Despite this global pandemic raging all around us, during this first fortnight of May I have been taking part in a scientific conference from the comfort and safety of my own home. The 2nd Palaeontological Virtual Congress (PALAEOVC) showcases what I believe will become part of the new normal for scientific meetings.
PALAEOVC is developed exclusively in the virtual environment, meaning it is cheaper to hold (and attend), and can enable a higher number of researchers from every corner of the globe – which is great for those who can’t always travel to attend scientific meetings.
I presented a “virtual poster” which in essence consisted of 5 powerpoint slides showing one element of my research entitled “Endocast Anatomy of the Megalichthyid Tetrapodomorph, Cladarosymblema, Elucidated via Micro-CT” (which is a long-winded way of saying I’m looking inside the skull of a tetrapod-like fish called Cladarosymblema). This fish comes from the Carboniferous (~340 million years ago) of Queensland, Australia, and we’ve scanned two beautiful 3D preserved specimens, enabling me to look inside the fossils at the shape of their braincase.
PALAEOVC had several different sessions and different formats for presentations, invited guest presenters and even a virtual field trip to the Dolomites in northern Italy! The online platform provided space for discussion forums and it was great to be able to interact with the meeting and other attendees in your own time zone throughout the two weeks it was online.
I have to thank and congratulate the Scientific and Organising Committee for pulling PALAEOVC together which was particularly valuable during this time of global lockdown. I look forward to participating in the next one and envisage that this kind of virtual platform is likely to become more and more common in the future.
I’m looking forward to giving an invited presentation to Butterfly Conservation South Australia (BCSA) next month. The BCSA formed over 20 years ago to promote the conservation of butterflies and moths, and their habitat. Their members hold monthly meetings which begin with a “Butterfly of the Month” presentation, before an invited lecture from a diverse range of scientists (that’s where I come in).
I’ll be talking about one of my absolute favourite topics “Brain evolution of fossil fish and the first tetrapods“. I’ll summarise some of my previous work looking at brains of lungfishes, before moving on to more recent work on other groups more closely related to tetrapods (the first terrestrial vertebrates). There’ll be some spectacular fossils to be celebrated and I’m sure to say the work ‘endocast’ at least 100 times.
I always really enjoy the opportunity to talk about my research with the public so I’m very much looking forward to the night (even though we wont get to meet face-to-face due to current social distancing guidelines). However, if you ever need somewhere to learn about, identify, attract or breed butterflies, then apparently BCSA is the place to go!
Let me tell you about my favourite fossil lungfish.
Rhinodipterus is a long-snouted, tooth-plated lungfish known from the Mid-Late Devonian Period (roughly 390-360 million years ago). There were a handful of species of Rhinodipterus known from throughout Europe described during the mid 20th Century. However, a new specimen unearthed in 2008 from the Gogo Formation in Australia sparked my involvement and interest in this lungfish.
The Gogo Formation is particularly rich in lungfish fossils and this new find represented the 11th described species from this one locality. Most equivalent deposits may have just one or sometimes two species present, but clearly the lungfish were very diverse on the ancient Gogo reef! And interestingly, this European genus (Rhinodipterus) had for the first time appeared in a different part of the world, all the way over in Australia. This is something we refer to as ‘palaeobiogeographic distribution’. I named the new species Rhinodipterus kimberleyensis, to reflect the location where this fossil was found (the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia).
Tim Sendon, who scanned the specimen at the ANU CT Lab.
Aside from being a new species, the most interesting thing about Rhinodipterus are certain features of its skeleton that are missing from other lungfish at Gogo. Rhinodipterus has cranial ribs which suggests it may have been able to breathe air! Cranial ribs are mobilized during the air gulping action in living lungfish and so their presence (as well as a suite of other features) are used to infer this ability in fossil forms. While we know all living lungfish can breathe air, it is finds such as these that help us pinpoint when this feature first evolved in the fossil lineage.
Furthermore, the specimen of Rhinodipterus that I described was so well preserved and uncrushed, it contained a near complete part of the skull called the braincase. As it’s name suggests, the braincase houses the brain inside the skull. Most lungfish fossils younger than the Devonian become more cartilaginous and don’t tend to fossilise particularly well (unlike bone, which is a harder and more durable material), so this is one of the most advanced fossil lungfish braincases known. Via CT-scanning and computer 3D-modelling I was able to create a virtual ‘endocast’ (mould of the internal cavity) of the braincase. These endocasts can give a lot of information about the early brain evolution in this most wonderful group of fishes (I’m not biased at all!) and help us to reconstruct brain morphology in extinct animals.
It’s here, it’s here, Elpistostege is finally here!
What or who is Elpistostege, I hear you ask? Elpistostegeis an ancient beastie that roamed the earth some 380 million years ago throughout parts of what is today Quebec in Canada. When fossils were first described it was thought they belonged to an ancient amphibian, before further finds suggested it was in fact a fish. The transition from fish (in the water) to the first land animals (with limbs and digits) was surely one of the greatest ever “steps” in evolution, and Elpistostege is perfectly placed to help us understand it.
10 years ago, Prof Richard Cloutier from Université du Québec à Rimouski, discovered a new specimen of Elpistostege, and for the first time a complete skeleton of this animal was uncovered! The fossil is 1.6 m long and preserves a complete head, vertebral column and all the fins right up to the tail.
