VAMP is born

Speaking of digital palaeontology… Welcome to VAMP, the Virtual Australian Museum of Palaeontology! Together with some colleagues from the Flinders University Palaeontology lab, we have created an online museum that you can access from any computer or smart phone. Via our online museum, we are scanning, sharing and celebrating 600 million years of spectacular digital Australian fossils in 3D.

VAMP has more than 500 scans of Australian fossils, ranging from the earliest enigmatic early cellular life of the Ediacaran Period, to recently extinct megafaunal giants (and much more in between!) We have more than 30 scans of trace fossils, such as animal footprints, more than 30 genera of Australian vertebrates, and bespoke teaching sets available for educators.

Best of all, the website is completely free for you to explore and interact directly with 3D models of rare Australian fossils.

VAMP launched officially last night at an event held at Flinders University at Victoria Square, Adelaide, Australia. It has been fabulous to work with Jacob van Zoelen and Aaron Camens in the leadership team to bring VAMP to life.

VAMP leadership team. Left to right, Jacob van Zoelen, Alice Clement & Aaron Camens.

But we couldn’t have done it without lots of help! VAMP is a Flinders University-led initiative, with support from Flinders Microscopy & Microanalysis, the South Australian Museum, the Western Australian Museum, and the Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and MorphoSource. We also had many staff, mentors and volunteers giving generous support and guidance who have been invaluable.

Please read more about VAMP in our article published yesterday in The Conversation “A new virtual museum reveals 600 million years of Australian fossils in unprecedented 3D detail”, or listen to the Pals in Palaeo episode about VAMP here.

We are always on the lookout for new partners and more scans, so if you’d like to be involved then please get in touch.


Digital Palaeontology

I seem to have digital palaeontology on the mind lately…. I’m not talking about digits (fingers and toes), although sometimes that is exactly what I mean. I’m talking about the digitalisation of fossils into virtual computer models.

Modern scanning methods are revolutionising the way we do palaeontology these days, with increasing access to various methods such as diceCT, synchrotron, neutron or surface scanning. This enables the analyses we do and the questions we can ask are expanding beyond anything that has been possible before.

Thanks to the type of research that I do, I was lucky enough to be invited to present at a “Digital Palaeobiology” symposium held at the Department of Paleontology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, last week.

My talk, Once we were fish: uncovering our distant piscine origins, explored the anatomical journey from placoderms to tetrapods as elucidated from modern scanning methods.

Other speakers discussed amazing methods used on digital palaeontological specimens including 3D geometric morphometrics, the use of AI in analysis, Computational Fluid Dynamics and Finite Element biomechanical analysis. It’s amazing what can be done with our virtual computer models!

I’m very grateful to the organisers, and had a fabulous time meeting the UZH students, staff, and my other “digital palaeo” colleagues. I loved visiting the beautiful city of Zurich and hope to get back there one day.

Night Parrot

If I ask you to picture a parrot, what image do you conjure up? Likely it would be some version of colourful, noisy birds feeding in a tree or soaring through the sunshine. But did you know that Australia has an elusive night parrot? Not only is this creature nocturnal (active at night), but it prefers to hop around on the ground more than hanging about in trees.

The Night Parrot (scientific name Pezoporus occidentalis), is so rare that it was thought to have gone extinct for almost 100 years with no confirmed sightings between 1912 and 1979. It wasn’t until 2013 that photographs and videos of live birds were captured! The Night Parrot is still incredibly elusive, but we seem to have been given a second chance to conserve this mysterious species and conservation efforts are continuing.

Nocturnal Ground-Parakeet … illustrated by Elizabeth Gould (1804–1841) for John Gould’s (1804-1881) Birds of Australia (1972 Edition, 8 volumes). Image from Wikipedia.

However, as palaeontologists we require skeletons of “extant” (alive today) species to compare to the fossil bones we find to aid our identification and interpretations. But if a bird is as rare as the Night Parrot, how on earth would you find a skeleton to look at?

Thankfully, museums are a repository of biological specimens that can be used by scientists in instances like this. As stated in a recent paper published in the leading journal Science, “The world’s natural history collections provide a window into the planet’s past and present, and they are increasingly being used to make actionable predictions relative to climate change, biodiversity loss, and infectious disease.”

Working with fossil bird expert, Dr Elen Shute, and Professor of palaeontology at Flinders University, Prof. Gavin Prideaux, we have described the skull anatomy of this elusive bird for the first time thanks to being able to access the holotype specimen from the Natural History Museum of London collection. We used microCT scanning to non-destructively examine the “skin” of a specimen (originally shot and collected in 1861!), and digitally segment out the bones from within.

It’s not a fish, but a very special bird to work on indeed and I’m thankful for the invitation from my coauthors to contribute to this research. Digital models of all the bones are available via the online repository MorphoSource for research, education or just simple curiosity.

READ MORE: Our paper Cranial adaptations of the Night Parrot (Psittaculidae: Pezoporus occidentalis), a cryptic nocturnal bird was published in the journal Emu – Austral Ornithology, earlier this month. Additionally, we wrote an accompanying piece for The Conversation : “Our mysterious night parrot has terrible vision – but we discovered it might be able to hear like an owl”.

Go West!

GO WEST, in the open air, where the skies are blue, this is what we’re gonna do…. (who doesn’t love the Village People/Pet Shop Boys tune?) “Go west” is exactly what me and my Honours student, Josh, did earlier this month. Now that border restrictions have eased and travel is possible again we flew over to Perth in Western Australia for a few days. The purpose of our trip was to visit the Western Australian Museum collections to pore over the beautiful fish fossils from the Gogo Formation.

