Introducing Isityumzi

My paper describing a new fossil lungfish was published yesterday in the journal PeerJ. In 2018 I was fortunate enough to travel to South Africa to stay and work with Dr Rob Gess, based at Rhodes University in Grahamstown (Makhanda) in the eastern cape of South Africa.

  • Read my original blog post about the trip HERE.

Although not represented by many specimens, this lungfish material is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it represents the ONLY Late Devonian lungfish known from Western Gondwana (South America and Africa), and secondly it hails from the Waterloo Farm Formation. During the Late Devonian when this lungfish lived (~372-359 million years ago), South Africa was situated next to the south pole!

It seems to have inhabited a thriving ecosystem, suggesting that this region was not as cold as the polar regions are today, but it still must have been subject to long periods of winter darkness – very different to the habitats that lungfish live in today!

The new lungfish is called Isityumzi mlomomde, which means “a long-mouthed device for crushing” in the isiXhosa language (one of the official languages of South Africa).

  • Read the full article in PeerJ HERE

I was supported by a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Early Career Research in 2017 which enabled me to travel to South Africa to complete this research.

Below is an artist’s interpretation of life at Waterloo Farm back in the Devonian (by Maggie Newman). Isityumzi (bottom right) here is eating some Naiadites (bivalves) on the underside of a submerged log whilst an Umzantsia (an early tetrapod) cruises overhead.

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Science in the Pub

Tune in to “Mornings” on ABC Adelaide radio at 9:30 this morning to hear me speak to David Bevan about Science in the Pub (SciPub) this Friday December 6th.

  • Listen to the ABC Adelaide radio interview HERE: Listen from 34min on 3/12/19.

Science in the Pub “brings together critical thinkers of all backgrounds in the shared interest of understanding, criticising, debating, and learning about science”. They hold meetings at the Rob Roy Hotel in Adelaide with a different topic each month.

This month it is one of my all-time favourite themes, “Great Evolutionary Transformations“. I’ll be speaking about how the first land vertebrates (tetrapods) evolved from fish around 400 million years ago, including some exciting new research I am working on right now. Then Dr Myall Tarran will talk about how the flora of Australia adapted to a changing climate, and our final speaker, Paul Curnow, will present on the evolution of whales.

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This event is free to attend but please register your interest HERE.  Catch you Friday!

Interstate adventures

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been fortunate to be working interstate at UWA and WAM (in Perth) and at MV in Melbourne. For those of you who don’t know the acronyms, that is the University of Western Australia, the Western Australian Museum, and Museum Victoria. It’s a great perk of the job being able to travel to visit the specimens (and people) I need to to conduct my research.

At UWA I was working with Jeremy Shaw who helped me to scan a lungfish braincase on their Xraida CT machine (and it turned out beautifully!), and at the WA Museum, Kate Trinajstic and I photographed the new species of Devonian coelacanth from Gogo that we are currently describing.

In Melbourne I got to play with the laser scanner (so fun!) to scan some tetrapod trackways from Genoa River (Victoria), originally described by Warren & Wakefield in 1972. Unlike tomography which I normally use, the laser scanner captures just the surface morphology (shape) of an object, but this was perfect for the fossilised footprints.  These are among some of the earliest preserved trackways made by a backboned animal (vertebrate) over 350 million years ago!

A big thanks to Isaac from Flinders for helping me learn how to use the scanner, and Tim Ziegler from the Melbourne Museum for arranging access to the specimens.

The State of Science in SA

How healthy is the state of science where you live? What’s been achieved thus far and how will the future of STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering & Maths) play out in your state?

These were some of the questions pondered last night at the special forum “The State of Science in SA“. As the current Programme Secretary for the Royal Society of South Australia (RSSA, a membership-based learned society interested in science, with beginnings that can be traced back to 1834), I organised a forum to discuss just that.

The Royal Society SA in conjunction with the Royal Institution of Australia collaborated in a special joint event for their members with the SA Chief Scientist, Professor Caroline McMillen, giving the keynote address. Professor McMillen presented an overview of SA science and its direction for the future. She covered the three pillars of science (talent, translation & innovation, systems & processes).

