Latimeria love!

I’m in the eastern cape of South Africa at the moment, working with Rhodes University palaeontologist, Dr Rob Gess. Rob has been working on a site called Waterloo Farm which has yielded many spectacular fossil discoveries … but more on this later.

Fans of the coelacanth Latimeria, would know this part of the world well. In 1938, fishermen hauled up a strange fish from the oceanic depths off the coast of South Africa. This fish was identified as a coelacanth, and given it’s name in honour of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator of the East London museum who helped to identify the fish.

Coelacanth’s belong to the Sarcopterygii (“lobe-finned” fish), the group that also includes lungfish (wooo!) and tetrapods (the first land-living vertebrates and all their descendants – including you). Today they live at great depths, have a strange hinge separating the front and back parts of their skulls, give birth to live “pups”, and have a special electroreceptive organ in their snout.

Previous to the 1938 discovery, the coelacanth lineage was thought to have gone extinct some 70 million years prior, around the same time of the dinosaurs. Latimeria caused quite a stir upon discovery – it was nicknamed “Old Four Legs” and people thought it was the direct ancestor of mankind! (Spoiler: it is not). Unfortunately the first specimen identified was rotten inside before scientists could dissect it. So the hunt was on for a second specimen… which took a long 14 years!

It is this second specimen, discovered in the Comoros in 1952 and the first one to be dissected, that is on display at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity here in Grahamstown, South Africa (formerly named the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology, after the man who named and described Latimeria). I went to pay my respects to this mighty lobe-finned fish yesterday. Latimeria loooooove!

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The Cradle of Humankind

I’m currently in South Africa and was lucky enough to visit the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site, located about one hour’s drive from Johannesburg.

I donned my safety helmet and descended down into the Sterkfontein Caves where the iconic “Mrs Ples” and “Little Foot” specimens were discovered (Australopithicus). Discovered in 1947, “Mrs Ples” is one of the best known ‘pre-human’ skulls found. “Little Foot” was described much more recently during the 1990’s, and represents a near complete individual.

However it was the “Almost Human” exhibition at the nearby Maropeng Visitor Centre that really excited me. In 2015 a new species of hominin was described, Homo naledi. Due to some certain features of the skull such as a relatively small space for the brain, H. naledi was originally estimated to be around 2 million years old (about the same as Australopithicus). However once the fossils were dated, they were shown to be much more recent (~335,000 – 236,000 years ago).

Two chambers with multiple individuals have been recovered by a team of scientists who squeezed through narrow crevices and tunnels in the Rising Star cave system to retrieve them. There is evidence that the bodies were deliberately placed in the cave system near to the time of their death – could this be evidence of sophisticated burial rituals?

There is an abundance of original material on display, including one individual dubbed “Neo” – the most complete H. naledi specimen. It was a fascinating place to visit and one I very much recommend!

CoHk

Once we were fish – exploring our piscine origins

Did you know that we can trace the origins of our jaws back to the Silurian Period, over 420 million years ago?

Did you know that African lungfish will drown if held under water for too long?

Did you know that the first tetrapods had more than five digits on each hand/foot?

Do you know which vertebrates were the first to give live birth?

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Come and learn these and other amazing facts all about how you and your fish ancestors aren’t all that different after all.

I will be speaking at Palaeo in the Pub” at Flinders Tavern, this Wednesday 18th April from 6pm. I’ll be joined by the other Flinders Fishy Folk, Prof. John Long and Dr. Brian Choo as we regale you with fabulous ‘fishtails’.

The event is FREE to attend and you are invited to enjoy happy hour prices on drinks all night, with some nibbles and hot food provided.

Palaeo in the Pub Flyer - Final copy

On the hunt for tetrapod footprints

I wrote a blog piece for the Flinders University Palaeontology Society’s (FUPS) journal, “Beer n’ Bones” about our fieldwork trip last year to Victoria in search of tetrapod trackways.

