Digging Deep with Atlanta’s (Almost) Real-Life Indiana Jones

Digging Deep with Atlanta’s (Almost) Real-Life Indiana Jones

By Andrea Kjaer

What’s the difference between Indiana Jones and Emory University‘s Dr. Anthony Martin?

“First, Indiana Jones is fiction, and I’m real.” Martin says. “Second, he was an archeologist; I’m a paleontologist. Third, I really like snakes.”

Dr. Anthony Martin’s branch of paleontology is called ichnology—it’s pronounced like technology with an ick at the front instead of the t. He studies structures and features like burrows, nests, trails and borings left by living organisms.

However, he doesn’t believe most of his finds belong in a museum. Martin likes to leave whatever he can in its original context so others can study or enjoy it. His preferred field equipment includes a hat, a field notebook and a camera. He also uses aerial drones and 3D underground radars so he can map the extent and complexity of burrows without disturbing the animals.

Dr.Martin displays a burrow cast of several generations of crab (photo by Lisa Alexander Streib)

Dr.Martin displays a burrow cast of several generations of crab (photo by Lisa Alexander Streib)

His newly-released book, The Evolution Underground: Burrows, Bunkers, and the Marvelous Subterranean World Beneath our Feet, details the way early burrowing organisms changed the environment and how animals—including both ancient and modern humans—have used burrows throughout the ages.

Burrowing has long been a part of the human consciousness; there’s a whole genre of storytelling called subterranean fiction, after all. Examples include Dante’s Inferno and Hunger Games, where District 13 survived because they were largely underground.

How does one become fascinated with burrows, anyway?

“I grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, and my backyard was my Wild Kingdom. I watched the show on TV and loved to watch Big Jim barely make it back to the jeep while a grizzly was chasing him,” Martin recalls. “In my backyard, I could watch ants coming out of their nests, bees coming out of their burrows, earthworms surfacing after a rain. That gave me a fascinating world to live in as a kid, and it was supplemented by reading books from a library.”

Dr. Michael Page, also of Emory University, operates a drone to collect aerial photography (photo by Dr. Anthony Martin)


If you look closely in the Atlanta area, you’ll notice plenty of burrows from a variety of creatures: earthworms, bees, wasps, chipmunks and even some urban rats. Dr. Martin is full of knowledge about the state of Georgia’s native burrowers, too.

“A few colleagues and I have been working on a project called the Georgia Coast Atlas, and in that area I’m studying the burrowers: the alligators, the crustaceans and also the gopher tortoise,” Martin said.

“I call the gopher tortoise the ‘landlord of the sand hills’ because it provides homes for 300 to 400 other species. The larger picture is that the tortoises are churning sediment, bringing up and burying seeds in a fire-impacted environment. They are ecosystem engineers. Without them, the beautiful longleaf pine forests would turn into arid, weedy grasslands.”

Dr. Martin hard at work (photo by Ruth Schowalter)

Dr. Martin hard at work (photo by Ruth Schowalter)

Burrowing has always been a way for different species to stay safe, but it’s also an option for us humans. People in Montreal, Quebec have already built an underground city to help insulate them from the long Canadian winters. Likewise, people in Coober Pedy, Australia have built homes underground to keep themselves cool. If Georgia summers get hotter, people might, for example, think about putting their rec rooms downstairs.

“We know that the earth has been subject to five mass extinctions, and there is a mass extinction happening right now,” said Martin. “Many of the animals that survived previous changes and cataclysms were burrowers. I call these animals of the past ‘prehistoric preppers’.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the science and technology of Dr. Martin’s work, you’re in luck: He’s speaking about his new book at the Atlanta Science Tavern on Saturday, Feb. 25. Plus, on Sunday, March 19, he’ll discuss the science behind the movie Tremors at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

Atlanta Science Tavern event: Sat., Feb. 25, 7 p.m.–9 p.m., free admission, Manuel’s Tavern, 602 N. Highland Ave NE, Atlanta, Ga.

Tremors event: Sun., March 19, 3 p.m.–5:30 p.m., free*, Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Frances Wood Wilson Foundation Theater, Lower Level, 767 Clifton Road NE, Atlanta, Ga.

*Reservations required due to limited seating. Call 404.929.6400.

Lead image via Wikimedia Commons