A different kind of project

I’ll be stepping back from my monthly updates a bit as I prepare to go on maternity leave next week. It’s exciting, terrifying & overwhelming, and I understand it will change the life of me and my partner forever. Bubba is due in just over two weeks!

This is what a scientist looks like (8 months pregnant).

I’m all too painfully aware of what the statistics say and how the penalty of motherhood continues to impact women disproportionately compared to their male counterparts (fathers get promoted, while women are pushed out via the #leakypipeline).

Figure 1. Academic profiles by gender; natural and physical sciences 2007.
Source: DEEWR Selected Higher Education Student Statistics 2007; Department of Education,
Science and Training, Special Report, FTE Staff in AOU Groups, 2007.

Even today, it was confronting to look around and struggle to find role models who had become mothers and managed to succeed to senior levels in STEM #WomeninSTEM (although I’m inspired by the few exceptions I do see).

I did also manage to be #PregnantInTheField relatively early on. Very doable (with a few extra toilet breaks and early nights to bed, and some extra loose pants!) I did miss being able to enjoy a glass or two of red by the campfire at the end of the day, however.

Dr Clement, pregnant in the field, holding a fossil find.

I am really hopeful that things continue to improve and that my career isn’t too negatively impacted by choosing to have children. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what is the point of all the initiatives to encourage girls into STEM if we don’t retain women in STEM?

AsiaEvo Conference

The last 18 months have transformed many, many things, including the world of scientific conferences. The pivot to online virtual events means great things for accessibility and inclusion (although I do miss many things about the old-style in-person events too).

This week I gave a talk at the 2nd AsiaEvo Conference, which was organised as a joint meeting with the 23rd Annual Meeting of Society of Evolutionary Studies from Japan. I was one of the invited speakers for a symposium “The rise of fishes: the origin and early evolution of non-tetrapod vertebrates from a paleontological perspective” organised by Min Zhu and You-an Zhu, two great colleagues from IVPP in China.

I gave my talk “Morphometric Analysis of Lungfish Endocasts Elucidates Early Dipnoan Palaeoneurological Evolution” from the comfort of my own office in Adelaide, Australia, on early brain evolution of fossil lungfish (one of my absolute favourite topics in the world!) I can’t say much more about it right now as I’m preparing a paper for submission soon on this very topic.

There were some great talks in our session, but I especially enjoyed the work from Xindong Cui (also from IVPP) on new material of Youngolepis, a lungfish-like fish from the Lower Devonian of Yunnan, China. I look forward to seeing his work published soon!

National Science Week 2021

National Science Week 2021 is fast approaching! During 14-22 August Australia-wide there is a plethora of science-themed events, tours and more for you to get involved in.

I’m involved in a few different events happening during the week:

I’m attending the Official Launch Lunch being held at the South Australian Museum with Mr Brian Oldman, (Director of the South Australian Museum), Hon David Pisoni MP and Prof Caroline McMillen AO, (Chief Scientist for SA), in a celebration of science (la di da!)

Secondly, I’m an invited speaker at Seeing Things Differently held by Micro-X at Tonsley on Friday 20th August where I will present my talk ‘A virtual revolution for fossil hunters – how CT scanning is transforming palaeontology’ to registered school groups coming by for a tour of Adelaide’s Micro-X factory.

I’ve been invited to be part of a fun night of science and cheeky debate between four teams representing different STEM fields called My Science Rulz, Your Science Droolz. It’ll be a battle between palaeontology, astronomy, maths, and neurogenetics on Tuesday 24th August at The Gov and should be a good laugh.

And lastly, I’m helping to organise an event being put on by the Royal Society of South Australia, thanks to support from Nat Sci Week, called the Royal Society Show Case Science to celebrate and promote to the public the diverse research our members undertake to advance knowledge in SA. The night will include lightening talks and distinguished panellists making their case for science on Wednesday 18th August. This event will be held in person at the SA Museum, but guests are also available to join in online and attendance is free! Please check it out. #ScienceSouthAustralia

So it is shaping up to be a busy, but fun-filled and science-y week! I urge you to check out the website to see if there is an event that tickles your fancy so you too can get involved.

100 years of fossil brains

2021 marks 100 years since the birth of palaeoneurology, the study of “fossil brains”. As its name suggests, palaeoneurology combines the study of fossils with neural evolution.

On this day in 1921, a young vertebrate palaeontologist from Frankfurt, Germany, Johanna Gabrielle Ottilie “Tilly” Edinger, submitted her thesis describing an “endocast” of a Mesozoic marine reptile, Nothosaurus. An endocast is a mould of the internal space of the skull which houses the brain; these can form naturally via sediment infill, or can be recreated using virtual models.

