Andrew K. Rindsberg
1998 was a year in which ichnologists earned respect from the news media. Newspapers and the popular science magazine Discover regularly reported news on fossil footprints, nests, and coprolites. Discover gave several pages to Steven Hasiotis' work on continental ichnology, which must be said to have "arrived." Even the horricomic film Godzilla gave loving attention to footprints, burrows, and nests, though thankfully not to coprolites (see review in this issue). But the report that made the biggest splash was Dolf Seilacher's news release of undermat burrows in the Vindhyan Group of India, in rocks 1.1 billion years old (Seilacher and others, 1998). That made the cover of Science, CNN, the US National Public Radio, and international news media generally (Anonymous, 1998a; Bagla, 1998; Baur, 1998; Chakrabarti, 1998; Chandler, 1998; Chang, 1998; CNN, 1998; Cooke, 1998; Recer, 1998; Sawyer, 1998; Sentker, 1998).
On October 1, I was sitting at my computer absorbed in my work when I was alerted by Dolf's voice on the radio, followed by those of Bruce Runnegar and Mary Droser. At a stroke, Seilacher and his colleagues Pradip K. Bose and Friedrich Pflüger had challenged decades of conventional wisdom. The oldest unequivocal evidence of animals sufficiently developed to burrow is only about 0.6 billion years old. The ant nest that they stirred up is still churning with activity.
There is scarcely an ichnologist on the planet who has not met Dolf Seilacher. Moreover, there is hardly one who has not been "dolfed", that is, had one's ideas overturned in a few minutes by cogent observations, with witnesses to observe the victim's fate. Professor Seilacher had just dolfed the whole world.
Dolf Seilacher was less successful in his attempt to convince the art world that casts of fossiliferous slabs could be considered as art. The travelling exhibit, "Fossil Art", is accompanied by an informative catalog (for reviews, see Ekdale, 1998; Rindsberg and Herr, 1998). In 1998, Fossil Art was shown at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Drumheller, Alberta), the Utah Museum of Natural History (salt Lake City, Utah), the Schiele Museum of Natural History (Gastonia, North Carolina), and the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut). In 1999 it will travel to natural history museums in Nova Scotia and Japan. But no art galleries. The news took notice of the exhibit at Yale (Monatersky, 1998b), and this sparked a lively debate on the email listserver PaleoNet in January 1999. Paleontologists who had seen the exhibit, or were artists themselves such as Øyvind Hammer, mostly favored the idea that Seilacher had produced art. Others were divided on the issue.
A superlative was attained in June when Karen Chin and others (1998) reported the discovery, in the Cretaceous of Canada, of the largest coprolite of a carnivorous dinosaur. The lump is so large that the discoverers promptly ascribed it to the largest North American meat-eater of the time, Tyrannosaurus rex (Anonymous, 1998b, c; BBC News, 1998; Monatersky, 1998a; Wexler, 1998a).
The media also took note of some very small coprolites: a line of fecal pellets in the Dalradian (Precambrian) of Scotland, assigned perhaps overconfidently to Neonereites uniserialis by discoverers Brasier and McIlroy (1998; see also Anonymous, 1998d; Wexler, 1998b).
Continental invertebrate ichnology made news again this year. Discover made much of Stephen Hasiotis in February, in what may be the first modern case of a popular magazine writing a full article on an ichnologist and his work (Zimmer, 1998; also Anonymous, 1998e; Hasiotis, 1998; Schrader, 1998). Interest was also shown in a report on the Permian and Triassic of Antarctica (Babcock and others, 1998; Day, 1998a), which pushed back the earliest known occurrences of crayfish and their burrows.
Another record was broken when Tony Martin and Steve Hasiotis revealed the oldest known reptile nests on October 28 at the Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America. They described a cluster of more than a hundred bowl-like nests in the Triassic Chinle Formation in the Petrified Forest National Park of Arizona (USA). The Associated Press and United Press International soon picked up the story and it was printed in many newspapers (Verrengia, 1998).
The media also reported on other new discoveries of biogenic structures. There were splendid finds of Jurassic dinosaur tracks in Wyoming, USA (Anonymous, 1998e; Chamberlain, this issue), Triassic dinosaur tracks in Poland (Polish TV1, 1998), and early human footprints in South Africa (Menon, 1998). DNA analysis was performed for the first time on Pleistocene sloth dung (Anonymous, 1998g). The public debates over mima mounds (Geiger, 1998) and pterosaur tracks (Anonymous, 1998h) continued to receive attention. Invertebrate trace fossils from roofing slates were reported in Norway (Anonymous, 1998i). The value of public education was stressed in an article on Dinosaur Ridge west of Denver, Colorado, USA (Cygan and others, 1997; Day, 1998b).
No wonder the news media were so interested in ichnology in 1998: the oldest burrows, the oldest reptile nests, and the largest carnosaur dung all hit the news in the same year. It will be hard to top that in 1999!
Anonymous. 1998a. Tierleben ist doppelt so alt wie angenommen. Rhein-Zeitung, September 30.