We visited the Grampians and Coopracambra National Parks and I was lucky enough to have my first ever HELICOPTER RIDE! You can read it in full by following the link below: http://flinderspalaeosoc.org/tetrapodtracks/

Zalchemie

Figure 1: A model showing what the makers of the Polish Zachełmie trackways may have looked like in the Geological Museum of the State Geological Institute in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo: A. Clement).

Synchrotron Sunday

This week I visited the Australian Synchrotron in south-eastern Melbourne. I’ve visited a few times now, but I always find it exciting and feel like I am stepping into some futuristic opening scene from the X-Files.

A synchrotron is a very large machine, which needs to be housed in its own purpose-built building. It is roughly the size of a football field and at some facilities scientists are given bicycles to get around inside the building! (No bikes in Melbourne, though.) The synchrotron accelerates electrons to close to the speed of light, and then this extremely bright light is released into various beamlines for research or medical use. Synchrotron light is incredibly bright (a million times brighter than the sun!) and can be generated across the electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to X-rays.

We use the synchrotron to image large fossils, or to get really high resolution images of very small ones. Once imaged, the synchrotron projections can be reconstructed into a stack of images (each one a slice through the object) that I then process using specialised software to view inside the specimen and analyse it in three-dimensions (3D). New technology like that in use at the synchrotron is challenging the boundaries of scientific enquiry, and opening up new and exciting possibilities for research.

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Happy International Women’s Day!

It’s that time of year again. People are digging out their oft-neglected lilac, mauve and lavender clothing in commemoration of International Women’s Day. It is a time to celebrate the social, economic, political and cultural achievements of women all over the globe. It is also an annual reminder of how far we still have to go to reach gender parity.

So, what better time to celebrate women palaeontologists than today?! Most people would know of Mary Anning, the English fossil collector famous for her discoveries in the Jurassic beds in the cliffs at Lyme Regis. Some of her most significant finds included Ichthyosaurs, Plesiosaurs and Pterosaurs. In fact there has been a film made recently celebrating the life and work of Mary Anning which I am very excited to see.

However, sadly, I think most people would be hard-pressed to think of a second or third woman palaeontologist from history. It is true that the work of these scientists was often ignored or plagiarised by men in their field. One of my favourite palaeontologists (woman or not) is Tilly Edinger. If you would like to learn more, two scientists have recently written some nice articles summarising Tilly’s life and work (Buchholtz & Seyfarth 1999, 2001).

Tilly Edinger was a German palaeontologist who is credited as the founder of a branch of palaeontology I work in called palaeoneurology. In 1921 Tilly Edinger studied a ‘steinkern’ or natural endocast (mould of the internal cavity) of the skull of a marine Mesozoic marine reptile called Nothosaurus (Edinger 1921).  In the past, scientists had to rely on fortuitous findings of split-open skulls, or use painstakingly slow and destructive methods to examine the internal cavities of fossil skulls. Today palaeoneurology is flourishing due to the increasing accessibility of modern non-invasive scanning technology such as CT or synchrotron scanning.

A large focus of my work is that of endocasts of fossil fish and what they can tell us about the brains these animals had in life. Changes in brain shape throughout evolution can reflect changing reliance on various sensory abilities, and can help pinpoint the origins of certain behaviours. For example, some dinosaur skulls show “flight-ready” adaptations suggesting that those dinosaurs had already evolved the capability for flight, before the origin of birds. I work on the skulls and endocasts of the lineage of fish that first ventured onto land (tetrapods, the first terrestrial vertebrates) and their close fish relatives, lungfish. In doing so, I hope to uncover new insight into the behaviour and drivers for that “greatest step in evolution”.

You can see an image of a lungfish endocast (Rhinodipterus, from the Late Devonian Gogo Formation) below (figure from Clement and Ahlberg 2014).

Rhinodipterus endocast

Please let me know your favourite female palaeontologist from history (or today) in the comments below.

