Total Girl

Guess who was featured in this month’s edition of Total Girl magazine? (For those of you who don’t know that is “Australia’s Best Tween Mag for Girls”.)

You guessed it, moi!

I was very pleased to be contacted by their Features Writer recently (thanks Aaron!) who was looking to include more science-based content, in particular, information about possible career paths in science and technology. You can find my face in amongst the celeb goss, quizzes and all things cute and fluffy!

With respect to women in STEM in particular, I strongly believe we all need to do much more to remove negative biases from all levels of the ‘leaky pipeline’, to positively engage and inspire confidence in the next generation. A big part of this is visibility of appropriate and positive role models, as I strive to be.

Issue #192 (July 2018) is on sale now. And word has it that this issue comes with a free glitter watch too!

OMG. Totes amazeballs.

Tgirl

Ralph Tate Memorial Lecture

Last night I attended the “Ralph Tate Memorial Lecture” held in the Mawson Lecture Theatre at Adelaide University. The event is held annually, jointly organised by the Royal Society of South Australia, the Geological Society of South Australia and the Field Geology Club of South Australia. The Mawson Theatre is accessed through the Tate Museum, a lovely old display full of geological wonders in a room that feels like a step back in time.

Ralph Tate was a professor of natural science at the University of Adelaide, and was a botanist, palaeontologist, zoologist and geologist in his own right. He was also the first president of the Royal Society of South Australia (originally the Philosophical Society) in 1880.

I joined the Royal Society of South Australia just over two years ago, and have been serving as Membership Secretary since that time. The Society continues to promote science in the community through grants, lectures and publications, and has been a great way for me to meet other people who share my passion for science. (Please check out our website, Facebook or Twitter for more information).

The speaker of the lecture last night was Prof. Gavin Prideaux, the head of our palaeontology group at Flinders University, with the topic “How has Australian mammal evolution been shaped by environmental change over the past 25 million years?” It was fascinating to hear an overview of some of the work and hypotheses examining mammal -and specifically megafauna- evolution and extinction over that time.

The message I took from the talk is that there will be no one “smoking gun” in the fossil record, and that many of the extinctions that have occurred in that time are likely due to a combination of hunting, fire stick farming and climate change. These are interesting ideas, but more importantly the lessons we can learn from these events should help us to understand when and how animals can adapt to climate change in order to help our current biota persist through this (ongoing) sixth mass extinction.

RTML

New paper out today!

Today, my latest paper investigating a 400 million year old fish, has been published in the journal eLife. Together with my colleagues from Australia, the UK, Sweden, and the Netherlands, we have studied and uncovered new information about an enigmatic fish known as ‘Ligulalelpis.

There are just two specimens of this fish’s skull known, and we have examined both of them using microCT to view the internal anatomy in addition to the external features.  By doing so, we have settled a 20 year controversy surrounding this animal, and identified it as belonging just below the major radiation of all modern fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (that’s 98% of all vertebrate species alive today!) on the evolutionary family tree.

In addition to the eLife article, you can read a piece written by John Long and myself for The Conversation, including some lovely images from Brian Choo.

Ligulalepis

Figure. A, the new skull viewed from above (dorsal view); B, life reconstruction of ‘Ligulalepis‘; and C, the position of ‘Ligulalepis‘ in the evolutionary family tree.         (Photo and animation below, Ben King; Illustrations, Brian Choo.)

 

***ALSO: below is a short video with John and myself, talking about ‘Ligulalepis‘, filmed by Yaz Dedovic at Flinders University Paleontology Labs, Adelaide.

DiceCT

My diceCT work on the Australian lungfish has been featured at the online home of the diceCT community. DiceCT stands for Diffusible Iodine-based Contrast-Enhanced Computed Tomography, and is a relatively recent technique for imaging soft tissue using CT imaging, and it gives spectacular results!

The site is a great place to stay up-to-date on recent publications using the method, technical advice and events. You can also read about other techniques, such as the deliciously-named ‘SpiceCT’ (Selectively Perfusable Iodine-based Contrast-Enhanced CT), which is particularly good for staining large specimens, and can do so very rapidly.

See the original blog post and other cool work using these methods via New Publication: Cephalic muscle development in the Australian lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri.

My diceCT publications on the Australian lungfish:

  • CLEMENT, A. M., NYSJÖ, J., STRAND, R. & AHLBERG, P. E. 2015. Brain – endocast relationship in the Australian lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri, elucidated from tomographic data (Sarcopterygii: Dipnoi). PloS One.
  • ZIERMANN, J. M., CLEMENT, A. M., ERICSSON, R. & OLSSON, L. 2017. Cephalic Muscle Development in the Australian Lungfish, Neoceratodus forsteri. Journal of Morphology, 279, 494-516.

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?

***

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.