Chatting Ichnology with Dr. Tony Martin

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:

We have published the full interview on YouTube and we have a transcript with additional links to get more information on specific content discussed.

Watch our full chat on YouTube:

Listen to it via PodBean:

Transcript of the Interview

See below or click here for a Google Doc of the transcript!

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: Perfect!

Tony: Good!

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,, 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. 

Adriane: Awesome. 

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. 

Jen: Okay. 

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!

Jen: Yeah!

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.   

Tony: Yes. 

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?!   

[All laughing]  

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!   

[All laughing]

Tony: And by Alycia you mean Dr….

Jen: Stigall

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. 

Jen: Cool!       

Tony: Yeah! So that’s neat. Thanks for mentioning echinoderms, which are among the coolest animals ever, right?

Jen: I had to!

[All laughing]

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!

[All laughing]

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.


Dr. James C. Lamsdell, Paleobiologist and Podcaster

Frozen waterfalls in Ithaca, NY while visiting the Paleontological Research Institute for Darwin Day in 2019.

I first became interested in science without ever realising that it was science the interested me. My parents used to show my brother and I nature documentaries on TV, and I found the natural world fascinating. I wanted to find out more about it and began reading everything I could. I thought dinosaurs were fantastic from an early age (I still have a full collection of the Dinosaur! Magazine series in my parents’ loft, including all the trading cards) and this developed into a broader interest in palaeontology through membership to Rockwatch. The thing I love most about being a scientist is the detective work. The act of discovery – finding things out that noone has seen or realised before, gathering evidence and coming to your conclusions, constructing a story to tell others about what you’ve found – is very exciting.

Holding a horseshoe crab while visiting Delaware in 2017.

My research is varied, ranging from the description of species of ancient sea scorpions and horseshoe crabs to studying patterns of extinction across different habitats during biotic crises. At its core, my work seeks to understand what drives the evolution of new animal forms and how animals evolve to successfully invade new environments, such as moving into freshwater from the oceans or when arthropods first moved on to land. This work explores the fundamental mechanisms by which evolution operates and can tell us how past species have adapted to environmental changes. Understanding how organisms have adapted to new environments in the past can help us interpret how organisms today are likely to respond to our current climate change.

Doing fieldwork in the Devonian if West Virginia in 2018.

Most of my work focuses on fossil arthropods, particularly eurypterids (sea scorpions) and xiphosurids (horseshoe crabs), aquatic relatives of arachnids (spiders, ticks, scorpions, etc.). My data comes directly from the fossils, and so I have built almost all my datasets completely from scratch. I gather most of it from museum collections – there are so many fossils that have never been described, and many eurypterid species have not been looked at since their original description over a hundred years ago. Museum collections are an invaluable scientific resource and critical to the continued success of all natural sciences. I also communicate science regularly with two of my colleagues, Amanda Falk and Curtis Congreve, on our podcast Palaeo After Dark. The podcast is more of an informal reading group discussion, and stemmed from our desire to keep talking to each other regularly about science as we moved off to do different jobs in different parts of the country. We only have a couple of goals; show that scientists are people with interests beyond science, and to not talk about our own research. We tend to be a bit too technical for general audiences, but I know people that have our discussions on while they are stuck working alone in the lab for company, and it’s nice to know that we can provide that sort of support for people.

For anyone who wants to be a scientist (and believe me, anyone can be a scientist), my main advice is to stay curious. If you can, read about things that interest you. The more you read, the more you will find that interests you.

Follow Dr. Lamsdell’s updates on his website by clicking here or on Twitter @FossilDetective.

Jen Gallagher, Geneticist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?

Me at my happy place. On the afternoon before a long weekend, I finally have time to come into the lab and dissect yeast.

My favorite part about being a scientist is going into the lab, doing an experiment, and discovering something that nobody else knows. My uncle was in grad school when I was a kid. He studied fracture mechanics in metals, or crackology, as I like to call it. I visited his lab and he showed me his million-dollar microscope. He was getting a Ph.D. so I decided I would, too. I wasn’t interested in engineering. I liked watching nature shows on PBS and biology in school. In high school, I learned about DNA replication. DNA has directionality and can only be replicated in one direction but there are two strands held together in the opposite direction. When you separate the DNA there isn’t enough space to copy the other strand. The cell solves this problem by making short sections of DNA of the strand that is facing the opposite direction and then gluing them together. These are called Okazaki fragments and I thought that was cool. Also, in that class, my teacher showed us statistics on how many people get undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. degrees and all the different careers you could do with those degrees. So at 16, I decided to get a Ph.D. and do research in biochemistry. I searched for schools that had strong undergraduate research in a real biochemistry program. I didn’t want chemistry and biology class, but a dedicated program. Once I did start a biochemistry project, I decided that wasn’t for me. Biochemistry involves reducing reactions to their bare minimums, but life isn’t like that. So, I traded the cold room and purified proteins for genetics. I like asking the questions and having the cells tell me the answers.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?

