Heads, Jaws, and Muscles

Two years ago I was approached to write a chapter for a book about the evolution, diversity, and development of the vertebrate head and jaws as well as its associated muscles.

The book, to be edited by Janine Ziermann, Raul Diaz, and Rui Diogo, and published by Springer, aimed to document the emergence of these structures within chordates (animals possessing a notochord), from the earliest vertebrate origins up to and including humans.

The book was an ambitious project as Springer wanted to summarise the most recent and state-of-the-art scientific knowledge while also being written in a way to make it accessible to the broader public, and not only written for specialists in the field.

I was very flattered to be approached, and contributed the sarcopterygian “lobe-finned” fish chapter. My chapter covers the changes and characteristic features in the skull and jaws from the first “lobe-finned” fish all the way to the “stem-tetrapods” – the fish that  evolved limbs with digits in readiness for moving out of water and onto land. I also include detail about the soft tissue (head muscles and the brain) and developmental evolution in the living sarcopterygian fish, coelacanths and lungfish.

The book’s full title is “Heads, Jaws, and Muscles: Anatomical, Functional, and Developmental Diversity in Chordate Evolution” and it is part of Springer’s Fascinating Life Sciences series. It is due to be published this November and I’m very excited to see it out in print soon!



Natura Eclectica

Well look at that! My wonderful colleague and office buddy, Elen Shute, has started her very own blog called “Natura Eclectica” containing “First-hand Tales of Australian Natural History | Fossils, Wildlife & Conservation.”

Elen is a vertebrate palaeontologist like myself, and she loves birds in particular. However as she says, her “enthusiasm for natural history is infectious” so check out her site to read all about bones, fossils, living animals and adventures throughout the great outdoors.

Her first entry is a beautifully written piece called “Desert Reflections” with some equally spectacular photographs of her trip to the Simpson Desert in central Australia.

Do go and check it out and support a fellow Woman in STEM.


GSA Networking and Speed Mentoring Night

Last night I attended the Geological Society of Australia’s “networking and speed mentoring” evening held at the University of Adelaide. The event was an opportunity for undergraduate, honours, masters or PhD students to network with professional geoscientists working in industry, government or academia.

I was very honoured to be asked to give one of two presentations for the evening, along with Kelly Sharrad, an educator at Marden Senior College. I spoke about my education and career path and shared some of the positives and negatives about pursuing a career in academia. I finished off with my top tips for a career in academia (see below).

Following the presentations, students were given the opportunity for “speed mentoring”, where for five minutes at each table, students could chat to diverse geoscientists from universities, museums, petroleum, mining and exploration industries and government for advice about their chosen careers.

I thought it was a fantastic initiative and it gave me an opportunity to meet many keen students. Lastly, I would like to thank Morgan Blades, GSA SA-Division Secretary, for the invitation to be involved.

Alice’s top tips for a career in academia:

  • Find good mentors, and don’t be afraid to ask for advice
  • Be prepared to travel (if possible)
  • Contact people whose work you admire and who you want to work with
  • Be persistent (but don’t be a pest)
  • Develop a broad skill set (publish, outreach, field experience, teaching etc.)
  • Find your niche, and collaborate!

Image-1Alice and Kelly, speakers at the GSA-SA networking and speed-mentoring evening 2018.

Evolution 4 kids!

I seem to be at that life stage where heaps of your friends are having kids all around you. As well as general support and friendship, I try to give thoughtful gifts that can help educate as well as entertain, and anything with some good “evolutionary biology” flavour (with the science portrayed accurately), is extra awesome!

For very young kids, there is a great Kickstarter that is making soft toys of iconic extinct animals from the Palaeozoic Era, called “Paleozoic Pals”. And they are not just for kids, but also the young at heart (I have a couple myself). Of course my favourite one is the “fish-apod”, Tiktaalik from the Devonian Period (pictured here with our lovely Bearded Dragon, Peggy).

Tiktaalik and Peggy

Something else for pre-schoolers is my absolute favourite go-to, the “Grandmother Fish” book.  It conveys a complex idea using simple language and beautiful illustrations, and encourages some cute audience participation too. There is even a helpful section at the back to help parents and carers answer some common questions about evolution. The same group have also made a card game called Clades, but I’m yet to play it myself.

Once the kids get to Primary School age then there are a lot more options available. My colleague, Prof. John Long, has been prolific in writing books during his career, with a number of titles for children. Check out “The Big Picture Book”, “Its True! Dinosaurs Never Died!” or my favourite, “Gogo Fish! The story of the Western Australian State fossil emblem.”

I stumbled across a palaeontologist who calls herself “Dr Neurosaurus” who hosts a fantastic site with palaeontology news for kids in both English and Spanish. Dr Neurosaurus (Eugenia Gold) also co-authored a book called “She Found Fossils” which celebrates women palaeontologists from around the world, both past and present.  I think the book is a fantastic initiative, even though I think her coverage of Australian palaeontologists had some conspicuous omissions (Kate Trinajstic, Pat Rich and Anne Warren all spring to mind!).

