79th SVP, Brisbane

Last week Australia welcomed the largest gathering of vertebrate palaeontologists (an “assemblage” of palaeontologists according to Prof. Flint) that Australia has ever seen* at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) meeting. The 79th annual meeting was held for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre in Queensland, Australia.

SVP was founded in 1940 and has over 2000 members from across the globe representing all manner of people interested in vertebrate palaeontology. It was a week filled with workshops, talks, poster sessions, social events, field trips and more.

Prof. Mike Archer from UNSW opened the proceedings with a talk entitled “Life, Sex, Songs, Scrat and the Sponge: Australia’s Guinness Book of Evolutionary Records” at the University of Queensland on Tuesday, and on Wednesday we were treated to a special Welcome Reception held at the Queensland Museum. The Awards Banquet dinner was held on Saturday night with a surprise guest appearance from Prof. Flint singing his new song all about Mary Anning.

As always these events are an unmissable opportunity to hear about the hugely varied questions, fossils and approaches that people apply to palaeontology, and also to catch up with colleagues from near and afar. The Flinders Palaeo Lab was represented in force with about 25 past and present members in attendance.

Thanks to the organisers and the host committee for such a truly inspiring and interesting week. Looking forward to 2020 in Cincinnati!

Flinders Palaeo lab at SVP 2019

*As far as I know

BLiSS*Adelaide

Well, what a big week it has been! Last Friday we held the inaugural BLiSS*Adelaide one day symposium for EMCR’s (Early/Mid Career Researcher). I’m proud to say that I was Co-Chair (Head of Operations) as part of the of the Steering Committee that organised this inspiring event. Our committee, lead by BLiSS* founder, Dr fLo Cotel, and BLiSS*Adelaide Chair, Dr Sanam Mustafa, worked hard for 18 months to bring this event to life.

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We kicked off the day with a keynote address from the Chief Scientist for SA, Prof Caroline McMillen, followed by three themed sessions. However, the day ran a little differently to most scientific conferences; the speakers from each session worked together beforehand to weave their presentations into a narrative that explored a general broad theme (Fundamentals in Life, Sustainable Earth, Innovative Futures), rather than present the specifics of their current project. This enabled spirited and inspiring discussions to flow throughout the day.

In the afternoon we invited a panel of experts to discuss “Pathways to Innovation Translation” followed by a networking event. We couldn’t have done it without the generous support of our many sponsors, and it was great to see so many local facilities come down on the day. It’s amazing to learn what exists in your own backyard that you’ve never even heard of!

We really hoped to inspire some interdisciplinary collaborations in the EMCR’s of Adelaide, tomorrow’s leaders in research. So, a generous $3000 collaboration prize is up for grabs for any two researchers who met on the day and can show evidence of their new partnership in 6 months time (in addition to the many other prizes awarded on the day).

I was fascinated by the range of topics covered in the talks and posters last Friday, and I look forward to seeing how BLiSS*Adelaide continues to grow into the future. Thanks to all members of the Steering Committee and everyone who made it down on the day!

BLiSS* out, peeps!

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BLiSS*Adelaide Steering Committee 2019 (Photo: Catherine Leo Photography)

 

Brave Minds

‘Experiment and experiment bravely’ are the oft-repeated and celebrated words from Flinders University Founding Vice-ChancellorProfessor Peter Karmel. Following this vein, and in celebrating some of the varied and wonderful research coming out of this university, Flinders decided to create a new publication launched this month, called “Brave Minds.”

John Pickrell spoke to John Long and I about work that I began in Sweden at Uppsala University investigating fossil fish brains and brain reconstruction techniques, and that we continue here at Flinders. You can read the full article online here: https://www.flinders.edu.au/braveminds/when-intellect-was-born , or check out some of the other exciting research covered in Edition 1 of Brave Minds.

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IVPP, Beijing

….. aaaaand to round off this incredible China trip of mine, I spent the last week working at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing. It is really exciting to be able to look at specimens that I’ve only read about in the literature… until now.

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I must say a big thank you to Zhu Min and colleagues who welcomed me and so generously shared their specimens and work with me. In particular I have to thank Tuo Qiao for letting me look at her lovely lungfish, and for Jing Lu for letting me crash in her office all week and marvel over the amazing lobe-finned fish she works on.

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Photo: Lunch at IVPP with Brian Choo, Yuzhi Hu, Han Hu, and Jing Lu.

A real highlight of every day was lunchtime, yum! What an amazing experience this China “palaeo pilgrimage” adventure has been, I look forward to coming back again soon. 