To mark the occasion, I wrote an article for The Conversation. Please follow this link to read it: “Remembering Tilly Edinger, the pioneering ‘brainy’ woman who fled Nazi Germany and founded palaeoneurology“.

I was inspired to write this article following conversations with Dr Susan Turner (co-author of “Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology“).

Tilly Edinger’s pioneering work has allowed us to understand much more deeply the evolution of the vertebrate brain, and continues to inspire other researchers to carry on her important legacy.

I’ve included a list of some active “brainy” women currently working in palaeoneurology below if you would like to learn more about specific groups of vertebrates (I guess it can’t be fish all the time!)

ScientistAnimal groupWhere they work
Dr Amy BalanoffDinosaurs and birdsJohn Hopkins University (USA)
Dr Amélie BeaudetHominids (apes and early humans)University of Cambridge (UK)
Dr Ornella BertrandMammalsUniversity of Edinburgh (UK)
Dr Alice ClementFish and early tetrapodsFlinders University (Australia)
Dr Elizabeth FerrerBirdsStony Brook University (USA)
Dr Sam GilesFishUniversity of Birmingham (UK)
Dr Maria Eugenia GoldDinosaurs and birdsSuffolk University (USA)
Dr Jing LuFishIVPP (China)
Dr Gabi SobralReptilesStaatliches Museum für Naturkunde (Germany)

References:

  • Edinger T. 1921. Über Nothosaurus, Ein Steinkern der Schädelhöhle. Senckenbergiana 3:121–129.
  • Buchholtz EA, and Seyfarth E-A. 1999. The gospel of the fossil brain: Tilly Edinger and the science of paleoneurology. Brain Res Bull 48:351-361.
  • Buchholtz EA, and Seyfarth E-A. 2001. The study of “fossil brains”: Tilly Edinger (1897-1967) and the beginnings of paleoneurology. BioScience 51:674-682.

EEE talk: Fishy brains and fossil endocasts

I’m excited to be giving the next Ecology, Evolution & Environment seminar at
Flinders University on Tuesday 8th June 1pm ACST. I’ll be talking about: “Fishy brains and fossil endocasts: early vertebrate neural adaptations to life on land.”

Come along in person or join in online (https://video.flinders.edu.au/events20/21/EcologyAndEvolutionSeminarSeries.cfm?id=2). You can even submit questions to me live via www.slido.com using the event code #S3E_Clement.

The Backpacker’s Guide To Prehistory

Have you ever wondered what travel essentials you would need to pack for a journey back in time? Who has the best tips for things to see and do (and avoid!) from throughout earth’s history? Are you considering a journey back in time to the Devonian? It’ll be lovely and warm so pack your swimwear, but don’t forget your shark diving cage and oxygen tank is all I can say!

I had lots of fun recording an episode of a new podcast called “The Backpacker’s Guide To Prehistory” which is the brainchild of David Mountain. David invites two experts on various geological periods to each episode to learn about the “top travel tips for time travellers”. It is a fun and interesting way to learn about the past.

Download the whole series from wherever you get your podcasts. Or simply click below to listen to the Devonian episode to learn about placoderms, tetrapods, the first forests, giant fungi and the end-Devonian extinctions.

VP fieldtrip to Victoria

I was back in the office after a week away on the Flinders University 3rd year Vertebrate Palaeontology field trip to Victoria (in south-eastern Australia).

First, we explored some Silurian and Devonian deposits in the Grampians (Gariwerd on Jardwardjali land), including some spectacular trace fossils from the Glen Isla Quarry and Homestead, whilst camping at the beautiful Buandik Campground.

Silverband Falls, Grampians N. P.

Next we moved on to Mansfield in the foothills of the Victorian Alps (Taungurung) to work on the Kevington Creek Formation of the South Blue Range (mid-Devonian), and the Devil’s Plain Formation (Carboniferous).

View from South Blue Range, Mansfield

These sites were relatively productive with us discovering many plant fossils (e.g. Lepidodendron), placoderms (including Bothriolepis, Groenlandaspis and Austrophyllolepis), and some tiny sharks teeth from Kevington Creek Formation.

I was pleased to find a block containing what looked like skull roof bones from a rhizodont (Barameda), a large predatory fish known to come from the Carboniferous deposits of “Fish Hill”. We also found numerous large spines from acanthodians (“spiny” stem sharks).

I found a block containing impressions of some rhizodont skull at “Fish Hill” in Mansfield

Lastly, we jumped through time on our way home to the Pleistocene of Warrnambool on the Great Ocean Road of western Victoria. There we saw megafauna trackways (including those from the marsupial “lion”, Thylacoleo) at Thunder Point and heard about human habitation of the Moyjil and Tower Hill area from >35,000 years ago, and possibly as long ago as 120,000 (!) from Dr John Sherwood.