For more of a focus on Australian palaeontology, there is a great book published by Danielle Clode by Museums Victoria called “From Dinosaurs to Diprotodons: Australia’s Amazing Fossils.” In it you can visit iconic fossil sites across Australia, and travel through time from the Devonian to the Pleistocene learning about megafauna, dinosaurs and ancient armoured fishes.  There is even a helpful section at the back listing museums or fossil centres where you can go for more information (in every state in Australia).

And who could forget Professor Flint? The singing palaeontologist of Dinosaurs Downunder! Check out his Facebook page to see upcoming events. In this video, Prof. Flint introduces you to one of the amazing Gogo placoderm fish (and the tune that goes along with it!)

Open Day 2018

Have you ever wondered what goes on in the palaeontology labs at Flinders University? Well now is your chance!

This weekend is the Flinders University Open Day, and the Flinders palaeontology group will be hosting tours through the labs on Friday 10th August and Saturday 11th August.

Flinders has the biggest palaeontology team in Australia with six specialist professors and over 25 researchers. It is home to a $1.1 million-dollar palaeontology hub, equipped with cutting-edge technology and labs for studying, storing and preparing fossils. It was described as “… without a doubt the most important in the nation” by Professor Tim Flannery at its grand opening in 2014.

Come and hear about the diverse and varied work our group does on birds, fish, reptiles and mammals.  I’ll be giving tours of the lab and talking about the “fabulously fishy” research we do from 11-3:30 this Saturday. Hope to see you there!


The Belgian Classics

If there was ever a perfect destination for a “Beer n’ Bones” review, then Belgium must be it! I recently visited the southern part of Belgium on a field trip organised in conjunction with the 5th International Palaeontological Congress (IPC5) conference I attended in Paris earlier this month. The field trip took us around iconic Mid- and Late Devonian and Early Carboniferous sites in southern Belgium, including Mons, Namur and Liège. However we also passed through places like Chimay and Dinant, homes of some of the most famous Belgian Trappist beers (yum!)

Unfortunately I can’t remember too many details about all the beers I tasted, perhaps something to do with the strength of these delicious brews (often around 8% ABV). However one of my favourites that I do remember was called Orval (and not just because there was a fish on the label!)

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Figure 1: Delicious Belgian Trappist beer, and lunchtime refreshments in the field with excursion leader Thomas.

Interestingly, Belgium was apparently the first country to possess a detailed geological map of the entire country. This was likely due in part to the large swathes of Carboniferous deposits, the same rocks that shaped Belgium into one of the wealthiest nations on earth during the Industrial Revolution. I couldn’t help but notice that the Palaeozoic portions of Belgium we traversed correspond almost perfectly with the French-speaking region of Wallonia, whilst the northern section of Flanders where Dutch is spoken is set upon more recent Mesozoic and Cenozoic rocks. No doubt there are some fascinating geo-cultural reasons behind the divide.

As many of you know, my research focuses on the Devonian Period, some 359-419 million years ago. This time period is sometimes described as the “Age of Fishes” as the world’s waters teemed with fish and this is when many of the modern groups first diversified. This field trip was fantastic as we travelled through the Mid to Late Devonian and into the Early Carboniferous – exactly the time period that I am most interested in! We found a lot of brachiopods and beautiful corals, but sadly only a few fish bits.

Some of the highlights were to travel through the towns for which various geological ages are actually named. For example, we visited Givet, Frasnes and Tournai, names that are very familiar to me as the Givetian, Fransian and Tournasian geological ages. However I was most excited to visit the Strud quarry, famous as a Famennian (Late Devonian) tetrapod locality in Belgium. Despite my best hunting efforts, I didn’t find any tetrapod bits, but I did find a scale belonging to a lobe-finned fish called Holoptychius (a porolepiform). The quarry is no longer active, but our visit captured the attention of the local TV and newspaper crews. You can see the story here: http://www.canalc.be/carriere-de-strud-un-site-visite-par-des-paleontologues-du-monde-entier/ . Many, many thanks to the field trip organisers Julien Denayer, Thomas Servais, and Bernard Mottequin for a fabulous few days in the Palaeozoic!

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Figure 2: A pictorial journey through the Mid-Late Devonian and Early Carboniferous of southern Belgium.

IPC5 – Paris 2018

This week I was in Paris to attend the fifth International Palaeontological Congress (IPC5). This is a fantastic meeting that draws together vertebrate palaeontologists like myself (those who work on animals with a backbone), as well as other palaeontologists who work on invertebrates, fossil trackways, plants and others who study the rocks in which the fossils are found. There were close to 1000 attendees from over 60 countries! I attended the previous two IPC meetings (London in 2010, Mendoza in 2014) and it always proves to be a very exciting and informative week, and Paris was no exception.


