Emory geologist and dinosaur hunter mines the humor in earth science

Dad jokes, pop culture references make Tony Martin’s books accessible to the layman.

Credit: University of Chicago Press / Ruth Schowalter

Credit: University of Chicago Press / Ruth Schowalter

One fine day in 2006, Anthony “Tony” Martin received a nondescript piece of mail that might have puzzled anyone else: a photo of a hole in the ground.

“I did a Snoopy dance!” he says, and he hopped on a plane to its source in Montana, which is fertile ground for dinosaur hunters. With a couple of other paleontologists, Martin, pick in hand, reverently examined the field site. “It took us two days to break up the rock and get to the entombed bones,” he recalls.

What he found made history as the first known dinosaur burrow. It held the remains of a previously undiscovered “rhea-like” bipedal creature, six feet in length including its tail, with a beak full of plant-eating teeth, preserved with two offspring. It lived about 95 million years ago. Martin co-named it Oryctodromeus cubiculari, which translates to “digging runner.” It is the only burrowing dinosaur that we know of.

“All of my kid fantasies came true at that point,” he says.

Martin, an esteemed geologist and paleontologist who teaches in Emory University’s earth sciences department is an unabashedly geeky goofball who thinks in terms of epochs. When asked his age, he replies, “6.2% of a millennium” (62). He still regards his work with the wonder and obsessiveness of a wide-eyed little boy and is on a mission to make everybody’s “kid fantasies” come true, or at least get others to think of science as fun, funny and accessible.

“Welcome to the most comprehensive class at Emory University,” Martin tells students in courses that consistently have a long waiting list. “We cover 4.6 billion years of Earth history in one semester.”

Then he begins a lightning-fast presentation of slides, one of which features “Indiana Jones” punching a Nazi, a scene he cheers.

Like that fictional character, Martin is recognizable for his signature hat, a Tilly, “to protect my non-melanated skin on a dig.” He is something of a rock star in his field, if a rock star constantly cracked “dad jokes.” Among his other discoveries, or co-discoveries, are the oldest fossilized crayfish in the Southern Hemisphere; the oldest bird tracks in Australia; and the only known iguana nesting burrow in the geologic record. He literally wrote the book on long-extinct animals — the textbook “Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs” — and in the past 10 years, he has produced five volumes for a general audience.

“Tony is such an inspirational teacher,” says Andrew K. Rindsberg, a professor at the University of West Alabama. “One of his courses, Interpreting Unseen Behavior, opens students’ eyes to a world we usually ignore, of woodpeckers drilling holes in campus trees and dogs crossing concrete sidewalks while they were wet, and even beavers walking next to Lullwater Creek in the middle of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Tony is one of the best observers, and explainers, I know.”

Martin’s specialty is ichnology, the study of modern and fossil traces, as revealed by burrows, nests, tracks, and borings — fragmentary vestiges of life that came before us. “These are clues left by animals,” Martin says. “It’s like a murder mystery, but the body is missing.”

Published in June, his most recent book, “Life Sculpted: Tales of the Animals, Plants, and Fungi That Drill, Break, and Scrape to Shape the Earth” (University of Chicago Press, $27.50), covers a lot of trounced-upon ground.

About a half billion years ago, our animal ancestors began making mincemeat of rocky seascapes, and their descendants continued to gnaw through wood, bones and shells to reshape our geological contours. Martin zooms in for the microscopic and widens his lens for bigger game. From the bacteria that rot our teeth to elephants who dig ballroom-sized caves alongside volcanos, “bioerosion” defines our world in unexpected ways, he contends.

“This book is chock-full of all kinds of weird, fun facts that will impress your friends at a cocktail party,” he says. “It’s written for smarties who embrace their smartiness, but not smarminess.”

Martin’s research started in his backyard where he grew up, in “the frozen tundra and corn fields” of Terre Haute, Indiana. He was the fifth of six children. His father was a janitor who struggled with health problems.

“We were a large, working-class Catholic family with a lot of kids and not much money,” he says. “On the occasions when my mother laughed, I paid close attention. I was the first in my family to go to college.”

Flora and fauna obsessed him. “I was absolutely fascinated with insects, plants and dinosaurs, so I devoured everything I could find at the library.” Martin also soaked up the pop culture of the 1960s and ‘70s.

“I was consumed by ‘Wild Kingdom’ and Jacques Cousteau, and Mel Brooks and Red Skelton were my heroes.” He may well be the only scholar who seriously cites “Scooby Doo” as an “influence.”

At St. Joseph’s College in Maine, he studied geobiology but also developed his creative side, minoring in art and participating in theater. He got his master’s at Miami University. He ended up in Georgia because he wrote a persuasive letter to Bob Frey, a professor at the University of Georgia and the “best ichnologist in the world.” Within days Martin was poking around rocks in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with Frey and would go on to earn his Ph.D. at UGA.

He continues to explore his figurative backyard. A previous book was “Tracking the Golden Isles: The Natural and Human Histories of the Georgia Coast.” It contains his hand-drawn illustrations. (Martin is married to the artist Ruth Schowalter, and the two often collaborate.)

Martin clearly relishes puns, wordplay and movie allusions. A sampling of chapter headings in “Life Sculpted”: “A Boring History of Life,” “More Bones to Pick,” and — most memorably — “Your Beach is Made of Parrotfish Poop.” Ever the tuned-in observer, he once noticed a sound while snorkeling, “a crunching and popping reminiscent of sugary breakfast cereals meeting milk.” Fish, he discovered, were chowing down on the reef and then ejecting sand. Some sedimentary cycles later, we get a postcard-worthy playground.

And don’t get him started on starfish: “If you ever find a wayward sea star or other echinoderm near a beach, whatever you do, do not put it in freshwater, as this will surely kill it,” he writes. “The same principle applies to keeping it on a shelf at home, or wearing one as a sheriff badge, which will quickly become a stinking badge, which you do not need.”

You groan, but will you forget that image? Martin has found in his 30 years of teaching that comedy, even with an eye roll, functions as a mnemonic device and “keeps students engaged.”

“I’ve successfully inserted the descriptor ‘precious bodily fluids’ (a ‘Dr. Strangelovereference) in my past five books,” he says, “and plan to somehow work it in every book to keep the streak alive.”

Not everyone approves. “Some in the science community think I’m lowering the level of discourse,” he says. “Yes, this book has humor, which thoroughly annoyed one of its external reviewers because in his world, science is deadly serious and never fun. Oh, how miserable his world must be.”

Martin and his peers stand by his research. “Although these books are directed toward a lay audience, not toward a small group of scholars, their science is correct and backed up by long lists of references,” Rindsberg says.

Melanie DeVore, a biology professor at Georgia College and State University, sees the method in Martin’s madness.

“What makes Tony’s work so special is applying his imagination and his artistic talent,” she says. “He can creatively ask the right questions and then apply the scientific method to explain a pattern he sees in a fossil. His imagination instantly recreates the processes responsible for that pattern. When as scientists we learn to express how we experience the world as an artist, dancer, musician or other means, we understand how the general public experiences the phenomena we explain by the scientific method.”

Doffing his hat and digging in the dirt where he lives in Decatur, Martin is a hero to neighborhood children.

“To this day, I still thrill to discovering tracks that are 10 million years old,” he says. “Life can be hard, but life also literally makes everything less hard every day.”