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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeozoology & Extinctions

Life Sculpted Tales of the Animals, Plants, and Fungi That Drill, Break, and Scrape to Shape the Earth

Popular Science
By: Anthony J Martin(Author)
369 pages, 56 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A witty book that boils over with fascinating studies about one of the more obscure corners of biology: bioerosion.
Life Sculpted
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  • Life Sculpted ISBN: 9780226810478 Hardback Jun 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £21.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Meet the menagerie of lifeforms that dig, crunch, bore, and otherwise reshape our planet.

Did you know elephants dig ballroom-sized caves alongside volcanoes? Or that parrotfish chew coral reefs and poop sandy beaches? Or that our planet once hosted a five-ton dinosaur-crunching alligator cousin? In fact, almost since its fascinating start, life was boring. Billions of years ago bacteria, algae, and fungi began breaking down rocks in oceans, a role they still perform today. About a half-billion years ago, animal ancestors began drilling, scraping, gnawing, or breaking rocky seascapes. In turn, their descendants crunched through the materials of life itself – shells, wood, and bones. Today, such "bioeroders" continue to shape our planet – from the bacteria that devour our teeth to the mighty moon snail, always hunting for food, as evidenced by tiny snail-made boreholes in clams and other moon snails.

There is no better guide to these lifeforms than Anthony J. Martin, a popular science author, palaeontologist, and co-discoverer of the first known burrowing dinosaur. Following the crumbs of lichens, sponges, worms, clams, snails, octopi, barnacles, sea urchins, termites, beetles, fishes, dinosaurs, crocodilians, birds, elephants, and (of course) humans, Life Sculpted reveals how bioerosion expanded with the tree of life, becoming an essential part of how ecosystems function while reshaping the face of our planet. With vast knowledge and no small amount of whimsy, Martin uses palaeontology, biology, and geology to reveal the awesome power of life's chewing force. He provokes us to think deeply about the past and present of bioerosion, while also considering how knowledge of this history might aid us in mitigating and adapting to climate change in the future. Yes, Martin concedes, sometimes life can be hard – but life also makes everything less hard every day.


Chapter 1. A Boring History of Life
Chapter 2. Small but Diminishing
Chapter 3. Rock, Thy Name Is Mud
Chapter 4. Your Beach Is Made of Parrotfish Poop
Chapter 5. Jewelry-Amenable Holes of Death
Chapter 6. Super Colossal Shell-Crushing Fury!
Chapter 7. Woodworking at Home
Chapter 8. Driftwood and Woodgrounds
Chapter 9. Bone Eaters of the Deep
Chapter 10. More Bones to Pick
Chapter 11. The Biggest and Most Boring of Animals

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Witty and fascinating
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 13 Sep 2023 Written for Hardback

    Though we marvel at the creative side of evolution, the destructive flip side of that coin often gets less attention. Since its first stirrings, life has been involved in a war of attrition with its environment, "breaking, scraping, drilling, or otherwise changing the solid to the not-so-solid" (p. x). Leave it to palaeontologist Anthony J. Martin to write a witty book that boils over with fascinating studies about one of the more obscure corners of biology: bioerosion.

    Martin's speciality is ichnology: the study of animal traces, both modern and fossilised. I have reviewed and enjoyed his two previous popular science books on this topic, Dinosaurs Without Bones and The Evolution Underground. Life Sculpted focuses on a subtopic within ichnology: bioerosion, the process of life eroding hard substances in its environment, and the traces this leaves behind. How about I break this down?

    Life Sculpted is divided into chapters dealing with the erosion of rock, shell, wood, and bone. Rock is attacked by a wide array of organisms and Martin describes how cyanobacteria, fungi, lichens, chitons, sponges, worms, barnacles, clams, and a host of other species attack rock by scraping, drilling, gouging, and dropping acid. Martin poetically describes it as "a wholesale slaughter of landscape exteriors that reveals illusions of immutability" (p. 25). In the process, they leave behind species-specific patterns of grooves, pits, scratches, and other traces. Martin points out that the cumulative effect is so large that the rock cycle has become as much geology as biology. Vertebrates get in on the action too, as evidenced by what is the most glorious chapter title in this book: "Your Beach Is Made of Parrotfish Poop". Because, yes, that beautiful white sand found on tropical beaches? That comes out of the behind of parrotfish crunching corals in the process of scraping algae off them. The biological details of this ecosystem—which fish do it and why coral reefs are not harmed by it—are fascinating.

    But life equally excels at attacking the living environment. Almost as soon as shells evolved, other invertebrates evolved ways of drilling into them, with trace fossil evidence dating back at least 500 million years. And if not death by drilling, shelled creatures have faced death by crushing from crustaceans, marine reptiles, mantis shrimp, seabirds, and mammals such as otters. Wood similarly was under attack almost as soon as it evolved by insects, later to be joined by (expectedly) woodpeckers and (unexpectedly) dinosaurs munching on rotten wood, possibly for the extra nutrition afforded by its fungi and insects. Wood furthermore has a second life as driftwood, which allows Martin to introduce one of the most amazing fossils: a large log covered by crinoids. Though they superficially resemble flowers, crinoids are actually echinoderms that spend a large part of their lifecycle attached to substrates. Martin tells the fascinating story of how these crinoid colonies were a temporary phase in life's history, eliminated by the evolution of wood-boring clams that from then on prematurely sundered these rafts.

    Finally, the erosion of bone is an opportunity to dedicate a whole chapter to the wonderfully weird world of whale falls and the worms that feed on them. When whale carcasses sink to the bottom of the ocean, they become a miniature ecosystem that lasts for decades, broken down by an ever-shifting cast of scavengers including worms of the genus Osedax that drill into their bones and settle there. Lovingly nicknamed snot or zombie worms, they were only described in 2004. On land, meanwhile, bones are munched on by a diverse cast of organisms looking to supplement their diet with calcium, including surprise appearances by squirrels and assorted herbivorous mammals. Martin goes a bit off-piste here I feel, drifting into a discussion of life's most powerful biters.