I investigate why genetically diverse individuals respond differently to the same stress, usually a chemical. Every chemical is a poison in the right dose but also can be a medicine. Water is essential for life is also toxic in high doses. Drowning is a leading cause of premature death. The stress response is a complex reaction. The first thing that happens is that cell growth is arrested. It’s like if your house is on fire. Once you see the fire, you don’t finish washing the dishes and then find the fire extinguisher. There are common responses to stress and then there are specific ones. To find out how the cell’s response to a specific stress, we exploit genetic variation within a species. I compare cells that can successfully deal with the stress to ones that can’t and determine what are the underlying differences that govern that. Depending on the stress we sequence genomes, measure the changes in gene expression or proteins. We work on yeast because in general people don’t appreciate being poisoned and don’t reproduce as fast as in the lab. Yeast have a generation every 90 minutes. Yeast are fungi and are more related to us than to bacteria. They have important applications in baking, brewing, and biotechnology. Yeast share many biochemical pathways with us and so by studying them, we can then extrapolate that to humans. In my lab we are working on glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, MCHM, a coal-cleaning chemical, and copper nanoparticles, a novel antimicrobial material.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?

I am an experimental geneticist. We have tens of thousands of different yeast strains in the lab. Most of these yeast come from other labs. The yeast community is generous, and these are all freely shared. To understand how RoundUp resistance occurs in nature, we also collect yeast from different environments. We have several sites with different RoundUp exposures. We started with a reclaimed strip coal mine, a state park, and the university organic farm. We have taken the public and students from local public schools to collect samples from these areas. We bring the samples to the lab and teach them how to coax the yeast out and then purify their DNA so we can sequence them. We thought that the mine would have the highest frequency of RoundUp resistant yeast because they spray that area every year with RoundUp. The park has been a state park since the 1930s and RoundUp was invented in the 1970s. RoundUp is a synthetic herbicide and not included in the list of herbicides and pesticides permitted on organic foods. We were completely shocked when we found that the organic farm had the highest number of RoundUp yeast and the mine had the fewest. There could be several explanations. One is that the yeast weren’t specifically resistant to RoundUp but whatever genetic changes that had been selected to gave it a selective advantage in that environment also conferred resistance. When we further investigated the histories of these sites we came up with another idea. The organic farm wasn’t always an organic farm. Two decades ago it was a conventional farm and from that previous exposure, the yeast became resistant and never lost it. The state park routinely uses RoundUp to combat invasive plants. There is also a power line that spans the canyon and they use helicopters to spray RoundUp so that trees don’t grow into the power line. The mine is used as a study site to find genes that are important for trees to grow on poor soil so that biofuels can be made. They started that study the year before I started collecting yeast so only a year of exposure was not enough to select for resistance. So now we have an even better study. We can go back every year to the mine and collect yeast. We can track RoundUp resistance as it happens.

How does your research contribute to the betterment of society in general?

We are exposed to and consume chemicals every day. Differences in how we respond to those chemicals in part depend on small differences in our genome. We use these genetic differences to find out how cells are metabolizing chemicals successfully and survive or unsuccessfully and die. When the human genome was sequenced, we thought that all its secrets would be unlocked. While tremendous advances in biomedical research could only have been done with this information, there is so much that we don’t know how to read. It’s like finally getting the keys to the entire library but all the books are written in a language that you taught yourself and they’re words that you don’t know how to translate. Based on a sequenced genome, we are not yet able to predict a person’s medical conditions or how a person will respond to drugs. The chemicals that we study are important agricultural and industrial chemicals. With the overuse of herbicides, we are now facing RoundUp resistant weeds. We don’t know how to combat this because we only partially understand how weeds become resistant. The active ingredient in RoundUp inhibits a biochemical pathway that plants, bacteria, and yeast have but humans do not. Therefore, it has been challenging to study possible effects of RoundUp exposure in humans. All known acute poisonings have been from the inactive ingredients and not the glyphosate. However, chronic exposure is time-consuming and complicated to study. We are using yeast to determine if there are other biochemical targets of RoundUp in yeast that humans may have. These studies can’t be done in plants because RoundUp exposure is lethal and prevents the synthesis of nutrients but yeast can be supplemented with the nutrients that RoundUp suppresses. Other chemicals like MCHM have limited toxicological information. Several years ago, a massive chemical spill contaminated the water supply in West Virginia. It caused headaches, nausea, and rashes and nobody knew why. MCHM changes how proteins fold and doesn’t have a specific target like RoundUp. By using this chemical we are studying how changes in protein folding regulate metal and amino acid levels in the cells. Fungal infections are difficult to treat because they are immune to antibiotics. Antibiotics work because they exploit fundamental differences in the metabolism of bacteria from humans. Yeast are more closely related to humans so there are fewer druggable targets. Copper is an effective antifungal material, but it is expensive, and metal has several drawbacks. By incorporating copper into cellulose-based nanoparticles, cheap, moldable, and biodegradable materials can reduce food spoilage and infections from medical devices.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