Richard invited some of the Flinders University Palaeontology group to work with him and his team in Canada on this exciting new fossil, which is where I come in (along with John Long and Mike Lee). The fossil was CT scanned at the University of Texas High-Resolution X-ray Facility so that detailed 3-D modelling of its skeleton could be done.
Via this painstaking 3-D modelling of the scans (it took me months and months!), we revealed the internal bones of the pectoral skeleton (arm) including the presence of a humerus, radius, ulna, rows of carpal bones (e.g. your wrist bones), and other smaller bones (digits!). We have found the first fish fingers!
Excitingly, the digits are still contained within a fish fin. And as John and Richard put it in their recent Conversation article “This suggests the fingers of vertebrates, including of human hands, first evolved as rows of digit bones in the fins of Elpistostegalian fishes.” So next time you shake hands with someone (will we be doing that again?) or take a sip from a champagne flute (I’ll be doing that tonight), you know who you have to thank.
Tonight, Professor John Long, Strategic Professor of Palaeontology, will talk about “Rewriting evolution – our fishy origins” at the Alere Function Centre, Flinders University, as part of the BRAVE lecture series.
Come and hear about how the beginnings of the human body plan first appeared in fishes, deep in geological time. “Professor Long will discuss his thesis that the big steps in human evolution took place well before fishes left the water to invade land. This research provides a new perspective on humans’ evolutionary story; one which comes from looking up from the water’s edge, not looking down from the trees.”
I’ll be on the panel for the discussion to follow John’s presentation, alongside Associate Professor Paul Willis (founder and CEO, Media Engagement Services) and Associate Professor Diego Garcia-Bellido (University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum).
Drinks and canapes from 5:20, lecture begins at 6pm.
The Flinders University Palaeo Lab welcomes Dr Tom Challands! Tom is a researcher in the evolution of early vertebrate sensory systems, visiting us for a couple of months from the University of Edinburgh School of Geosciences. Tom is here for collaboration on some fabulous fossil fish projects, before also visiting Curtin University in Perth.
Tom and I share a love of lungfish brains (not many who can say that), and we’ll also work on some ScottishCarboniferous rhizodontmaterial that he has brought with him. We’ll be visiting ANSTO, the Australian Synchrotronin Melbourne next month to do some scanning.
Did you know that CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) has a great program called “STEM Professionals in Schools” that facilitates partnerships between schools and industry to bring real STEM people into classrooms? (In case you forgot… STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths).
It’s a national volunteer network that I signed up for last year as I feel strongly about being a visible “Women in STEM” presence, particularly for young people. And the best bit was… I got to talk about fossils all afternoon with a very excitable and curious cohort of kids from Happy Valley Primary School! It was awesome – I took along some fossils for them to touch and pass around, and they threw me some really interesting questions.
I look forward to continuing this partnership and maybe even starting some new ones … if you would like some STEM professionals to visit your school, or you are a STEM professional interested in being involved, you can learn more about the program here: STEM Professionals in Schools.
Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science – aimed at disabling long-standing gender stereotypes and biases that are steering girls and women away from science. What better way to celebrate than to talk about my favourite woman in palaeo from days gone by, Tilly Edinger. (Yes, I’ve mentioned her before).
Johanna Gabrielle Ottilie “Tilly” Edinger (1897–1967) was born into a prominent Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany, to Anna (Goldschmid) Edinger, a prominent social activist and feminist, and Ludwig Edinger, a comparative neurologist. Tilly received her doctorate in natural philosophy from the University of Frankfurt in 1921 and became the curator of fossil vertebrates at the Senckenberg Museum in 1927.
Tilly Edinger almost singlehandedly founded modern palaeoneurology, the study of ‘fossil brains’ and neural evolution, during the 1920s. Her first research paper (1921) described the natural endocast of the Mesozoic marine reptile Nothosaurus. Dr Tilly Edinger documented all previous examples of natural “endocasts”, examined them systematically and drew inferences about evolution. Prior to Tilly Edinger, scientists only looked at comparative neurology without any input through geological time.
My favourite aspect of my own research is the palaeoneurology of early fish and the first tetrapods, and I’m honoured to continue work is this almost century-old field established by a truly great woman of palaeo. Thank you, Tilly.
Endocast of a “chirodipterid” lungfish in dorsal view
Do you want to explore the history of fish evolution while also doing your bit to clean up our oceans? If yes, then A Story of the Motherfish workshops are for you!
I was invited to present insights into fish evolution and adaptation at the December event late last year at this special art and science collaboration, bought to you by Heaps Good Productions & Steve Hayter Design at the Marine Discovery Centre in Henley.
Participants were invited to bring their own plastic garbage and collected new rubbish from Henley Beach before using these polluting materials to create original pieces of artwork. Talks from myself gave insight into fish evolution and extinctions, and we heard from Georgie, a marine biologist, talking about the threat and other possible consequences of micro-plastics in our oceans today. Steve Hayter then inspired and led everyone to create their own marine-inspired pieces of recycled art.
We got to use some cool DiceCT and imaging methods to uncover the anatomy of the cassowary. The work found that the syrinx, hyoid and larynx structures (structures in the throat related to vocalisation, respiration and feeding) were more informative for inferring the phylogeny (evolutionary relationships) of this group compared to other typical morphological traits related to flightlessness and gigantism.
I was very pleased to be involved as co-supervisor of Phoebe during her Honours year. Read the original post HERE.