ESRF, Grenoble

What would you like to do on your 30th birthday? Shut down for two years and replace your major organs? It may not sound like an ideal celebration, but that is what the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) will do this December.

The world’s first third-generation synchrotron light source (ESRF) was built in 1988, and will pause the world’s “most intense X-rays for research” to enable the construction of a new storage ring and the addition of even more beam lines. The Extremely Brilliant Source (EBS) is not scheduled to come back online until late 2020.

I feel especially lucky to have been here in beautiful Grenoble this week working with colleagues from Uppsala University, Sophie Sanchez and Per Ahlberg, on the very final experiment on beamline ID 19 before the scheduled shutdown. ESRF is the only synchrotron in the world with a beam powerful enough to perform this experiment at the super high resolution required (down to 0.7μm voxel size!).

IMG_4637Per and Sophie inspecting a mounted specimen on the ID19 beamline at ESRF

During 72 hours of beam time, we work 24/7 with help from ESRF researcher, Paul Tafforeau, to scan as many specimens as possible. Sophie’s project is looking at the bone histology of the fins and limbs over a number of significant evolutionary transitions: the fin-limb, water-land, and the characteristics that appear in the first amniotes (animals that lay a waterproof egg, e.g. the first reptiles).

Bone histology, microanatomy and skeletochonology can be remarkably informative about the lifestyle and life history traits of an animal. For example, the bone microstructure can indicate whether an animal matured quickly, or had a long juvenile phase – as shown recently by Sophie and colleagues in Sanchez et al. (2016) and other works.

Untitled-1Alice setting up a specimen (left), and Laugia, a Triassic coelacanth from Greenland (right), scanned at the ESRF

Skeletochronology works on the same concept as counting tree rings in trees, and can map various changes in life history, development and physiology inside the bones of an animal. And very significantly for these experiments, the structure of the bone can indicate whether the bone was capable of sustaining an animal’s weight on land, or if it must have remained buoyant in the water.

It’s been an exhausting yet exciting few days scanning many stunning specimens sourced from all over the world. I look forward to continuing our work on these projects in the coming years (and catching up on some sleep!)

IMG_4617Alice and Sophie at the ESRF in December 2018

Berlin Museum für Naturkunde

I’ve had a wonderful few days working at the Berlin Natural History Museum. I was interested to see the original specimen of a lungfish (Chirodipterus wildungensis) that was the first to have the internal space for the brain described. This was achieved over 65 years ago using the “shatter method” (which is destructive as it sounds!)


I am also interested in a small coelacanth skull, called Euporosteus eifeliensis, from the Devonian of Germany (~383-388 million years ago). It is preserved in 3D and is only known from a single specimen!

To study both the fossil lungfish and coelacanth, I used the traditional method of making observations using a microscope, but also will 3D model them both using the museum in-house CT scanner and segmenting software back in Adelaide.


I’m so very grateful to Dr. Florian Witzmann, curator of fossil fish and amphibians, and Dr. Kristin Mahlow, who works in the CT lab, for their assistance this week. I’m looking forward to continuing our collaboration together.

Another perk of working in the museum was the opportunity to browse through their galleries, which include a beautiful Archaeopteryx specimen on display, as well as a visiting T-rex skeleton called Tristan. As one of the best preserved and most complete T-rex skeletons in the world, he was very impressive!


New “stem-tetrapod” paper out today!

I’ve just surfaced in Berlin and my jet lag-addled mind is pleased to see my latest paper, co-authored with my Flinders University colleagues, John Long and Brian Choo, published today in the Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of The Royal Society of Edinburgh (now that’s a mouthful!).

The paper is entitled “New Insights into the origins and radiation of the mid-Palaeozoic Gondwanan stem tetrapods.” In it, we provide new detail about Koharalepis, a fish from the Middle Devonian Aztec Siltstone of Antarctica, using 3D synchrotron data. We also propose some alternate biogeographical and phylogenetic models of stem tetrapod origins and radiations with a distinctly Gondwanan perspective (remembering that Gondwana was the great southern supercontinent that Australia and Antarctica were once a part of).

The paper forms part of a special volume written in honour of Prof. Jenny Clack, who has been seminal in studies of the “fish-tetrapod” transition, and who wrote the absolutely wonderful Gaining Ground: the Origin and Early Evolution of Tetrapods. It has been an absolute honour to get to meet Jenny at various conferences over the last decade, and her impact to the field of early vertebrate evolution shall never be forgotten.


Planetarium “Supernovas”

I was honoured to be asked to speak to the Adelaide Planetarium “Supernovas” this week. The “Supernovas” are astronomy students who meet at the planetarium to keep their knowledge of celestial objects up-to-date, with lectures by invited speakers from other disciplines each month.

My talk was entitled “Fish, Fossils and Brains” and I got to speak about my favourite avenue of research, palaeoneurology. Palaeoneurology is the science of fossil brains and neurobiological evolution. The discipline was founded by Tilly Edinger in the 1920s when she described the natural endocast (mould of the internal cavity of the skull) of the Mesozoic marine reptile, Nothosaurus. Prior to Tilly’s work, scientists only compared the brains of living animals without any input from the geological record.