Be prepared to fail. Failure is an opportunity to learn. In the example of the RoundUp resistance, the results were the opposite of what we thought. We can’t change the results, but we did further investigation and found an even more interesting story. I think of this as lost keys. My keys are always in the last place that I look. Why? Because I stop looking when I find them. If you think you know the answer, you stop searching. There is so much to discover and so many connections of which we are not aware. By challenging how you think about something you can overcome your assumptions and chip away at the unknown.

Head to Jen’s faculty page to learn more about her and her research by clicking here.

Dr. Laurie Brown, Geophysicist and Paleomagnetist

Dr. Laurie Brown getting ready to drill a 2.5 million year old lava flow in southern Patagonia, Argentina.

How did you become interested in science?

I always enjoyed the outdoors, growing up outside a small town in upstate New York.  Camping trips with my family took me to many national parks and the wonders of the Western US.  In 8th grade I had a great Earth Science course, which I loved, but I somehow did not connect it as a career path.  I went off the Middlebury College in Vermont to enjoy the mountains and skiing, but majored in Math because it was easy for me.  By Senior year I decided to take a Geology course as an elective (because I liked mountains) and by the second week I was hooked!  It was initially the idea of working outdoors in wild and scenic places that attracted me, but I soon learned there were wonderful scientific problems aplenty.  It was 1968 (yes, I am of that generation!) and the concept of Plate Tectonics was just emerging.  Luckily, I had a wonderful professor teaching the year sequence of Physical and Historical Geology and he brought into class the latest scientific discoveries and made the course exciting and provocative.  He also encouraged me to go to Grad School with my one year of Geology, but lots of Math, Physics, and Chemistry, and the rest is history!

What do you do?

I have been a University professor for 45 years, the last 5 as Emeritus.  Being a professor at a major research university means you do many things, all at the same time!  I taught courses in Geophysics at the undergrad and grad level, as well as other courses needed by my department including Oceanography, Field Methods, Field Mapping, Physical Geology, and Tectonophysics.  I mentored students at all levels, both those in my classes and those working in my lab.  I ran a research program including Masters and PhD students where we worked together both in the field and in my paleomagnetism laboratory.  And, as is common in academia, I did a considerable amount of service for my department, my university, and my profession.

Paleomagnetic cores from Patagonia, cut and labeled, and ready to be measured!

What is your research?

I study the Earth’s magnetic field as it is recorded in earth materials- the field of paleomagnetism.  When rocks form – igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic –they are able to retain a record of the current magnetic field within magnetic minerals (magnetite and hematite primarily) in the rock.  Samples can be collected from these rocks millions of years later and the original field measured for both direction and magnitude.

Field aspects of my research involve collecting oriented samples from in situ outcrops and locations.  Currently I work mostly with hard rocks, both young volcanic flows and ancient metamorphic rocks.  I drill samples from these units using an adapted chain saw with a 1 inch diamond bit, water-cooled to preserve the diamonds.  Usually 8-10 cores are drilled at each site (lava flow or outcrop) and all are oriented in place with a sun compass.  This produces many samples; my current project in southern Patagonia involves 120 separate lava flows, and over 1000 cores!  Paleomagnetic studies also can be done on sedimentary rocks, also drilled in the field, and on lake and ocean cores, where samples are collected from the sediment once the cores are split open.

Measuring basalt cores on the cryongenic magnetometer in the Paleomagnetic Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Laboratory measurements are performed on a cryogenic magnetometer in my Paleomagnetism Laboratory here at UMass.  It only takes a few minutes to measure the magnetization in a single sample, but a number of tests for stability and reproducibility are required before the data can be interpreted.  Samples are demagnetized in a step-wise fashion using either high temperatures (up to 700°C) or alternating magnetic fields.  We often measure other magnetic properties of the samples, including magnetic susceptibility (measured both in the field and on lab samples) and hysteresis properties.  Microscopic work or SEM studies help us to identify the carriers of the magnetization.

