Life Traces of the Georgia Coast by Anthony (Tony) J. Martin is a beautiful and expansive book that recreates the history and paleontology of the Georgia Coast and its ecological communities based on analogies with the traces and behaviors of plants and animals of today. The result is a graceful integration of solid science and a fascinating assemblage of creatures, described and photographed in vivid (and occasionally gory) detail. Tony teaches us to see the amazing adaptations and life-and-death struggles evident in the trails and traces that creatures leave behind and invites us to notice how ubiquitous these signs of hidden life are all around us, even in our increasingly lawn- and parking lot–dominated world.
Life Traces of the Georgia Coast is about ichnology—the science that links traces of plant and animal activity to tracemakers and their behaviors (burrowing, nesting, boring, wallowing, excavating, and constructing, to name a few). The Georgia barrier islands are an ideal place to study ichnology because of their diversity of tracemakers, ecological communities, and fossil traces, ichnological and otherwise. This sometimes leads to an embarrassment of riches that is difficult for an ichnologist to sort out. But it also leads to important predictions and useful comparisons between current creatures and those that inhabited ancient oceans, forests, marshes, rivers, and beaches. The principle of uniformitarianism, or, as Tony puts it, the fact that "the present is the key to the past" allows us to imagine that similar habitats and physical forces may have led to similar adaptations and behaviors in modern and ancient creatures.
Tony is a gifted and imaginative writer, and chapter 2, especially, provides a rich description of the succession of communities and forces that built these shifting islands and left traces for us to interpret. The concluding chapters tie the many traces we've learned about to the serious paleontological work of recreating and making predictions about these worlds. But it is the intervening chapters that are the most irresistible to me, because it is there that Tony introduces us to the remarkable lives and habits of the creatures that make these traces. He seems to know every story about every habit and trick of every creature on the Georgia barrier islands, including humans (this may be the only book on paleontology that contains an index entry for Beals, Jennifer). And what makes this book such a great read is that Tony approaches all these tracemakers—plants, worms, insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals—with humor, empathy, enthusiasm, delight, and a quick curiosity that might be difficult to keep up with if he weren't such a good storyteller. His studies of traces are often set up as crime scenes and he pulls so many interesting facts together so easily that he might remind you a bit of Sherlock Holmes—but only if Sherlock Holmes had been warm, engaging, and funny.
I started this book by reading chapter 8 (Terrestrial Vertebrates, Part II: Birds and Mammals), thinking that some of the chapters on smaller, less familiar creatures might be hard for me to get excited about. But when I turned to chapter 6 (Marginal-Marine Invertebrates), I found that I had underestimated the infectious nature of Tony's appreciation for horseshoe-crab cliffhangers, the insidious machinations of moon snails, or the dangerous ways of beautiful-but-deadly lettered olives. I would be surprised if you were able to read about any of the creatures Tony introduces you to without your pulse racing and your hair raising at least a little bit. All of the chapters on tracemakers are equally hard to put down.
You will learn a great deal about science, geology, ichnology and natural history if you read this book. I should probably also warn you that Tony Martin is one of those charismatic teachers that might just convince you to quit your job and go off to study dung beetles or ecology or ornithology or some such thing. If you do, you'll have a fine grounding in ethology and natural science, even if this is the only book about animal behavior you will ever have read. And if you decide to remain an armchair ichnologist, I promise you this book will change the way you look at the world around your little plot in suburbia (or wherever you may be) forever and for the better.