I’m most interested in the changes that occurred across the fish-tetrapod transition. The “lobe-fins” (Sarcopterygians) comprise nearly half of all vertebrate species, and unravelling the major innovations that occurred in the brains of the first tetrapods (the earliest terrestrial vertebrates) is pivotal for understanding our very own neural evolution.

It was especially cool to be treated to a show inside the planetarium after my talk. Many thanks to Paul Curnow (in the photo below) for the invitation and to the “Supernovas” for their interesting and thought-provoking questions. 46508856_367621303981484_9000653724581888_n

Science Says!

Tonight I’ll be appearing as a panellist for Science Says! – an event put on by The Science Nation and held at the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus) Science Exchange, Adelaide.

The night will be hosted by Dr Joel Gilmore, and is described as “an evening in the style of the great panel shows – think … Mock the WeekSpicks and Specks, and just a dash of QI.

“Competing in Adelaide for all the glory science has to offer is:

  • futurist and director of MOD at UniSA, Dr Kristin Alford;
  • women’s health scientist, advocate and communicator, Dr Hannah Brown;
  • palaeontologist, Royal Society of South Australia membership secretary and ex-underwater rugby player, Dr Alice Clement;
  • evolutionary biologist and manatee enthusiast, Jenna Crowe-Riddell;
  • chemist and the former face of Adelaide, Dr Noby Leong;
  • and science communicator and founder of the Alan Duffy appreciation society, Dr Andy Stapleton.”

It kicks off at 4pm, and tickets are just $15 at the door. Hope to see you there!
Please find the full event details on the Facebook page.

Science Says!


Congratulations, Phoebe!

A big “CONGRATULATIONS” to my Honours student, Phoebe McInerney, who today had her final seminar and viva. Honours in the sciences is a rigorous year-long (only 9 months, really) independent research project which usually results in the production of a thesis.

Phoebe’s thesis was entitled “Analysis of Syrinx, Hyoid, and Larynx Morphology in the Southern Cassowary, Casuarius casuarius, (Aves, Palaeognathae) and Implications for Palaeognath Phylogeny.”

Her project was a pretty epic combination of traditional anatomical description, modern scanning methods (diceCT and 3D segmentation) and cladistic analyses, all in the pursuit of resolving Palaeognath evolutionary relationships.

Palaeognaths represent just ~1% of all living birds and includes the large, flightless forms such as ostriches, emus, rheas and the kiwi, and the flighted tinamous. This group also includes extinct forms such as the moa and elephant bird.

The large and flightless birds all share features related to their lifestyle such as reduced wings and strong legs that have likely arisen as a result of “convergent evolution” (called a homoplasy) which can make reconstruction of the evolutionary family tree very difficult.

Instead, Phoebe looked at the syrinx, hyoid and larynx (the vocal organ and its connected parts) in these birds to find characters that would reflect the true evolutionary history of the group.

I co-supervised Phoebe along with the Bird Man himself, Trevor Worthy, and phylogenetic analysis guru, Mike Lee. I’m very happy to have been involved and have great hope for Phoebe’s future academic career. CONGRATS PHOEBE, AWESOME JOB!

Alice Phoebe Trevor 2018Alice, Phoebe and Trevor at the recent FUPS 30th celebrations.


Happy 30th to Flinders Palaeo!

On Saturday, we celebrated 30 years since Flinders University began teaching Vertebrate Palaeontology (VP) and 30 years since the inception of the student-run Flinders Palaeontological Society, FUPS.

Past and current members of FUPS as well as previous students of the VP topic were all invited to a special event held at the ALERE Function Centre. The evening began with the Inaugural Rod Wells Lecture, given by the man himself, looking back over his impressive career and the significant impact he’s made on the world of vertebrate palaeontology.

Gavin, Rod, Kailah.jpgRod’s influence and contribution is remarkable. Rod discovered the world-famous Victoria Cave fossil deposits at Naracoorte in 1969 and was instrumental in raising that site to World Heritage status in 1994. Similarly, his research into the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat led to the establishment of the Brookfield Wombat Reserve (now Brookfield Conservation Park). And it is Rod that we have to thank for beginning to teach Vertebrate Palaeontology at Flinders University way back in 1988!

Following on from Rod’s lecture, guests were treated to a cocktail party with a few fun surprises throughout the night and MC’d by the fantastic Prof. Flint. Sam Arman was awarded the first Flinders Palaeontology Society medal, in honour of his long-standing and generous commitment to the society, and for being the first person to achieve Life Membership after 10 consecutive years’ membership. There was an auction and some really cool FUPS merchandise and artworks won in a mystery raffle.

Sam Arman

Later on, there was a team quiz/scavenger hunt which united guests into seven teams to battle it out for palaeontological glory! Teams had to identify unknown specimens, mark fossil localities on a map of Australia, network with other groups, post to social media (#FUPS30, wooo!) as well as try to remember who was Prime Minister in 1988 (do you remember?) Team Wonambi fared poorest, and it was Team Ligulalepis who took out crowning glory on the night! Congratulations!

It was a fantastic night that drew together diverse people united by their appreciation of palaeontology. Thank you to FUPS and everyone else involved who worked so hard to pull together a truly fantastic celebration. It is wonderful to be part of such a vibrant and passionate palaeontological community.

ProfFlint, PaulWillis, Alice

*** View the rest of the photos and full slideshow here! ***

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.