We selected a few of these beauties to take for scanning at the CMCA imaging facility within the University of Western Australia. Some of these included 3D preserved skulls for my own research into fish brain evolution, and some contained jaws for Josh’s honours project investigating the biomechanics of fossil lungfish feeding.

While we were there we caught up with our colleague and mentor, Prof. Kate Trinajstic (pictured below) at Curtin University to discuss various ongoing “fishy” projects, and even managed a flying visit to the incredible new Western Australian Museum, Boola Bardip.

The new museum is literally jaw-droppingly good, and has an amazing selection of real specimens on display, with everything from stromatolites, meteorites, life-size dinosaur models, thylacine skins, stunning dioramas and visualisations, and most exciting of all a beautiful exhibit all about the fossils of the ancient Gogo reef! It is a real feast for the senses and very nicely done. I highly recommend a visit.


Do you know how evolutionarily old our teeth, fingers or big brains are? I wrote an article about homology for The Conversation, “We can still see these 5 traces of ancestor species in all human bodies today”.

As I explain in the article, in biological terms “homology” relates to “the similarity of a structure based on descent from a shared common ancestor. Think of the similarities of a human hand, a bat wing and a whale flipper. These all have specialist functions, but the underlying body plan of the bones remains the same”.

I then go on to list five features in human bodies today that have some surprisingly old evolutionary origins. Let me know if you have any favourites that I might have missed. I hope you enjoy the article.

“The principle of homology: The biological relationships (shown by colours) of the bones in the forelimbs of vertebrates.” Image: Волков Владислав Петрович, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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!)

Living fossils

Do you have a favourite “living fossil“? The term was coined by Charles Darwin in his book On The Origin of Species in 1859 to describe living organisms that appeared unchanged from their extinct fossil relatives. He was describing animals such as the Nautilus (cephalopod) and Lingula (brachiopod) that he observed were “some of the most ancient […] animals do not differ much from living species.”

The term has gone on to describe organisms that seemed to have stopped evolving either in their genes (molecular) or form (morphological), or those with particularly long lineages. The term can also be somewhat problematic when used to describe animals that appear to have stopped evolving, but may just be doing so at a slowed pace, or in ways not visible to the human eye.

I wrote an article published this week in The Conversation, From coelacanths to crinoids: these 9 ‘living fossils’ haven’t changed in millions of years, listing my nine favourite marine living fossils. Top of the list is the enigmatic and beautiful coelacanth, of course!

I’ve had a few radio interviews in response to the article, and it has even been translated into Japanese on the Arkive 4 Ones website. Sugoi desu ne!

This article was all about curious “living fossil” sea creatures, but I’d love to follow up with a freshwater and terrestrial version one day. What would make your list?

Fossilised body organs in fish

How old do you think the oldest fossilised heart is? 1 million years? 100 million? More? We found a 380 million year old fossilised heart, as well as stomach, intestine and liver in ancient jawed fishes, published today in the journal Science. (Previously the oldest known fossilised heart was described from a measly 100 million years ago…)

Finding soft tissue preserved in fossils is rare, and finding 3D preserved fossils is remarkable, so the combination of these in 380 million year old animals is mind-boggling! These fish are the ancient armoured placoderms from the famous Devonian (359-419 million years ago) Gogo reef lagerstätten (meaning site of exceptional preservation) in northern Western Australia.

Gogo fish diorama at WA Museum Boola Bardip. Credit: Curtin University

Powerful imaging techniques such as synchrotron scanning by the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France, and neutron tomography at the Australian Nuclear and Science Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in Sydney (Australia) enabled us to see inside the specimens while they were still embedded in limestone and construct 3D models of the bones and soft tissues inside. I still remember the day sitting at ANSTO with lead author Prof. Kate Trinajstic and beam scientist Dr Joseph Bevitt looking through the latest neutron scans when we found one of the heart specimens in a placoderm called Compagopiscis.

Joseph Bevitt, Alice Clement and Kate Trinajstic at the ANSTO neutron facility in Sydney.

Importantly, the shape and position of the heart (the oldest ever found!) signifies an important step in evolution of the vertebrate body plan, and the lack of lungs suggests these organs only evolved once later on in the bony fishes.

It was so exciting to be included in this project with a kick-ass team spanning Australia, Sweden, and France with my co-authors Kate Trinajstic, John Long, Sophie Sanchez, Catherine Boisvert, Daniel Snitting, Paul Tafforeau, Vincent Dupret, Peter Currie, Brett Roelofs, Joseph Bevitt, Mike Lee and Per Ahlberg.

These Gogo fossils just keep on giving! If you would like to learn more, you can read an article by Kate and John in The Conversation or this one from Cosmos Magazine (complete with a few extra dorky pics of me “science-ing”.

Palaeo Jam!

Haven’t had your palaeo fill this National Science Week yet? Come along on August 25th for the inaugural recording of PALAEO JAM, a new Australian palaeontology podcast from Michael Mills of Heaps Good Productions.

“Palaeo Jam is a podcast exploring a range of issues in science and the community, through the multidisciplinary aspects of, and public fascination with, palaeontology. It is an Australian based palaeo podcast with this initial launch and live record at Flinders University. For the live record, two episodes will be recorded in front of a live audience, followed by a QandA.”

Episode 1- “What’s the point of palaeontology?” featuring Dr Aaron Camens, and PhD Candidate Phoebe McInerney.

Episode 2- “Life as a palaeo mum” with Dr Alice Clement and Dr Vera Weisbecker.


Drinks and other goodies available on the night. Register your attendance here: