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.


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.