Current Projects.  I am working at both ends of Earth history as current projects include a major study of paleomagnetic directions from young (< 10 myrs) lava flows from southern South America.  These rocks are being used to investigate how the Earth ’s magnetic field varies in the Southern Hemisphere over the last 10 million years.  Other projects are looking at very old rocks in northern Canada where I study the variations in magnetization in a piece of ancient lower crust, now exposed at the surface, and studies of 900 million year old intrusive rocks in southern Norway that are helping us reconstruct the Earth at a time when all the continents were together in a supercontinent called Rodinia.

Magnetic susceptibility meter on a 1.8 billion year old dike intruding 2.2 billion year old metamorphic rocks, Athabasca Granulite Terrane, northern Canada.

How does your research contribute to climate change and evolution?

Paleomagnetism is able to contribute to studies of climate change, evolution, and the history of the Earth by providing additional methods to both correlate sequences and unconnected outcrops, and by providing additional information on geologic age.  The geomagnetic time scale of normal and reversed polarities is well established, and using this magnetostratigraphy enables us to date sedimentary sequences, and to identify similar sequences in other locations.  Measuring the paleomagnetism of deep-sea cores is so well established that the large drilling ships have on-board magnetic laboratories.  Although I am not doing this kind of magnetic work at present, many other labs are, providing important constraints on the timing and correlation of climatic proxies and many parts of the fossil record.

What is your advice for aspiring scientists?

Persevere!  Find that special part of geoscience that intrigues you and work hard to be the best you can at it.  Take all the various opportunities that are available to you, and see where you go!  There will be ups and downs, but as a career the Geosciences provide many positive and productive possibilities.  With over 50 years of activity in the Geosciences, I can easily say I have never lost my joy of working with and on the Earth and the many interesting problems and challenges it provides.  You, alone, may not solve all the problems facing our planet, but you will greatly contribute to our knowledge of the Earth – its evolution, its history, and its constantly changing environment.  And, along the way, you will interact with a number of other awesome scientists, get to see much of the world, and provide a rewarding and enjoyable career for yourself.

Dr. Benjamin Gill, Geochemist

Fieldwork in the Clan Alpine Range of Nevada. This work was part of an NSF funded study on the changes in paleoceanography in response to climate change during the Early Jurassic.

What is your favorite aspect about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?

What I love most about being a scientist is being able to follow my curiosity. It’s a privilege to be able work on things that I’m genuinely excited about. I’ve always been interested in the world around me. This probably was first sparked by outdoor trips (camping, hiking, etc.) that my dad took me on when on I was a kid. Specifically, I got interested in geology because my childhood best friend’s dad is a geologist. He took us on trips to collect rocks and minerals; I liked it and my friend was let’s say less enthusiastic about it.

Field work on the Middle Cambrian Wheeler Formation in the Drum Mountains of Utah. This study was to examine the environmental conditions that led to the preservation of an exceptional fossils deposits in this formation.

As a scientist, what do you do?

I study the history of environmental change on our planet in order to determine what was behind this change and its consequences. I mainly do this by looking at the chemistry of the sediments and rocks that were deposited/formed during these time intervals. The chemistry of these materials allows us to reconstruct chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere in the long-distance past.

What data do you use in your research? 

Much of my research involves working with geochemical data obtained from sediments, fossils and sedimentary rocks. Specifically, in our laboratory at Virginia Tech, we have instruments that can measure the amount and the isotopes of (atoms with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons) carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. However, my students and I don’t just stick to the laboratory — we frequently go into the field to collect samples. In fact, this summer we will be out in Nevada and Alaska collecting samples and data in the field.

Field team for 2018 for our study of the end-Triassic mass extinctions in Alaska. Front row, left to right: Jeremy Owens (Florida State University), Theodore Them (College of Charleston, former PhD student from our lab group), João Trabucho-Alexandre (Utrecht University). Back Row left to right: Me, Martyn Golding (Geological Survey of Canada), Andrew Caruthers (Western Michigan University), Yorick Veenma (Utrecht University), and Selva Marroquín (Virginia Tech, PhD candidate in our research group).

It is also important to point out that much of the work I do involves collaborating with colleagues with a variety of specialties: paleontologists, sedimentologists and mineralogists to name a few. Combining all these different types of data allows us to make more integrated and robust scientific interpretations.

Drilling core from Chattanooga Shale in Tennessee for a study on the Late Devonian mass extinctions. In the foreground is Matt Leroy, PhD candidate in our research group. We were collecting these rocks as part of one of a of his research projects.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?