Field trip in Yunnan

Following on from the ISLEV meeting, I then spent four days travelling around Yunnan Provence in Southern China as part of an organised post-conference field trip. The idea behind these sorts of field trips are to allow foreign researchers to visit sites that they know from the literature, but that they might not get opportunity to do so otherwise.

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Day 1 saw us check out some Silurian strata close to Qujing before heading north to visit Fuyuan County. We were treated to some breathtaking views after a climb at the source Pearl River,  and then later guided through an epic cave system of the karst landform in Fuyuan.

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Day 2 saw us leap up through geological time into the Mesozoic “Age of Reptiles”. We spent the day visiting Luoping Biota National Geopark. This was a real treat for the absolutely spectacular preservation of the fossils, but also the views. I was most excited to see Luopingcoelacanthus, the oldest known evidence of embryos preserved inside a coelacanth!

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On Day 3 we moved back in time to the Cambrian, the time period when the earth saw unprecedented numbers and diversity of complex early life. At Chengjiang Fauna National Geopark we saw the “oldest preserved animal community”; it included strange early animals such as the fearsome Anomolacaris (thought to be an early relative of arthropods) and the truly weird Hallucigenia (it is so weird, those describing it thought they may be hallucinating) . Again we visited a “Geopark” built to conserve and research the local fossil fauna. I think it would be great to see more of these parks in Australia to protect our own unique geological heritage.

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For our final day we returned to my favourite time period, the Devonian “Age of Fishes”. We stopped at a few different sites in Wuding County and were not disappointed. The rocks were absolutely full of fabulous fish fossils! I think the find of the day was Martha’s giant Holonema specimen ( a type of arthrodire placoderm). What a way to end a marvellous field trip filled with fossils, scenery and great food. Thank you to our colleagues from IVPP, Beijing, for this unforgettable experience.

ISELV in China

What is ISELV?, I hear you ask. ISELV stands for the International Symposium of Early and Lower Vertebrates, which basically means “a meeting for fish nerds” (especially fossil fish from the Palaeozoic). The 15th episode of this meeting was held this month in China.

The first ISELV was held in 1967 in Stockholm and has been held on average every 4 (or fewer) years since then. I’ve been lucky enough to attend this wonderful meeting previously in 2015 (Melbourne, Australia) and 2017 (Chęciny, Poland).

This year the “fishy fossil” global community descended upon Yunnan Provence in southern China to spend a week at Qujing Normal University. The week was meticulously arranged by our colleagues from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthroplogy (IVPP) in Beijing.

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We enjoyed four full days of fascinating talks, and were treated to a field day in the middle of the conference out at some of the local Silurian and Devonian sites yielding vertebrate remains around Qujing. First we visited the Xiaoxiang site close to Dongpo village. Several high profile discoveries in recent years have been excavated from this site, including so-called “maxillae” placoderms (Entelognathus, Qilinyu), and some of the earliest complete bony fishes (Guiyu, Megamastax, Sparalepis). In addition to our excitement about hammering out some fossils at these famous sites, we saw some spectacular countryside scenery too.

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The second stop saw us visit the Xitun Fauna site which is younger than the Dongpo site, this time we were up in the Devonian “Age of Fishes”. This site has revealed some very important lobe-finned fishes, in particular Youngolepis and Diabolepis, which were found in the 1980s, and more recently forms such as Psarolepis, Achoania, Styloichthys and Meemannia.

I spoke on the third day on “New information on the pharynx of the Devonian tetrapodomorph fish, Gogonasus, revealed by synchrotron and neutron tomography.” I compared scans of a new specimen of a complete Gogonasus scanned using conventional micro CT, synchrotron and neutron scanning while also describing the anatomy of the gill arches of this fish. The arches appear to be somewhat reduced which could be an indication of increased reliance on air-breathing in this relative of the early tetrapods.

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Dr Lu Jing and Dr Alice Clement at ISELV 2019 in Qujing, China. 

Thanks to Min Zhu (chairman), Wen-jin Zhao (vice-chair) and the rest of the organising committee for putting on such a wonderful meeting! Also, I must acknowledge and give many thanks to eLife and Flinders University Impact Seed Funding which allowed me to travel to China and to attend this meeting.

 

STEM Women launches today!

STEM Women is an online directory of women in Australia working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). STEM Women aims to promote gender equity in STEM by showcasing the breadth of scientific talent in Australia, enabling a diverse range of women to be offered exciting opportunities to progress their careers and personal capabilities.