Thunder Point, Warrnambool

We were so lucky to be able to run our fieldtrip this year after two failed expeditions last year (COVID-related). We got to visit some truly spectacular places, and found plenty of fish fossils so all in all, a great success, I’d say!

Another brainy paper

It has been a good month with another paper published last week. This one “Brain Reconstruction Across the Fish-Tetrapod Transition; Insights From Modern Amphibians” forms part of a special research topic in the Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution journal on soft tissue reconstruction (you guessed it!) over the fish-tetrapod transition.

I was very happy, along with my co-authors, to contribute to this special issue. My co-authors included Flinders PhD candidate, Corinne Mensforth, Dr Tom Challands from the University of Edinburgh in the UK, Prof. Shaun Collin from La Trobe University (Victoria, Australia) and Prof. John Long, also from Flinders University.

In this work we looked at the relationship between the brain and it’s “endocast” in some amphibians (frogs and caecilians), to compare with earlier work on lungfish and salamanders. The endocast is a cast or mould of the internal space of a hollow structure, in this case, the space inside the skull that usually houses the brain in life.

We did this to try and better inform our interpretation of fossil endocasts when the soft parts of the brain haven’t been preserved and only the hard, bony parts remain. I also wrote an article for The Conversation about this research, so if you’d like to know more please CLICK HERE!

Brains (pink) and endocasts (grey) of lobe-finned fish and amphibians.

New paper on fossil limb bones and bone marrow

We had a paper published today in the journal, eLife. The article, “New light shed on the early evolution of limb-bone growth plate and bone marrow” was written by an international team of researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden (Sophie Sanchez, Jordi Estefa, Grzegorz Niedźwiedzki), the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France (Paul Tafforeau, Camille Berruyer), Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia (Jozef Klembara), and of course, Flinders University in Australia (that’s me!)

Do you know where in the body your red blood cells are produced? For most of us, this occurs in the bone marrow within our “long bones” (in our arms and legs). But what about animals without arms and legs, like fish? They tend to produce blood cells (in a process known as haematopoiesis) in other body organs, such as their kidney or liver. This raises the question: at which point in evolution did blood cell production shift from body organs into long bones?

How tetrapods acquired new bone characteristics as they transitioned from water to land.
Image from article by Holly Woodward: https://elifesciences.org/articles/66506

Some researchers thought this might have occurred in the bones of the earliest backboned animals to evolve limbs (yes, you guessed it, we are talking about early tetrapods again!) before they moved from water onto land. To test this hypothesis, my good friend and colleague, virtual palaeohistology queen Dr Sophie Sanchez, together with PhD student Jordi Estefa, led this investigation into the microarchitecture of animals spanning the fish-tetrapod transition (stem-tetrapods, batrachians, and amniotes).

Classical histology, as well as three-dimensional synchrotron virtual histology, was used to identify which animals had humeri (upper arm bones) with an internal organization that would enable blood cells to be produced (similar to what we see in living reptiles and mammals). The earliest animals we investigated with open marrow cavities where haematopoiesis could have occurred, are 300 million-year-old stem amniotes called Seymouria and Discosauriscus. Contrary to previous hypotheses, this is significantly (at least ~60-70 million years) later than the first tetrapods that evolved limbs and crawled out of water and onto land!

Left: The 380-million-year-old lobe-finned fish, Eusthenopteron upper arm bone (humerus) has marrow processes forming a simple enclosed mesh of tubular structures that probably only served for the elongation of the bone. 
 
Right: The 300-million-year-old tetrapod, Discosauriscus, upper arm bone (humerus). Discosauriscus has marrow processes forming a complex mesh of tubular structures and small cavities that open up onto the large empty medullary cavity at midshaft, where a centralized blood-vessel mesh could allow the production of blood cells. 

E. S. Hills Medal

Wow. I’m thrilled and honoured to receive the E.S. Hills medal from the Geological Society of Australia today. The medal is awarded to a young (<40 years) Australian resident for outstanding contribution(s) to any branch of the geological sciences, anywhere. This medal, named for the impressive life and career of Edwin Sherbon Hills -whose interests and expertise were incredibly wide-ranging- is a great reminder of how broad and vast the geosciences are.

The medal was awarded during the 2021 Virtual AESC (Australian Earth Sciences Convention) . I must of course say a HUUUUGE thank you my nominators, and the entire awards committee for this privilege. Big congratulations also to Heather Handley for the inaugural Beryl Nashar Award, and to Alan Collins for the S.W. Carey Medal. (I’m humbled to be in their company). I hope that this award can inspire others to remember just how diverse and exciting the geological sciences are, and to keep digging until you find your niche. Thanks GSA!