Studying past events informs us about how our planet responds to past changes in the climate and environment. In other words, understanding these past events helps us understand how the Earth may change in the future. Many of the events my lab group studies involve times of rapid or serve climatic and environmental change and mass extinction events.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and be wrong. One of my mentors in graduate school says that 99 percent, if not all, of your scientific interpretations are going to be wrong. This isn’t an excuse to be ignorant, but all you can do is to come up with the best explanation with what you have.

Hiking to a field site in Alberta with graduate students from my lab group. This work was part of an NSF funded study on the changes in paleoceanography in response to climate change during the Early Jurassic. Left to right: Theodore Them, Angela Gerhardt and me.

Dr. Page Quinton, Paleoclimatologist

Dr. Page Quinton (left) and student Samantha McComb (right), completing field work on the Madison Group Carbonates in Montana.

What do you love about being a scientist?

My favorite part of being a scientist is the systematic approach we employ to answer questions. Yeah, we can use a variety of techniques to get at our answers, but the process of collecting and interpreting the data must follow the same basic rules! I’d also add, that I am particularly fond of being a geoscientist because of the combination of lab and field work (the best of both worlds)!

What do you do?

I could be classified as a Paleontologist, Geochemist, and/or Paleoclimatologist. Which I choose to call myself depends on who I am talking to (obviously, I go for Paleontologist when talking to young kids for the instant cool-points)! The reason for the multitude of possible names is that I apply a variety of techniques to answer questions about the climate. In particular, my research focuses on the timing and nature of climatic changes in Earth’s history and their relationship to how carbon is stored and distributed on the Earth (e.g. in the atmosphere as CO2 or stored in rocks as fossil fuels).

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?

I use fossils and their geochemical signals to understand the climate in the geologic past. The fossils I work with most are conodont elements (small tooth-like structures that make up the feeding apparatus of a marine eel-like organism). These fossils are composed of the mineral apatite which acts as a good record for the geochemistry of the water in which the conodont animal lived. From these tooth-like structures, I measure the oxygen isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 18O relative to 16O). The oxygen isotopic ratio is dependent (in part) on the temperature of the water. By documenting changes in the oxygen isotopic ratio through time, I can infer changes in water temperature through time.

I also work with carbon isotopic ratios (the relative abundance of 13C to 12C) in marine limestones. These values can be used to reconstruct the distribution of carbon on the Earth’s surface. By looking at changes in the carbon isotopic value through time, I can infer changes in the global carbon cycle and therefore atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

Late Ordovician (~450 million years ago) conodont elements from northern Kentucky.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change or to the betterment of society in general?

In addition to my scientific research I also teach undergraduate students at SUNY Potsdam. I always make sure my research informs how and what I teach. This is especially true for the Climate Change course I teach. That course focuses on how scientists know what they know and what types of evidence informs our understanding about climate. My hope for students completing that course is that they will come out of it with the knowledge and background to understand climate change.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Make sure you do what you love. Your job should be fun. That doesn’t mean every aspect of it will be a blast, many of the things I do can be tedious, but there is something very satisfying about setting out to solve a problem, collecting the data, and interpreting the data. For students interested in pursuing graduate education, the most important advice I can give is to make sure you can work with your advisor. I had a great advisor and it made graduate school a great experience.

Learn more about Page and her research on her website!


Sandy Kawano, Comparative Physiologist and Biomechanist

Who am I?

I am a nerd who turned a lifetime fascination in nature documentaries and monster movies into a career as an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, where I get to study the amazing ways that animals move through different environments and then share these discoveries to students through my role as a teacher-scholar.

How did I become a scientist?

To explain how vertebrate animals became terrestrial, I have to study the evolutionary changes that spanned the transition from fishes to tetrapods which is recorded through the anatomical changes that are left behind in fossils, such as these specimens from the Field Museum.

My career started off a bit rocky when I was rejected from the four-year university programs I applied to in high school. I wanted to become a wildlife biologist to maintain biodiversity and this roadblock made me question whether I was good enough to pursue what I loved. The thought of being a university professor hadn’t crossed my mind yet but I knew that I needed a college degree, so I attended community college where my chemistry professor explained how research helps solve mysteries. I loved puzzles, so I thought “why not?”. I transferred to the University of California, Davis, and was lucky to work with excellent professors who helped me conduct research and inspired me to study how the environment affects animal movements. I did temporarily work as a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service during this time, but research made me realize that I could study the maintenance of biodiversity through the lens of evolution and ecology. With my mentors’ support, I completed a Ph.D. at Clemson University and earned post-doctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Royal Veterinary College. In 2017, I started a tenure-track position at California State University, Long Beach.

What do I study?

One of the aims of my research is to compare how fins and limbs allow animals to move on land and two key players in this story are the African mudskipper (Periophthalmus barbarus; left) and tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), respectively.