The Australian Academy of Science developed the directory in partnership with the CSIRO, Science & Technology Australia, and the Australian Science Media Centre, with financial support from the Australian Government.

You can find my profile up there, or to search for other women working in STEM (or for general information about the scheme) go to: www.stemwomen.org.au 

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eLife Travel Grant

A big thank you to eLife for awarding me a travel grant! eLife is a fantastic organisation that publishes and supports the life and biomedical sciences. It runs a little differently to many other journals in that it is led by scientists and actively works to support EMCR’s (Early and Mid-career researchers). I published a paper with them in 2018 about the enigmatic stem-osteichthyan, Ligulalepis. My experience working with them was overwhelmingly positive and I’d very much like the opportunity to do so again.

I was one of seven researchers worldwide awarded a travel grant by eLife recently. (You can read about the other recipients here). This grant will help me to attend the upcoming International Symposium on Early and Lower Vertebrates in Qujing, China and present my work on the iconic Devonian tetrapodomorph fish, Gogonasus.

Thank you, eLife! 

Dingo – the neutron beam

Do you know the difference between neutron imaging and X-ray imaging (such as when using CT or synchrotron)? Unlike X-rays, which rely on electrons and attenuate depending on the density of an object, neutron imaging, as its name suggests, relies on neutrons. This means that how an object is imaged is not related to its density (as in X-rays) but instead on the chemical composition of materials (and other neutron attenuation properties).

For example, while X-rays are good at imaging your (hard) bone within your arm (surrounded by soft muscles and skin), a neutron beam would not produce a similarly clear picture.  However, often when trying to image really dense materials (such as metallic objects), X-rays fail to adequately penetrate. In contrast, using neutron imaging, materials that contain a lot of hydrogen (water, for example) will not image well but dense materials, such as many metals, allow the neutrons to pass through them and thus can be imaged.

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Together with my colleagues, Prof. Kate Trinajstic and Prof. John Long, I visited the OPAL reactor run by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) last month to image a spectacular specimen of the tetrapodomorph fish, Gogonasus. We believe we have the entire fish contained within one large “Gogo nodule” but wanted to avoid preparing it in the traditional way (using weak acetic acid to dissolve the limestone) in case there was preserved soft tissue inside.

We used the Neutron Imaging instrument, Dingo, and worked with instrument scientist, Dr Joseph Bevitt to scan this 375 million-year-old fossil fish. Having already imaged the same specimen using micro-CT and synchrotron imaging at the ESRF last year, this will provide a great study to compare the different methods.

Old Four Legs (Palaeo in the Pub)

Did you know that when the living coelacanth was discovered off the coast of South Africa in the 1930s it was considered the greatest zoological discovery of the 20th Century? The group of fish known as coelacanths (closely related to lungfish) are known from the fossil record ranging from the Early Devonian (~410 million years ago) up until ~70 million years ago when they suddenly disappear. It was long thought that they had perished alongside the non-avian dinosaurs and all the other animals that went extinct at the end of the Mesozoic era. Hence the discovery of the living “Lazarus taxonLatimeria, identified and described by Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and J.L.B. Smith, caused quite a stir. This is what is known as a “ghost lineage” where we can infer the existence of an organism (we know it must have been alive) but there is no evidence known in the fossil record.

In addition to Prof. Richard Cloutier, this week we have been lucky enough to have ANOTHER coelacanth expert working with us at Flinders University. Dr Hugo Dutel from the University of Bristol has just published an incredible paper in the prestigious journal Nature examining the evolution and development of the brain and braincase of the living coelacanth (Latimeria) through ontogeny (the origin and development of an organism), in this case he has a growth series from foetus to adult. The work is all the more remarkable due to the rare nature of these elusive, deep-sea, ovoviviparous, lobe-finned fishes.

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Having both Prof. Richard Cloutier and Dr Hugo Dutel in the same city meant that it was a no-brainer to hold a FUPS (Flinders University Palaeontology Society) “Palaeo in the Pub” event. I was the third invited speaker for the special theme “Old Four Legs – the 400-million-year story of the coelacanth.” Richard gave the group an introduction to coelacanths, including the remarkable discovery of Latimeria 80 years ago as well as a brief overview of fossil coelacanths. I then spoke about the discovery and description of a new species of fossil coelacanth from the Gogo Formation that we are working on together, and finally Hugo spoke about his recent work on the living coelacanth.

It’s been an absolute pleasure to have Hugo here with John, Richard and I to talk all about coelacanths (my second favourite group of fishes). We have made good progress in our work on the new coelacanth, so expect an update on that shortly!

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