Anonymous. 1998b. Ordure of magnitude. Discover, 19(10): 32.
Anonymous. 1998c. The latest poop on Tyrannosaurus rex. American Paleontologist, 6(3): 15.
Anonymous. 1998d. At the drop of a worm. Earth, 7(4): 13.
Anonymous. 1998e. The early history of ants and termites. American Paleontologist, 6(1): 13.
Anonymous, 1998f. Making tracks. Geotimes, 43(6):9.
Anonymous. 1998g. The latest poop on sloth DNA. American Paleontologist, 6(3): 15.
Anonymous. 1998h. Walking pterosaurs? American Paleontologist, 6(1): 14.
Babcock, L. E., Miller, M. F., Isbell, J. L., Collinson, J. W. & Hasiotis, S. T. 1998. Paleozoic-Mesozoic crayfish from Antarctica: earliest evidence of freshwater decapod crustaceans. Geology, 26(6): 539-542.
Anonymous 1998i. Oppsiktsvekkende fossiler funnet pĺ Tilerm. Brřnnřysunds Avis, 85-78(May): 1, 7. Brřnnøysund. [In Norwegian].
Bagla, Pallava. 1998. Indian puts life's clock back by 500 million years. Indian Express, October 1, p. 1.
Baur, Ingolf. 1998. Die Urzeit als Paradies. Südwest Fernsehen [television], October 12, 1998.
BBC News. 1998. Huge fossilised dung sheds light on T Rex's eating habits. BBC News, June 17.
Brasier, M. & McIlroy, D. 1998. Neonereites uniserialis from c. 600 Ma year old rocks in western Scotland and the emergence of animals. Journal of the Geological Society of London, 155: 5-12.
Chakrabarti, Ashis. 1998. Bose used his savings to pay for path-breaking research. The Indian Express, October 4.
Chandler, D. L. 1998. Wormhole findings push life back over billion years, scientists say. Boston Globe, October 1, p. A4.
Chang, Kenneth. 1998. Early worm leaves a trail? ABC News, September 30.
Chin, K., Tokaryk, T. T., G.M. Erickson, G. M. & Clark. L. C. 1998. A king-sized coprolite. Nature 393: 680-682.
CNN. 1998. Scientists report evidence of billion year old worms. CNN Interactive, September 30.
Cooke, Robert. 1998. Researchers say worms once ruled the Earth. Newsday, reprinted in Spokane Spokesman-Review, October 1.
Cygan, N. E., Modreski, P. I., Rall, E. P., & Raynolds, R. G. (1997) On Dinosaur Ridge: reaching and teaching the public. Geotimes, 43(11): 25-28.
Day, S. 1998a. Paleozoic-Mesozoic crayfish from Antarctica: earliest evidence of freshwater decapod crustaceans, by Loren E. Babcock, Molly F. Miller, John L. Isbell, James W. Collinson, & Stephen T. Hasiotis. Fossil News, 4(6): 20-21.
Day, S. 1998b. Norbert E. Cygan, Peter J. Modreski, Elizabeth P. Rall, and Robert G. Raynolds, " On Dinosaur Ridge: Reaching and Teaching the Public". Fossil News, 4(2): 8.
Geiger, B. 1998. Heaps of confusion. Earth, 7(4): 34-37.
Hasiotis, S. T. 1998. No bones about itÖIt's continental ichnology! Palaios, 13(1): 1-2.
Martin, A. J. & Hasiotis, S. T. 1998. The oldest known vertebrate nests from the Late Triassic (Carnian/Norian) Chinle Formation, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, Late Breaking Research, p. 1.
Menon, S. 1998. Footprints from the human dawn. Discover, 18(1)(for 1997): 34.
Monatersky, Richard. 1998a. Getting the scoop from the poop of T. rex. Science News, 153(25): 391.
Monatersky, Richard. 1998b. Exhibit of fossils strains the definition of art. Science News, 154(25-26): 398.
Polish TV1, 1998. [Report on the work of Gregorz Pienkowski and Gerhard Gierlinski], December.
Recer, Paul. 1998. Evidence of worm-like animals found in billion-year-old rock. Associated Press, reported by Team Tulsa (KJRH 2NBC television).
Sawyer, Kathy. 1998. Billion-year-old evidence points to earliest worms. Seattle Times, October 1.
Schrader, A. 1998. Oldest reptile nests discovered: Denver Post, October 27.
Seilacher, A., Bose, P. K., and Pflüger, F. 1998. Triploblastic animals more than 1 billion years ago: trace fossil evidence from India. Science 282(5386): 80.
Sentker, Andreas. 1998. Da war wohl der Wurm drin. Die Zeit, 1998, no. 41.
Verrengia, J. B. 1998. World's oldest reptile nest found. Associated Press, October 28.
W[exler], D. 1998a. A king's supper. Geotimes, 43(9): 11-12.
W[exler], D. 1998b. Fossil pellets surprise geologists. Geotimes, 43(3): 10-11.
Zimmer, C. 1998. A secret history of life on land. Discover, 19(2): 76-83.