My research combines biology, engineering, and mathematics to reconstruct animal movement by piecing together how muscles and bones produce motion. I deconstruct how living animals move so I can build computer models that reverse-engineer the ancient movements of extinct animals. One of my goals is to figure out how vertebrates (animals with backbones) went from living in water for hundreds of millions of years as fishes to moving onto land as tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates). I enjoy studying animals that challenge the norm, such as ‘walking’ fishes, because they open our eyes to the amazing diversity on Earth and help us learn from those who are different from us. Here’s to nature’s misfits!

What would I have told younger me?

I would encourage anyone interested in science to explore diverse experiences and treat every challenge as an opportunity to learn something, whether it be about yourself or the world around you. We often treat obstacles in our lives as affirmation that we are not good enough, but it is not the obstacles that define us but the way in which we respond to those obstacles. These struggles can push us to grow stronger or approach questions with new and creative perspectives. There are many equally important ways to be a scientist and there is no single pathway to becoming a scientist, so enjoy your adventure!

Follow Sandy’s lab updates on her website and Twitter account!

Prof. Richard Damian Nance, Structural Geologist

Type locality of the 460-440 million-year-old megacrystic Esperanza granitoids, Acatlán Complex, southern Mexico.

I am a field-based structural geologist and I have been in love with geology for as long as I can remember. If you like a good “whodunit” then geology is an endless delight. All science is about inquiry and analysis, but geology is more than this – it involves the imagination. Like a good detective novel, geology provides incomplete evidence that must be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing to come up with a story or, in my case, a picture of the past.

My interests lie in plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle, and the influence of these global processes on crustal evolution, mantle circulation, climate, sea level and the biosphere. To tackle such a wide field requires a broad geological background. I am interested in any evidence in the rock record pertaining to the Earth’s changing geography with time. So I collect data on structural kinematics, magmatic environments, depositional settings and provenance, and metamorphic history. I also date rocks and analyze their chemistry and isotopic signatures. I even collect fossils! In this way I try to interpret the geologic history of broad regions so that I can reconstruct past continental configurations and thereby evaluate the causes and effects of Earth’s moving continents and the long-term geologic, climatic and biological consequences of their episodic assembly into supercontinents.

Paleogeographic map of the Rheic Ocean, which separated the southern continents (Gondwana) from the northern continents (Laurentia and Baltica) for much of the Paleozoic Era. The map attempts to reposition the continents in Early Silurian time, about 440 million years ago.

This “big picture” approach to geology suits me well because there is really no aspect of the science that doesn’t fascinate me. For me, geology has not just provided a fantastic career, it has been a lifelong passion. When I joined the Humphrey Davy grammar school in the UK at the age of 12, I came under the spell of a truly exceptional teacher by the name of Bob Quixley. Mr. Quixley taught geography, but his real delight was geology and his enthusiasm for the subject, and the blackboard artwork he crafted to convey it, were addictive. For a period of five years, he had us captivated and, in testament to his influence, no fewer than five of my classmates and I went on to university and careers in geology.

It was a decision I have never questioned. Geology embraces everything that makes a career rewarding. It is important, it matters to both science and society, it is varied and interesting, it takes place in the field and the classroom as well as the office, it pays well and, most of all, it is a lot of fun!

A dangerous game. Checking my undergraduate field mapping 35 years later on a UN-sponsored international field trip to Cornwall and the Lizard ophiolite (a piece of ocean floor linked to the Rheic Ocean) in SW England.

What, you might ask, have supercontinents to do with anything that society cares about? Well, what we don’t grow, we mine, and plate tectonics and the supercontinent cycle play a vital role in the search for mineral deposits and energy resources. They also help us understand the natural environment, the distribution of our water resources and the origin of geologic hazards. They additionally influence Earth’s climate and so help us to determine what happens when climate changes, and whether the climate change we are witnessing today is of human origin or a natural phenomena. And this just touches the surface.

So if you are studying geology or think about doing so, I strongly encourage you to continue. I have never met a geologist who didn’t love what they were doing, and to be paid to do what you love is worth a fortune!

Drew Steen, Geomicrobiologist and Ocean Scientist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My job is to do interesting things. If I’m working on boring things, I’m not doing my job right! Plus, I really enjoy the teaching and mentoring ends – working with younger scientists (from middle school students up through Ph.D. students) is really a joy for me.

What do you do?
I figure out how stuff rots in the ocean. Microorganisms are naturally present everywhere on Earth, and most of them eat food and “breathe out” carbon dioxide, just like us. I try to figure out what kinds of food microorganisms in the ocean (and in lakes and streams) like to eat, and how they digest it.