It was particularly apt that this event be held in Paris, as France is often considered the birthplace of palaeontology, thanks to Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a french naturalist and zoologist known as the “founding father of palaeontology”. While Cuvier developed palaeontology into a scientific discipline and demonstrated extinction to be a fact, it was his successor at the Natural History Museum (Henri-Marie Ducrotay de Blainville) that first used the term “palaeontology”. Another french naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, was a biologist who founded the field of invertebrate palaeontology and made major contributions to evolutionary theory and our understanding of biostratigraphy.

I gave my presentation on Monday, describing a new coelacanth fossil from the Gogo Formation of Australia. The talks continued all week, and with 11 concurrent sessions you were never short of something to spark your curiosity. Tuesday evening we were treated to a “cocktail dînatoire” inside the Great Gallery of Evolution (fantastic!), and were given the opportunity to visit “Trix”, a complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton currently on display. On Wednesday I attended a Scientific Illustration workshop inside my favourite museum in the world, the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology. On Thursday evening, we cruised along the Seine River and enjoyed views of the Eiffel Tower and other Parisian icons during the Gala Dinner, and Friday was chock full of wonderful fish talks!


And finally, there was a special session in honour of Phillipe Janvier, who currently works at the Museum National de l’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN), and who has made an incredibly impressive contribution to palaeontology, specifically the study of Palaeozoic vertebrates, such as those that I study. His 1996 book “Early Vertebrates” remains a seminal work in the field, not unlike a bible for fossil fish workers!

Australia’s only palaeontology degree

There was much excitement around the lab this week with the unveiling of a big billboard on campus promoting the only palaeontology undergraduate degree offered in Australia. And yes, you guessed it, that’s at Flinders University in Adelaide!


Not only is our group the largest palaeontological academic and research team in Australia, but starting next year, we are now are the only place where you can get a BSc (Palaeontology) degree! The degree combines lab and field-based topics with others from Archaeology, Environmental Sciences and the Visual Arts. It is said that the students will “emerge with a deep understanding of life through time and space, particularly for Australian vertebrates and their environment.” It will cover the many broad facets of palaeontology, and I’m just a little jealous that I wont be able to do it myself, but I’m very much looking forward to being involved with it.

For more information, check out the website: https://www.flinders.edu.au/study/science-environment/palaeontology.html 

Total Girl

Guess who was featured in this month’s edition of Total Girl magazine? (For those of you who don’t know that is “Australia’s Best Tween Mag for Girls”.)

You guessed it, moi!

I was very pleased to be contacted by their Features Writer recently (thanks Aaron!) who was looking to include more science-based content, in particular, information about possible career paths in science and technology. You can find my face in amongst the celeb goss, quizzes and all things cute and fluffy!

With respect to women in STEM in particular, I strongly believe we all need to do much more to remove negative biases from all levels of the ‘leaky pipeline’, to positively engage and inspire confidence in the next generation. A big part of this is visibility of appropriate and positive role models, as I strive to be.

Issue #192 (July 2018) is on sale now. And word has it that this issue comes with a free glitter watch too!

OMG. Totes amazeballs.


Ralph Tate Memorial Lecture

Last night I attended the “Ralph Tate Memorial Lecture” held in the Mawson Lecture Theatre at Adelaide University. The event is held annually, jointly organised by the Royal Society of South Australia, the Geological Society of South Australia and the Field Geology Club of South Australia. The Mawson Theatre is accessed through the Tate Museum, a lovely old display full of geological wonders in a room that feels like a step back in time.

Ralph Tate was a professor of natural science at the University of Adelaide, and was a botanist, palaeontologist, zoologist and geologist in his own right. He was also the first president of the Royal Society of South Australia (originally the Philosophical Society) in 1880.

I joined the Royal Society of South Australia just over two years ago, and have been serving as Membership Secretary since that time. The Society continues to promote science in the community through grants, lectures and publications, and has been a great way for me to meet other people who share my passion for science. (Please check out our website, Facebook or Twitter for more information).

The speaker of the lecture last night was Prof. Gavin Prideaux, the head of our palaeontology group at Flinders University, with the topic “How has Australian mammal evolution been shaped by environmental change over the past 25 million years?” It was fascinating to hear an overview of some of the work and hypotheses examining mammal -and specifically megafauna- evolution and extinction over that time.

The message I took from the talk is that there will be no one “smoking gun” in the fossil record, and that many of the extinctions that have occurred in that time are likely due to a combination of hunting, fire stick farming and climate change. These are interesting ideas, but more importantly the lessons we can learn from these events should help us to understand when and how animals can adapt to climate change in order to help our current biota persist through this (ongoing) sixth mass extinction.