The “Sherlock Holmes of the Georgia coast” according to Janisse Ray, in his forthcoming Tracking the Golden Isles: The Natural and Human Histories of the Georgia Coast, Anthony J. Martin invites us to investigate animal and human traces on the Georgia coast and the remarkable stories these traces, both modern and fossil, tell us. Below is an excerpt from chapter 1, “Knobbed Whelks, Dwarf Clams, and Shorebirds.” Martin’s book can be preordered through our Shelter with A Good Book Sale for 50% off through the end of May with code 08UGAP at checkout.
The beach was teeming with predators. We did not know this before setting out on our bicycles early that morning, and we probably passed over many of these carnivores before recognizing their distinctive and undeniable outlines under the sand. Once these patterns announced the hunters’ presence, we understood that they had willingly buried themselves, a waiting game of survival in acquiescence to waning waters. What made this situation even more remarkable, though, was how their submergence also unwittingly supplied temporary refuge for another, much smaller, species—that is, before other predators arrived on the scene and feasted on each of the smaller species as hapless prey.
My wife, Ruth, and I were lucky enough to witness the results of this complicated life-and-death beach drama because we were on vacation. For nearly every Thanksgiving since 2010, instead of giving thanks for family, football, and native fowl, we pay homage to the Georgia coast by placing our feet on its sandy shores. To make this nature therapy happen, we flee the metropolitan Atlanta area either the Wednesday before or the morning of the last Thursday of November and then drive about five hours before stopping on the barrier island of Jekyll.
Jekyll Island is an odd place. It is one of more than a dozen barrier islands on the coast of Georgia, its southern tip less than a marathon distance north of the Georgia-Florida border. Unlike most barrier islands in the eastern United States, the Georgia barrier islands are relatively undeveloped, with the majority hosting lush maritime forests, long and wide sandy beaches, coastal dunes adorned with swaying sea oats (Uniola paniculata), and vast expanses of salt marshes, with few humans. Jekyll, however, is one of the few Georgia barrier islands connected to the mainland by a causeway, allowing car-bound visitors to easily arrive, depart, or pause. For those who choose to stay, it hosts paved roads, neighborhoods, golf courses, boutique shops, and beachside hotels, but not so densely packed as to invoke nightmarish visions of Jersey Shore. Jekyll also has paved bicycle paths around the island that wind through maritime forests and salt marshes or occasionally slip behind coastal dunes for stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. Even better, if you have your own bike and are hankering to go on paths less traveled, Jekyll offers long stretches of sandy beaches, especially on its south end. These beaches widen considerably at low tide, their smooth, flat, hard-packed quartz-sand surfaces beckoning riders to give them a try.
Fittingly, then, we pointed our bikes south along the beach our first morning there, leaving hotels and condominiums behind. During this exhilarating outing—breathing in and feeling the cool, salt-infused air passing over exposed skin; delighting in the gentle lapping of waves; and listening to the far-off calls of gulls—Ruth and I stopped occasionally. These breaks were not so much for rest but for science, giving us a better chance to look at and learn from any animal traces—tracks, burrows, trails, and more—that captured our curiosity. We were practicing the age-old science of ichnology, the study of traces. It is observation done with a low-carbon footprint, natural history that is also eco-chic. Because we had been to Jekyll enough times to know where its best traces are likely to be found, we used our insider knowledge to focus on all things ichnological. This forethought also means we sometimes discovered phenomena that, as far as we know, were previously unnoticed on any of the Georgia barrier islands, including the more natural ones lacking posh hotels and miniature golf.
It was during one of these stops that we discovered the signs of hidden predators and other animals leaving mysteries for us to intuit. The main cast of characters in that then-novel discovery included two molluscans, knobbed whelks (Busycon carica) and dwarf surf clams (Mulinia lateralis); and two species of shorebirds, sanderlings (Calidris alba) and laughing gulls (Leucophaeus altricilla). How these four animals and their traces related to one another made for a fascinating story, nearly all of it discerned through their traces left on that Jekyll Island beach. Later I realized a fifth species—tiny crustaceans sometimes nicknamed “sand fleas” but what scientists pre-fer to call amphipods—must have also played an indirect role in the marvels we observed during that visit and never since.