How does your science contribute to the understanding of climate change or to the betterment of society in general?
Microorganisms have to “breathe in” some chemical to help them turn their food into energy. Some microorganisms breathe in oxygen like we do, while others breathe in some pretty weird chemicals like iron or even uranium. The balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals on Earth’s surface has a big effect on what life on Earth is like. We’re currently worried about too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for instance – but if there were zero carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Earth’s oceans would freeze solid! Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, so the activities of ocean microorganisms have a big effect on Earth’s environment as a whole.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data?
I like to combine data about the chemical composition of organic matter in the ocean (i.e., leftover phytoplankton and plant matter, aka the stuff that is rotting) with measurements of the activities of the microorganisms that cause the rotting. There have been tremendous advances in DNA sequencing technologies in the past few years, so even though my background is in chemistry I am beginning  to understand what kinds of reactions microorganisms are capable of carrying out.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Ask questions, and then read to learn the answers! For younger scientists, there is a journal called “Frontiers for Young Minds”. Just like any other respectable journal, the articles here are written by scientists and then peer-reviewed by other scientists. For more advanced folks, there are quite a few high-quality open-access (i.e., free) journals. Good ones include PLoS One, PeerJ, the Frontiers family of journals, Science Advances, and Nature Communications. These are the real deal – scientists writing for other scientists. You can use Google Scholar to find papers. Find a subject you’re interested in, and read everything you can about it! You won’t understand everything right away, but that’s OK – I find stuff in papers that I don’t understand all the time. The only way around that is to keep reading. This is learning science the hard way, but if you can spend some time reading and thinking about other people’s papers, you’re well on your way to becoming an expert.

Follow Drew’s updates on his website and/or Twitter!

Brad Deline, Paleontologist

How did you get interested in science in general?

I am one of the rare people (not so rare in paleontology) that has always known what I wanted to do in life. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. When I got a bit older this expanded to paleontology in general as I was spending my summers in Northern Michigan collecting fossil corals (Petoskey Stones) along the shore of Lake Michigan and reading every book I could about fossils.

When I got to high school, I started to think about paleontology as a career and called the nearest Natural History Museum (University of Michigan) asking to talk to someone. I ended up speaking with Tom Baumiller who was very generous with his time and chatted with me on the phone, invited me to the museum, and got me working as a volunteer with the museum collections. I came to the University a year later and Tom had research projects waiting. I ended up conducting research for four years at the museum working with Tom on predation in the fossil record and Dan Fisher on stable isotopes in mastodons. This provided insight into the process of science as well as strong mentorship. I spent countless hours in Tom’s lab along with his graduate students (Forest Gahn, Asa Kaplan, and Mark Nabong), which helped to formulate my own interests and provided casual advice regarding graduate school and academia.

What, exactly, do you do?

The aspect of paleontology that really piques my interest is thinking about the weirdness of fossil organisms. Seeing the remains of animals in the past that look nothing like animals today, inspires wonder of these ancient environments and also provides a clear mystery to be solved. This is what originally interested me in dinosaurs, but as I delved deeper into paleontology it was clear that things got stranger when I looked further into the past.

Visualization of the distribution of echinoderm body forms based on their characteristics. Modified from Deline 2015 with images from Sumrall and Deline 2009 and Sumrall et al. 1997.

As far as weird goes, nothing beats echinoderms (relatives of sea urchins and sea stars). As you may know from previous Time Scavenger posts by the stellar young scientists that contribute to this blog (Maggie, Jen, and Sarah), early echinoderms are extraordinarily diverse and have many perplexing features. To explore this, I examine the diversity of features and forms (disparity). This method allows the visualization of evolutionary dynamics from the perspective of how different rather than how many. For my dissertation, I examined crinoid disparity during the Early Paleozoic focusing on a few key questions. What controls the diversity of features in a community of animals? What is the role of weird things in disparity patterns through time? And, are rare animals objectively weird? I compiled a large database of crinoid characteristics largely by studying museum collections and was able to address these questions. It turned out that rare animals weren’t all that objectively weird compared to common things. However, weird animals (outliers based on their characteristics) played a large role in understanding the evolution in form through time, especially during shifts in environmental conditions.

I have since expanded my research to examine trends in disparity in all echinoderms. This is a gargantuan project in that it requires some working knowledge of the many different groups of echinoderms. It has been one of the most rewarding tasks scientifically as it has given me the chance to sit down with many different echinodermologists and discuss the group they know best. From these discussions, I have compiled a huge character list that I along with my research students have used to examine trends in body plan evolution within echinoderms. This is still ongoing research, but I can start asking questions regarding the nature of the Cambrian Explosion and the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. We can explore patterns of disparity at the level of a phylum and how that parses out to the different groups within it. And, we can start to examine how different forms evolved and what limits the range of feature seen in echinoderms.