A panel discussion with experts representing the Natural Sciences, Defence and Aerospace, Health and Medical Science, and Science Communication followed. Many thanks to our panellists for their valuable insights: 

The State of Science 2019
I was honoured to chair the panel discussion. Thanks to all the speakers and RiAus for help in pulling the night together!
  • Sabine Dittman, President of the Royal Society of South Australia
  • Bradley Abraham, Director of The Royal Institution of Australia
  • Cathy Riach, BAE Systems Australia
  • Caroline McMillen, SA Chief Scientist

 

 

 

79th SVP, Brisbane

Last week Australia welcomed the largest gathering of vertebrate palaeontologists (an “assemblage” of palaeontologists according to Prof. Flint) that Australia has ever seen* at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) meeting. The 79th annual meeting was held for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre in Queensland, Australia.

SVP was founded in 1940 and has over 2000 members from across the globe representing all manner of people interested in vertebrate palaeontology. It was a week filled with workshops, talks, poster sessions, social events, field trips and more.

Prof. Mike Archer from UNSW opened the proceedings with a talk entitled “Life, Sex, Songs, Scrat and the Sponge: Australia’s Guinness Book of Evolutionary Records” at the University of Queensland on Tuesday, and on Wednesday we were treated to a special Welcome Reception held at the Queensland Museum. The Awards Banquet dinner was held on Saturday night with a surprise guest appearance from Prof. Flint singing his new song all about Mary Anning.

As always these events are an unmissable opportunity to hear about the hugely varied questions, fossils and approaches that people apply to palaeontology, and also to catch up with colleagues from near and afar. The Flinders Palaeo Lab was represented in force with about 25 past and present members in attendance.

Thanks to the organisers and the host committee for such a truly inspiring and interesting week. Looking forward to 2020 in Cincinnati!

Flinders Palaeo lab at SVP 2019

*As far as I know

BLiSS*Adelaide

Well, what a big week it has been! Last Friday we held the inaugural BLiSS*Adelaide one day symposium for EMCR’s (Early/Mid Career Researcher). I’m proud to say that I was Co-Chair (Head of Operations) as part of the of the Steering Committee that organised this inspiring event. Our committee, lead by BLiSS* founder, Dr fLo Cotel, and BLiSS*Adelaide Chair, Dr Sanam Mustafa, worked hard for 18 months to bring this event to life.

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We kicked off the day with a keynote address from the Chief Scientist for SA, Prof Caroline McMillen, followed by three themed sessions. However, the day ran a little differently to most scientific conferences; the speakers from each session worked together beforehand to weave their presentations into a narrative that explored a general broad theme (Fundamentals in Life, Sustainable Earth, Innovative Futures), rather than present the specifics of their current project. This enabled spirited and inspiring discussions to flow throughout the day.

In the afternoon we invited a panel of experts to discuss “Pathways to Innovation Translation” followed by a networking event. We couldn’t have done it without the generous support of our many sponsors, and it was great to see so many local facilities come down on the day. It’s amazing to learn what exists in your own backyard that you’ve never even heard of!

We really hoped to inspire some interdisciplinary collaborations in the EMCR’s of Adelaide, tomorrow’s leaders in research. So, a generous $3000 collaboration prize is up for grabs for any two researchers who met on the day and can show evidence of their new partnership in 6 months time (in addition to the many other prizes awarded on the day).

I was fascinated by the range of topics covered in the talks and posters last Friday, and I look forward to seeing how BLiSS*Adelaide continues to grow into the future. Thanks to all members of the Steering Committee and everyone who made it down on the day!

BLiSS* out, peeps!

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BLiSS*Adelaide Steering Committee 2019 (Photo: Catherine Leo Photography)

 

Brave Minds

‘Experiment and experiment bravely’ are the oft-repeated and celebrated words from Flinders University Founding Vice-ChancellorProfessor Peter Karmel. Following this vein, and in celebrating some of the varied and wonderful research coming out of this university, Flinders decided to create a new publication launched this month, called “Brave Minds.”

John Pickrell spoke to John Long and I about work that I began in Sweden at Uppsala University investigating fossil fish brains and brain reconstruction techniques, and that we continue here at Flinders. You can read the full article online here: https://www.flinders.edu.au/braveminds/when-intellect-was-born , or check out some of the other exciting research covered in Edition 1 of Brave Minds.

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IVPP, Beijing

….. aaaaand to round off this incredible China trip of mine, I spent the last week working at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing. It is really exciting to be able to look at specimens that I’ve only read about in the literature… until now.

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I must say a big thank you to Zhu Min and colleagues who welcomed me and so generously shared their specimens and work with me. In particular I have to thank Tuo Qiao for letting me look at her lovely lungfish, and for Jing Lu for letting me crash in her office all week and marvel over the amazing lobe-finned fish she works on.

