the mold: using biomechanical experiments to assess the life orientation of dorsibiconvex brachiopods. Paleobiology 41(1):122 – 133. DOI: 10.1017/pab.2014.8
Currie P.J., Holmes R.B., Ryan M.J., and Coy C. 2016. A juvenile chasmosaurine ceratopsid (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) from the Dinosaur Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1048348.
McKellar R.C., Engel M.S. 2013. New bethylid and chrysidid wasps (Hymenoptera: Chrysidoidea) from Canadian Late Cretaceous amber. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 88(4):433-451. DOI: 10.1007/s12542-013-0208-y
Mendonca S., Barclay K.M., Schneider C.L., Molinaro D.J., Webb A.E., Forcino F.L., Leighton L.R. 2018. Analyzing trends in tropical Devonian brachiopod communities during environmental change in the Waterways Formation of northern Alberta. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2018.06.020
Weides S., Moeck I., Babadagli T., Bauer K. , Grobe M., Heidbach O., Huenges E., Idowu O., Majorowicz J., Rostron B., Schmitt D.,2 , Unsworth M. 2011. Geothermal technology and exploration of geothermal resources in Northern and Central Alberta. AAPG/SPE/SEG HEDBERG RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Enhanced Geothermal Systems” March 14-18, 2011 — Napa, California