  • BUCHHOLTZ, E. A. & SEYFARTH, E.-A. 1999. The gospel of the fossil brain: Tilly Edinger and the science of paleoneurology. Brain Res Bull, 48, 351-61.
  • BUCHHOLTZ, E. A. & SEYFARTH, E.-A. 2001. The study of “fossil brains”: Tilly Edinger (1897-1967) and the beginnings of paleoneurology. BioScience, 51, 674-682.
  • CLEMENT, A. M. & AHLBERG, P. E. 2014. The first virtual cranial endocast of a lungfish (Sarcopterygii: Dipnoi). PloS One, 9, 19.
  • EDINGER, T. 1921. Über Nothosaurus, Ein Steinkern der Schädelhöhle. Senckenbergiana, 3, 121–129.

Dinosaur rEvolution!

Last night I was lucky enough to attend the opening of the new travelling exhibition at the South Australia Museum, “Dinosaur rEvolution: Secrets of Survival”.

There were a lot of old favourites there, but also some refreshing interpretations incorporating recent discoveries about dinosaur skin and ornaments, and some of the spectacular forms coming out of China (spoiler: there are lots of feathers, quills, spikes and horns to be seen.)

A great feature that I enjoyed was the abundance of skeleton casts that were available to touch (gently). I think the tactile experience is very important in Museum exhibitions – for adults and children alike. However, it was a little disappointing that I didn’t manage to find any Australian material on show.

The exhibition was put together by Luis V. Ray and Gondwana Studios, and is at the SAM until early May. I think it’s sure to be a hit with all of those dinosaur-obsessed little ones out there!

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SciPub: Evolution

Are you currently in Adelaide and interested in Evolution?

If the answer is yes, then you should come on down to “Science in the Pub:Evolution” tomorrow night.

The Science in the Pub group put on FREE public monthly meetings that are, as the name suggests, all about science and held IN THE PUB. It’s a great way to learn something fascinating while enjoying a cold bevvie or two (and in this heat, we deserve it!)

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From their website: “SciPub is to make science engaging and accessible to the public. Each panel consists of three experts who deliver short, 10-15 minute presentations on their area of expertise and then discuss questions from the audience via a moderator.”

Date: Friday 9th Feb

Time: 5:30pm for a 6pm start

Place: Rob Roy Hotel, Halifax Street, Adelaide.

 

The panellists for #SciPubEvolution are:

Prof Mike Lee – Flinders University and SA Museum

Prof Stephen Donnellan – University of Adelaide and SA Museum

Dr Laura Weyrich – University of Adelaide

 

Hope to see you there!

FUPS (Flinders Uni. Palaeo. Society)

As a member of the Research Group in the Palaeontology Group at Flinders University,  I had my profile featured on the Flinders University Palaeontology Society (FUPS) website today.

I talk about how I got into palaeo in the first place, and how my career has progressed thus far (and a few funny old photos too).

Read it here: http://flinderspalaeosoc.org/research-group-profile-dr-alice-clement/

FUPS

The society gives members the opportunity to participate in hands-on palaeontological research, from field trips to workshops and fossil preparation in the lab. And the best bit is, you don’t have to be a student to be a member! It is a wonderful way to get learn more and meet like-minded people.

For more information, check them out: http://flinderspalaeosoc.org/ 

DiceCT & Scanning at SAHMRI

This week I visited the newly-built and impressive-looking SAHMRI (South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute) building in Adelaide.

Together with Trevor Worthy, Warren Handley and Phoebe McInerney, we used their hospital CT scanner to scan the tracheal system of a cassowary. This is in aid of Phoebe’s Honours project, which I am co-supervising.

Worthy, Handley, Mcinerney, Clement

Figure 1: Trevor, Warren, Phoebe and I (and cassowary) at SAHMRI this week.

We are using a technique called diceCT which stands for “Diffusible Iodine-based Contrast Enhanced Computed Tomography”. It is a relatively new technique that yields spectacular results (see Figure 2). It is mostly being used by morphologists who want better differentiation between different types of soft tissues than you normally get from a regular CT scan – the results are comparable with those you get using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

A big thank you to Mishelle! We were very excited to visit the new facility, and I look forward to seeing Phoebe’s project take shape throughout the year.

diceCT example_Neoceratodus

Figure 2: The head of the Australian lungfish, Neoceratodus, imaged using diceCT.