Science Book a Day Interviews Anthony Martin

anthony-martinSpecial thanks to Anthony Martin for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by their Trace Fossils

Anthony Martin is Professor of Practice in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University, where he has taught courses in geology, paleontology, environmental science, and evolutionary biology since 1990. Dr. Martin’s research focuses on ichnology, the study of modern and fossil traces, such as tracks, trails, burrows, nests, and other signs of behavior. Among his notable achievements is his co-discovery of the only known burrowing dinosaur. – Adapted from his University Profile

Author’s Twitter:

#1 – What was the impetus for Dinosaurs without Bones?

Dinosaurs are such iconic animals recognized worldwide by virtually every culture and appealing to the imaginations of kids and adults alike. Yet as a paleontologist who teaches college students and does lots of public speaking, I kept encountering surprise from people that dinosaurs have fossil record other than their bones, which consists of their trace fossils. So the book eventually revolved around a “ What if?” scenario: What if all of the dinosaur bones in the world disappeared tomorrow? How would we know dinosaurs existed, let alone how they lived? I think my book thoroughly answers that question, and in a lively way.

#2 – What is ichnology? How long has this branch of palaeontology been around? 

Ichnology is the study of traces, which include tracks, trails, burrows, nests, toothmarks, feces, and any other signs of behavior. This science can be split into two areas, neoichnology, which is the study of modern traces, and paleoichnology, which focuses on trace fossils. I like to argue that neoichnology has probably been around for tens of thousands of years, as our ancestors needed to identify and interpret animal tracks and other traces in order to survive. In contrast, paleoichnology as a formal, Westernized science and a part of paleontology is just a little more than 200 years old.

#3 – What insights does ichnology provide us that other types of palaeontology does not?

Behavior! Some trace fossils, including those made by dinosaurs, give us extraordinary snapshots of behavior that paleontologists might never be able to figure out from bones or teeth alone. For instance, thanks to ichnology, we now know how fast some dinosaurs could run, that some dinosaurs occasionally went for a swim, how a few dinosaurs dug out nests or burrows, or that some others swallowed stones or ate rotten wood. But ichnology also tells us about the presence of animals in places where no body parts were preserved. So this relates directly to my scenario of vanishing bones: how would you know what lived in the geologic past and how it lived? If it weren’t for trace fossils, you wouldn’t.

#4 – Many reviews talk about your humour infused in the book. What is your philosophy when it comes to communicating science?

Well, those reviews are right. I made a concerted effort to fold in plenty of mirth and enthusiasm when explaining many of the scientific concepts in the book. This is my main philosophy as a science educator, then, which is to share this excitement about learning, questing, and discovering new ideas and ways of thinking in science, and having lots of fun while doing it. It makes going “back to school” so much more alluring when you know the learning will have lots of playtime mixed in, too.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

After a year off from book writing, I am about ready to start writing a proposal for my next book. Sadly, I can’t reveal its main theme right now, but let’s just say it’s a topic for which I have some expertise, and I would have a blast writing about it. Otherwise, I’ll be writing plenty of research articles on a huge variety of ichnological topics this year. For example, I just finished one on fossil crustacean burrows at a 100-million-year-old dinosaur tracksite in Texas, and have started another on a trace fossil made by a fish more than 300 million years ago. Next will be a paper about alligator dens on a Georgia barrier island, then another on insect cocoons at a 75-million-year old dinosaur nesting site in Montana. Alas, so many traces, so little time!

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