How does your job contribute to the understanding of evolution or climate change?

I work at the University of West Georgia, which is a regional comprehensive University. This means that a large portion of my time is devoted toward teaching our diverse student body. I teach a steady mix upper level geology courses and non-major introductory classes. I spend significant amounts of time in my upper level courses discussing evolutionary processes and the nature of science. I feel paleontology is a perfect place to discuss biases, uncertainty, and how scientists actually try to understand the world around them.

This is even more important in my introductory classes. I have a very casual lecture style that fosters student confidence to ask questions. I focus on discussing geologic time, evolution, and climate change. In addition, we talk about why these issues are important and explore the political implications. Politics are a tricky area in the current climate, but if I can get students to include a candidate’s scientific literacy into their decision making process when they are voting, I have done my job.

What methods do you use to engage your students?

Discussing the Mississippian rocks surrounding Lake Cumberland, Kentucky.

I find in my classes getting students out of the classroom and into the field is the most effective way to communicate. Students can make direct observations and see that the real world is much more complicated than what they see in the classroom. Field experiences foster bonds between the student and instructors that makes students more comfortable asking questions. In addition, field work creates more cohesive student groups that then are more likely to work together and elevate the entire class while they are back on campus.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?

I think my advice varies depending on who I am addressing so I will list a few things:

Amateur Paleontologists

Take advantage of local fossil groups, they are a wealth of knowledge and experience! If you discover something that you don’t recognize when you are collecting fossil, they can help. Also, feel free to contact professional paleontologists regarding your questions. I have research projects collaborating with or using specimens collected by avocational paleontologists. Also, remember that professional paleontologists have tons of responsibilities such that it may take a while to reply, we can’t go out into the field as often as we would like, and publications based on your material may take a fair amount of time.

Aspiring Paleontologists

Learn as much as possible: read books and articles, go to meetings of local fossil groups (if there are any nearby), and visit museums. Contact professionals with your questions, but be respectful of their time (if you email during exam week that email might get lost!). Most paleontologists would be thrilled to meet an enthusiastic aspiring paleontologist, especially because we were also in that position.

Graduate Students

Publish your work, publish side projects, establish collaborations and publish them. Obviously, make sure the publications are high-quality science, but put yourself in the best position possible. Also, try to squash down the feelings of competition. I know students are all competing for the same grants and ultimately the same jobs. However, if you collaborate or help other students in your department or subfield, that elevates everyone. If one of your friends gets a grant, awesome. They will do more research and make your department/subfield look better. If they get a job that means you will have someone to collaborate with when you get a job! Being supportive and collaborative will make graduate school better. These friendships can also lead to exciting opportunities for you in the future. For instance, I am currently planning a joint trip with one of my graduate school buddies (Kate Bulinski) and recently received a box of Cambrian echinoderm plates form another (Jay Zambito).

Students on the Job Market

Apply to everything. I was aiming for a research position, but ended up at a teaching-focused school. I didn’t think it would make me happy, but I love it here. Don’t limit your options when you may not know what you really want. Also, take time to do the things that clear your head- meditate, jog, hike, etc. Make sure your application is the best possible and then the rest is out of your hands. Likely some of the things that a search committee is looking for are outside of your control so you might as well go for a walk with your dog.

Young Professionals

The first few years on the job are really exhausting, but a few things will make it easier. Maintain your contacts and collaborations. Pick projects that won’t be quite as time intensive. Establish mentors in your department and in your field that can give advice when you need it (thanks Bill Ausich and Tim Chowns). Avoid getting bogged down in things that are not considered in your job performance (mentors will help here). Finally, keep doing the things that clear your head. If you are busy these are often the first things that get left behind, but they are important so keep doing them.

Deline, B. 2015. Quantifying morphological diversity in early Paleozoic echinoderms. In Zamora, S. and Rábano, I. (eds.), Progress in Echinoderm Palaeobiology, Cuademos del Museo Geominero, 19. Instituto Geológico y Minero de España, Madrid, p. 45-48.

Sumrall, C.D. and Deline, B. 2009. A new species of the dual-mouthed paracrinoid Bistomiacystis and a redescription of the edrioasteroid Edrioaster priscus from the Upper Ordovician Curdsville Member of the Lexington Limestone. Journal of Paleontology, v. 83, no. 1, p. 135-139, doi: 10.1666/08-075R.1

Sumrall, C.D., Sprinkle, J. and Guensburg, T.E. 1997. Systematics and paleoecology of late Cambrian echinoderms from the western United States. v. 71, no. 6, p. 1091-1109.