Plastic reptile brains

Want more brain power in your life? I sure do, so I’m super pleased to announce that we found out that our Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant was funded last week! The project title is: Plastic brains: Neural adaptations to changing environments in reptiles, and we have three years of funding to complete the project.

BUT ALICE, I may hear you ask, these are not fish? No, you are quite correct, these are not fish (or just very highly derived fish), but I’m really interested in trying to understand brain evolution in all of the so-called “lower” vertebrates and particularly see how they change over major environmental shifts.

The project is really the “brain child” of the incredible Jenna Crowe-Riddell (La Trobe) and I’m stoked to be involved (we are pictured above enjoying some home-grown veggies in the sunshine). I’m also looking forward to working with all of our co-investigators Mike Lee (Flinders), Shaun Collin (La Trobe), Kate Sanders (University of Adelaide) and Alison Davis-Rabosky (University of Michigan).

We’ll be exploring macroevolutionary and ontogenetic patterns of brain evolution in reptiles, quantifying neuronal densities, and investigating the effects of temperature on brain development with a focus on some key Australian radiations such as elapids (snakes) and agamids (dragon lizards).

They may not be fish, but I’m very excited to investigate how the brains of Aussie snakes and lizards have evolved in response to past and ongoing environmental change using some cool techniques like DiceCT (for imaging soft tissue anatomy), Geometric Morphometrics (to capture complex shape) and some cool phylogenetic analyses courtesy of the phylo master (Mike).

Protocol to diceCT scan including a comparison of CT-scan pre & post iodine staining and 3D render of neuroanatomy showing specific digitally dissected brain regions (Callahan, Crowe-Riddell, et al., 2021).

Commiserations to all who missed out on DP grants this round. With a success rate consistently lower than 20% there are many fantastic and worthy projects that fail to secure funding. Total funding (in real terms, not due to inflation) is the lowest in years this round (at least the last 8 years, see graph on left below). I think Australia can, and needs to do better in funding more research and development to keep up with other (particularly OECD) countries. Additionally, as a female EMCR lead investigator (red line in graph on the right), Jenna is here kicking the trend of most funding being awarded to male level E Professors (aqua line) and so this effort is particularly impressive! Exciting times ahead for Jenna and for reptile brains!

IPC6 in Thailand

I’ve just returned from a week away in Khon Kaen in northeastern Thailand where I attended the 6th International Palaeontological Congress (IPC6). The IPC meetings are held every four years since the first meeting in Australia in 2002. I wasn’t at that meeting, but I’ve been lucky enough to attend the previous three meetings prior to Thailand this year (IPC3 London, IPC4 Mendoza, and IPC5 Paris).

IPC brings together all sorts of palaeontologists, those who work on plants, trace fossils, micro fossils, invertebrates and vertebrates, to communicate their latest research and findings. The theme of the meetings was “From Gondwana to Laurasia” reflecting the great geological and palaeontological diversity of Thailand’s terranes. (Gondwana and Laurasia were the southern and northern supercontinents respectively that formed Pangaea during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic).

The “fish” people at IPC6 2022 in Khon Kaen, Thailand.

There were more than 400 participants from 40 countries participating in over 30 differently themed sessions. The disappointingly low representation of women (let alone non-binary) keynote and plenary talks was noted (only 2 out of 18! Do better palaeo!), and some insensitive remarks at the final conference dinner highlighted that we still have far to go to reach gender equality in palaeontology.

However, I’m very pleased to say that I had the honour of giving the keynote for the “Digital Palaeontology” session, as well as giving a second talk about coelacanths in the “Palaeozoic Fish and Early Tetrapods” session.

Aside from all the talks and posters, we were kept busy with conference dinners and music performances and optional mid-conference daytrips to see nearby Khmer temple ruins (spectacular Phimai) and attend the local Loy Krathong (Lantern Festival) celebrations in Khon Kaen.

As always, it was fantastic to meet up with old colleagues and meet new ones. There were many projects discussed over breakfast, lunch and pre-dinner drinks throughout the week which can be surprisingly productive! I’m very much looking forward to the next meeting in Cape Town 2026 (thanks Anusuya!)