Brains ‘primed’ for life on land

There’s been a small flurry of media activity this week about our recent paper on the brains and jaw muscles of some salamanders and lobe-finned fish (my favourites, remember). The original paper was published by the journal Royal Society Open Science and co-authored by myself with Tom Challands (University of Edinburgh) and Jason Pardo (University of Calgary).

The paper, “Mandibular musculature constrains brain–endocast disparity between sarcopterygians”, looked at the size and shape of the brains in the axolotl (Ambystoma), the fire belly newt (Cynops), lungfish (Neoceratodus and Protopterus) and the coelacanth (Latimeria).

We studied this to provide insight into what the brains of the first ‘tetrapods’ (the first fish that crawled onto land millions of years ago are relatives of the lobe-finned fishes) might have looked like. Living lungfish and amphibians such as salamanders are the closest extant (living) relatives of those first fossil tetrapods.

We found that lungfish and salamanders have brains that are actually quite large and fill their skulls to a much higher degree compared to the coelacanth. Furthermore, it seems that there might be an interplay between the skull architecture and size of the jaw muscles and the overall size or “fullness” of the brain in these animals.

You can read more about it here from:

BLiSS*Adelaide 2020

Last week I “attended” another virtual conference, this time a Science & Innovation meeting held by EMCR’s for EMCR’s (Early/Mid-Career Researchers) with a strong focus on multidisciplinary collaboration across local institutions, called BLiSS*Adelaide.

The organisers did a great job pivoting and adapting to an online format, with sessions spread over four mornings throughout the week. This was some well-thought through scheduling to avoid Zoom-fatigue! The opening keynote was delivered by Dr Cathy Foley, Chief Scientist at CSIRO, and there was an engaging program of speakers each day as well as networking opportunities via “breakout rooms”.

Delegates were able to present their research via short 3-minute pre-recorded “Science Bites” and my contribution was called “Powerful Imaging Techniques for Palaeontology”. I am pleased to announce that I was awarded the Best Science Bites Presentation (People’s Choice – Lights, Camera, Action!) at the BLiSS*Adelaide 2020 Virtual Conference!

Many thanks to all who voted for my presentation, and thanks to the organisers and sponsors of the event which enabled such a great event to go ahead.

SVP goes virtual

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) is an educational and scientific society that holds an annual meeting each year (you may remember my visit to SVP in Brisbane last year). The SVP conference is usually the largest collection (accumulation?) of vertebrate palaeontologists and was due to be held in Cincinnati this year for it’s 80th iteration. Alas, as we well know, 2020 has not gone to anyone’s plan and so for the first time in it’s history, SVP went fully virtual!

I was honoured to be invited to participate in a special symposium “Frontiers in Paleoneurology and Neurosensory Evolution” convened by Alan Turner & Amy Balanoff. My talk was entitled “Brain-braincase relationships across the fish-tetrapod transition” and provided me with a great opportunity to show some recent work myself and colleagues have been doing on the brains of living fish and salamanders, as well as some braincases of ~340-375 million year old tetrapod-like fossil fish.

For those “attending” the conference, you can access my presentation via this direct link.

The conference organisers have done an amazing job adapting to the virtual format and accommodating scientists from across the globe in almost every conceivable time zone. We were able to watch pre-recorded presentations in our own time, but then there were live Q&A sessions attached to each theme.

It’s been really wonderful to be able to participate in this meeting during a year when large gatherings and overseas travel seem but a distant memory, but sharing our work and speaking with other scientists remains vital for continued sharing of knowledge and the overall advancement of our field.

Brains, brains, brains! (New paper out today)

Our latest paper was published yesterday in the journal Royal Society Open Science. This work was co-authored by myself with Tom Challands (University of Edinburgh) and Jason Pardo (University of Calgary), and has the title: “Mandibular musculature constrains brain–endocast disparity between sarcopterygians.”

In this work we applied a method developed in a previous paper to quantify and visualise the spatial relationship between the brain and its surrounding braincase in several animals. We investigated the living lobe-finned fishes (the coelacanth, Australian and African lungfish), as well as two salamanders (the axolotl and a newt).

Why did we do this? Firstly, brains are soft organs and so rarely fossilise and instead we are often only left with the hard, bony remains of an animal. This means that we must rely on the shape of the internal mould of the skull (an ‘endocast’) as a proxy for brain size and shape.

However, while birds and mammals typically have brains that nearly completely fill their brain cavities, those in fish, amphibians and reptiles are usually not so tightly constrained. This means that when we try to interpret the endocasts of fossils of extinct fish and early tetrapods (backboned animals with four limbs bearing fingers and toes) we don’t know with how much confidence we can infer how large certain brain regions were.