    The biggest bioeroders of them all in terms of volume are probably humans. What started fairly innocently with our ancestors using stone and bone tools has turned into a planet-altering industry. In the process of extracting the resources to make our material world, we drill, scrape, dig, bore, and tunnel like nobody else. The problem is that this is such a massive topic—encompassing basically all of archaeology and economic geology—that it could be a separate book. Martin here merely gestures at it in the final brief chapter, which is not quite a satisfying ending to this book.

    Part of the fun in reading Life Sculpted comes from Martin's humour, though I get the feeling he has toned it down a bit compared to his previous two books. Even so, expect a healthy dose of wit (the boundaries of primitive tectonic plates "supplied both a kitchen and a recipe for primordial soup" (p. 26)), alliterations (mussel muscle), puns (a history of boring boring? Get out!), and the occasional deep cut (how do you calculate the bite force of T. rex when there are no lawyers around?).

    One topic I felt Martin could have emphasized more is the importance of a search image for something. There are behaviours for which we do not yet have trace fossil evidence because we do not know what to look for. This was made explicit in Dinosaurs Without Bones but only hovers in the background here. One example is that we have no trace fossils of lichens because we do not know how to distinguish them from fungi trace fossils or chemical and physical weathering. Similarly, woodpeckers have made holes in trees for over 20 million years, and yet we have not been able to identify pecking traces or nest holes in the fossil record that can be reliably attributed to these birds. Another theme that is mentioned in places but not developed further is how climate change will affect bioerosion in the future. Perhaps that would have made a fitting chapter to end the book with.

    By all accounts, this is a book I should utterly adore and I was engaged throughout. Still, I admit I felt ever so slightly underwhelmed after finishing it, though I struggle to put my finger on the why. Perhaps the best way I can explain it is that I feel it lacks a throughline or overarching theme that takes it beyond just a list of the wondrous and bizarre. And I write this while acknowledging that it is exactly the wondrous and the bizarre that propelled me through the book.

    Life Sculpted brings together a bewildering array of weird and wonderful creatures and studies from the borderlands between palaeontology and evolutionary biology. Ichnology is already an obscure discipline that few people will have heard of, and bioerosion is a subject that will be on the radar of even fewer people. Leave it to Martin to turn that into an arresting book that is both a smooth and fun read.
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Anthony J. Martin is a teaching professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Emory University, where he has taught classes in geology, palaeontology, and environmental sciences for more than thirty years. He has a PhD in geology and his research speciality is ichnology, the study of modern and ancient traces caused by animal behaviour, such as tracks, burrows, and borings. He is the author of numerous books, including Dinosaurs Without Bones, The Evolution Underground, and Tracking the Golden Isles.

Popular Science
By: Anthony J Martin(Author)
369 pages, 56 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A witty book that boils over with fascinating studies about one of the more obscure corners of biology: bioerosion.
Media reviews

"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, Martin 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?"
– Candice Dyer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"It is often said that life changes the environment. But after reading Martin's Life Sculpted, it seems more accurate to say that living changes the environment. It was true of the dinosaur era, and it remains true today [...] For readers who are fascinated by living fossils such as bryozoans and horseshoe crabs, there is much to love between this book's covers [...] There are many eureka moments in Life Sculpted – and some truly beautiful ones [...] The key takeaway of Life Sculpted, and ichnology more generally, is that geology is indistinguishable from biology. A prevailing theme in popular culture these days is that all life is connected. But what Martin implies is that it is not only biotic organisms that are interdependent, but the geological and chemical systems of the planet, too. And while the gap between the biotic and abiotic worlds may seem huge, it's the science that's complicated. So, while Life Sculpted is not everybody's idea of beach reading, think of it this way: It's the beach."
– Eugenia Bone, Wall Street Journal

"Much of Martin's discussion involves ichnology, the study of trace fossils, such as tracks, burrows, bite marks, holes. He describes how snails drill into their prey, pine beetles munch trees, otters use rocks as tools to bust clam shells, and stingrays emit high pressure jets of water to expose quarry hiding in sediment. Martin's writing is witty, rich in facts (the teeth of beavers are enhanced with iron), and spiced with eclectic references, such as the films Jurassic Park, Alien, and Jaws, authors ranging from Aeschylus to H.P. Lovecraft, and TV shows House Hunters and Breaking Bad. Mingling geology, biology, and paleontology, Martin has fashioned a unique and engaging portrait of the earth's many movers and shakers."

"A bewildering array of lifeforms break, scrape, and mold our planet to their own ends, from elephants digging caves by volcanoes to bacteria breaking down rocks in the oceans. Bioerosion is a distinct area of science, covering paleontology, biology, and geology. It's also testament to how life adapts to change, something relevant in the current Anthropocene era."

"A truly original cracker of a book. Martin is one of the world's top experts in trace fossils, and his life-long experience in doing primary research in this field shows clearly. The scientific information is first-class and highly informative. But his prose is also beautiful and refreshingly expressive. Martin has a real mastery of words that is rare. Enthralling."
– John A. Long, author of The Dawn of the Deed

"With an equal dose of wit and scholarship, Martin turns what is literally a boring topic – how animals and other species drill and chew through rock, bone, and wood – into an epic tale of evolution. Fun and readable, yet academically rigorous, Martin is one of the finest popularizers of paleontology today, and one of my favorite science writers."
– Steve Brusatte, professor and paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, New York Times-bestselling author of The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

"Anthony J. Martin is the Mary Roach of paleontology."
– Mary Roach

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