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Photo: Lunch at IVPP with Brian Choo, Yuzhi Hu, Han Hu, and Jing Lu.

A real highlight of every day was lunchtime, yum! What an amazing experience this China “palaeo pilgrimage” adventure has been, I look forward to coming back again soon. 

Field trip in Yunnan

Following on from the ISLEV meeting, I then spent four days travelling around Yunnan Provence in Southern China as part of an organised post-conference field trip. The idea behind these sorts of field trips are to allow foreign researchers to visit sites that they know from the literature, but that they might not get opportunity to do so otherwise.

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Day 1 saw us check out some Silurian strata close to Qujing before heading north to visit Fuyuan County. We were treated to some breathtaking views after a climb at the source Pearl River,  and then later guided through an epic cave system of the karst landform in Fuyuan.

Day2

Day 2 saw us leap up through geological time into the Mesozoic “Age of Reptiles”. We spent the day visiting Luoping Biota National Geopark. This was a real treat for the absolutely spectacular preservation of the fossils, but also the views. I was most excited to see Luopingcoelacanthus, the oldest known evidence of embryos preserved inside a coelacanth!

Day3

On Day 3 we moved back in time to the Cambrian, the time period when the earth saw unprecedented numbers and diversity of complex early life. At Chengjiang Fauna National Geopark we saw the “oldest preserved animal community”; it included strange early animals such as the fearsome Anomolacaris (thought to be an early relative of arthropods) and the truly weird Hallucigenia (it is so weird, those describing it thought they may be hallucinating) . Again we visited a “Geopark” built to conserve and research the local fossil fauna. I think it would be great to see more of these parks in Australia to protect our own unique geological heritage.

Day4

For our final day we returned to my favourite time period, the Devonian “Age of Fishes”. We stopped at a few different sites in Wuding County and were not disappointed. The rocks were absolutely full of fabulous fish fossils! I think the find of the day was Martha’s giant Holonema specimen ( a type of arthrodire placoderm). What a way to end a marvellous field trip filled with fossils, scenery and great food. Thank you to our colleagues from IVPP, Beijing, for this unforgettable experience.

ISELV in China

What is ISELV?, I hear you ask. ISELV stands for the International Symposium of Early and Lower Vertebrates, which basically means “a meeting for fish nerds” (especially fossil fish from the Palaeozoic). The 15th episode of this meeting was held this month in China.

The first ISELV was held in 1967 in Stockholm and has been held on average every 4 (or fewer) years since then. I’ve been lucky enough to attend this wonderful meeting previously in 2015 (Melbourne, Australia) and 2017 (Chęciny, Poland).

This year the “fishy fossil” global community descended upon Yunnan Provence in southern China to spend a week at Qujing Normal University. The week was meticulously arranged by our colleagues from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthroplogy (IVPP) in Beijing.

ISELV2019-Qujing

We enjoyed four full days of fascinating talks, and were treated to a field day in the middle of the conference out at some of the local Silurian and Devonian sites yielding vertebrate remains around Qujing. First we visited the Xiaoxiang site close to Dongpo village. Several high profile discoveries in recent years have been excavated from this site, including so-called “maxillae” placoderms (Entelognathus, Qilinyu), and some of the earliest complete bony fishes (Guiyu, Megamastax, Sparalepis). In addition to our excitement about hammering out some fossils at these famous sites, we saw some spectacular countryside scenery too.

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The second stop saw us visit the Xitun Fauna site which is younger than the Dongpo site, this time we were up in the Devonian “Age of Fishes”. This site has revealed some very important lobe-finned fishes, in particular Youngolepis and Diabolepis, which were found in the 1980s, and more recently forms such as Psarolepis, Achoania, Styloichthys and Meemannia.

I spoke on the third day on “New information on the pharynx of the Devonian tetrapodomorph fish, Gogonasus, revealed by synchrotron and neutron tomography.” I compared scans of a new specimen of a complete Gogonasus scanned using conventional micro CT, synchrotron and neutron scanning while also describing the anatomy of the gill arches of this fish. The arches appear to be somewhat reduced which could be an indication of increased reliance on air-breathing in this relative of the early tetrapods.

Alice and Jing in Qujing

Dr Lu Jing and Dr Alice Clement at ISELV 2019 in Qujing, China. 

Thanks to Min Zhu (chairman), Wen-jin Zhao (vice-chair) and the rest of the organising committee for putting on such a wonderful meeting! Also, I must acknowledge and give many thanks to eLife and Flinders University Impact Seed Funding which allowed me to travel to China and to attend this meeting.