We found that the coelacanth is doing something very strange and has an absolutely tiny brain contained within a huge braincase (similar findings have recently been reported elsewhere). However, the lungfish and salamanders have brains that are filling their braincases to a higher degree than previously thought. We suggest that these patterns may potentially be related to the reinforcement in the skull from large jaw muscles, but we do need to examine some other basal tetrapods, such as frogs and caecilians, before we can be completely sure.

Left figures show overlap relationship between brain (grey) and endocast (red).
Right side images show the same information using a “heat-map” approach.
a-c, axolotl; d-f, newt; g-l, African lungfish; m-o, Australian lungfish; p-r, coelacanth.
(Silhouettes from

By investigating the brain-braincase spatial relationship in these living animals spanning the fish-tetrapod transition, we can use this information to better interpret fossils spanning the same critical juncture.

This approach is guided by something called the Principle of Proper Mass (Jerison 1973) which proposes that the larger a brain region, the more likely it is to be processing more information (remember that growing and maintaining large brains is energetically costly). Thus, if an animal has particularly large optic lobes compared to the olfactory region for example, we can reasonably assume that that animal relied more on its vision that its sense of smell.

It is my hope that this work will help us to pinpoint the origins of new behaviours as fish moved out of the water and began to colonise land over 385 million years ago.

YTP 2020

It was a great honour to receive my Young Tall Poppy award last night from His Excellency the Honourable Hieu Van Le AC in the Eclipse Room at the University of Adelaide.

Dr Alice Clement with her 2020 Young Tall Poppy Award.

“The Tall Poppy Campaign was created in 1998 by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS) to recognise and celebrate Australian intellectual and scientific excellence and to encourage younger Australians to follow in the footsteps of our outstanding achievers.”

The award night was held in collaboration with Inspiring South Australia and National Science Week to celebrate both the Young Tall Poppy crop of 2020, but also the Unsung Hero Awards of South Australian science.

In particular, I wish to congratulate Graham Medlin from the South Australian Museum, citizen scientists Robert and Rosalie Lawrence for ‘Wild Orchid Watch’, and Dr Kylie Dunning (ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics) for their awards.

I feel very lucky to have been nominated by my mentor, Prof. John Long, and it was great to be able to celebrate in person on the night and hear about the varied research and outreach happening here in South Australia.

Dr Alice Clement with Prof. John Long at the 2020 SA Young Tall Poppy & Unsung Hero Science Award night.

Young Tall Poppy

I’m really excited to announce that I’ve been named one of the 2020 SA Young Tall Poppies by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS).

The prestigious annual Young Tall Poppy Science Awards aim to recognise the achievements of Australia’s outstanding young scientific researchers and communicators. In particular, the ‘Tall Poppies’ are awarded to those who promote interest in science among school students and teachers, as well as an understanding and appreciation of science in the broader community.

I was one of three researchers from Flinders University recognised for our research and communication efforts, and I feel honoured to be in the company of hydrogeologist Dr Margaret Shanafield and archaeologist Dr Ian Moffat in this year’s cohort.

Photo credit: Tania Bawden, Flinders University

Congratulations to all other awardees, and many thanks to my supporter and nominator, Prof. John Long. There will be an official award ceremony in September held in the Reading Room of the Barr Smith Library with South Australia’s Governor, His Excellency Honourable Hieu Van Le.

Impact Seed Funding

I was fortunate enough to receive Impact Seed Funding from Flinders University in 2018. While in the grand scheme of things it was a relatively small amount of money, for an Early or Mid-Career Researcher (EMCR), awards like this can go a long way.

This funding enabled me to pursue my own line of research into palaeoneurology (fossil brains) and supported a visit to the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde (Natural History Museum) and a trip to the famous Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology & Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, China.

Having museum visits funded in this way help me to research how brains evolved in our early fish ancestors, and enable me to try to understand the adaptations and novelties acquired in the brains of the first tetrapods (terrestrial vertebrates). Studies such as these go on to form “pilot studies” for larger funding schemes and projects, and provide me with the opportunity to lead and manage my own projects whilst forming new international collaborative partnerships.

I’m ever so grateful to the donor community and Flinders University for the Impact Seed Funding for Early Career Researchers. Being awarded these funds greatly supports my ongoing development into becoming an independent and competitive researcher.

Thank you.

Congratulations, Petar!

CONGRATULATIONS to Flinders Uni Palaeo group student Petar Tomic who gave his final Honours seminar and viva online today! In his thesis Petar described a new placoderm (early jawed vertebrate) from the Devonian Gogo Formation in northern Western Australia.

Petar had to give an online seminar which must have been difficult, but he put in a lot of work to his thesis and should be proud of what he’s achieved. (And I’m looking forward to seeing his thesis turn into a published paper soon).

I hope you celebrate well tonight, Petar, the Honours experience is intense at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic!



A Virtual Congress

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.


Upcoming BCSA talk

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!  

BCSA talk 2020