Egernia gillespieae and the history of Australia’s social skink

Reconstruction of the skull of Egernia gillespiea

Twenty five years ago a large chunk of the Carl’s Creek Limestone at the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Area was blown off of the edge of Allan’s Ledge 1990 site. It then began a long journey back to the University of New South Wales PANGEA facility to undergo acid preparation to unlock its valuable secrets. Inside this lump of rock, block 94H, was a partial skull of Egernia gillespieae, the key to timing the origins of Australia’s social skinks.

Egernia gillespieae was named in this new paper out in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, after the palaeontologist, and fossil preparator, Dr Anna Gillespie. Dr Gillespie has been an integral element of the PANGEA lab, responsible for preparing thousands of fossils from Riversleigh World Heritage Area.

Dr. Anna Gillespie

Fossil squamates (lizards and snakes) are rarely recovered so complete from Australian palaeontological excavations. Dr Gillespie’s keen eye, and care for all fossils regardless of their species, size, or where they fit in a skeleton, has meant that an almost complete individual skull representing Egernia gillespieae can be assembled. This is the first Australian fossil skink to be described so completely, most only known from half-mandibles, isolated frontals, or disarticulated post-crania.

Having a near-complete individual skull presents a novel opportunity to examine these elements in context with the living Egernia and their nearest relatives, which include ‘land mullets’, spiny-tailed skinks, bluetongues, and shinglebacks. Egernia gillespieae is most similar to living Egernia striolata, the tree skinks. The paper also examined Australia’s oldest fossil bluetongue lizard, Tiliqua pusilla, which came from another site at Riversleigh and is of a similar age. A number of questions were asked, covering differences in shape and the presence or absence of different features in each species, both alive and extinct. These morphological characters were then analysed with molecular data (DNA and mitochondrial), imploring Parsimony and Bayesian analyses, to find the simplest, and the most likely phylogenetic trees of Australia’s social skinks.

Having fossils to calibrate the family tree of Australia’s social skinks has deciphered that our big bluetongues and pink tongues, Tiliqua and Cyclodomorphus, split from Egernia as early as 25 million years ago. Unexpectedly, we also found that Australia’s smallest living Tiliqua, the pygmy bluetongue, Tiliqua adelaidensis is sister to one of the largest, the shingleback Tiliqua rugosa.

This study, was made possible due to the keen eye of Dr Anna Gillespie, numerous UNSW field teams venturing out to northwestern Queensland to blast the limestone, and a team of palaeoherpetologists from Flinders University and the South Australian Museum. It represents the first step toward unravelling the evolutionary history of Australia most iconic herpetofauna.

Prof. Mike Lee awarded the Verco Medal

Congratulations are in order for our very own Matthew Flinders Fellow, Professor Mike Lee

The Verco medal, established by the Royal Society of South Australia is awarded for distinguished scientific work published by a Fellow. It is the highest honour that the Society can bestow. Only those who have made a significant, outstanding contribution to their field of study receive the award. Previous winners include the esteemed Prof Walter Howchin in 1929 (first medal awarded), HG Andrewartha, JB Cleland, and fellow earth scientists & palaeos Reg Sprigg, Michael Archer and Sir Douglas Mawson.

Mike Lee’s area of expertise earning him the Verco medal, covers just about every taxonomic group within palaeontology you can imagine. Mike has helped construct the family trees Cambrian arthropods from Emu Bay (Kangaroo Island), dinosaurs from the US, giant flightless birds from New Zealand, and snakes and lizards of Australia. Despite having worked on such a broad range of animals, Mike has a soft spot for reptiles, having completed his PhD on early turtle body plan evolution (published in Science) and afterwards travelled the world building a large collection of morphological characters for lizards and snakes to unravel their origins (just check out his Google Scholar page). He now acts as primary supervisor for the palaeontology students in our lab who want to work on fossil reptiles, or who are interested in how morphology and molecular evidence can be used to construct family trees. Mike’s true love is Bayesian methods, integrating probability into statistical analyses, which he believes is integral to the future of science.

For those of you who haven’t met Mike yet, he presented our Palaeo in the Pub: Dinosaurs with Wings this year, as well as a Sprigg Lecture at the South Australian Museum on a similar topic. Mike spends most of his days at the Museum but if you are interested in fossil reptiles or want to congratulate him on his award he will be at Flinders on Saturday evening for the Inaugural Wells Palaeontology Lecture & FUPS reception Celebrating 30 years of Palaeontology at Flinders.

Jurassic World: A Fallen Franchise

Okay so the title is a little harsh. I’d like to start this review with the disclaimer that if you were going to go and see this movie DO IT. Do not read a pile of negative reviews and change your mind, any dinosaur screen time is still worth watching regardless of what other people have to say about it! I promise I won’t reveal any major spoilers in this review, I don’t usually do this kinda thing so I’ve kept it short.

Thanks to ol’ mate Professor Flint for bringing me along as his +1. Fun times were had!

So we reach movie #5 in the Jurassic franchise. No one has managed to kill of B D Wong’s infamous Dr Henry Wu character yet so Hollywood can keep making dinosaurs from frog DNA until they manage to create a scene where he doesn’t slip away silently with vials of bright blue fluid in high tech Pelicases. This installment was timely released 25 years since the first film, capitalising on the first generation of fans wanting a hit of that childhood dinosaur nostalgia. Unfortunately, they wont get it. This is not a dinosaur movie, it’s a monster movie. Watching the previews, most of you probably already knew that, but it needs saying again because clearly no one involved in making the film was told enough. As an aspiring palaeontologist I was sitting in the cinema last night waiting for that breathtaking panoramic shot of pure dinosaur majesty somewhere in the film to fill me with that ‘science-is-awesome’ warm-fuzzy feeling like watching the herds of dinos in the first film. But that moment was entirely missing. I think they tried briefly at one point with the first sauropod appearance but it was rather lacking still.

Everything that is wrong or missing in this film ultimately derives from the lack of character development and storytelling. This movie is a string of action-packed-scene to action-packed-scene with very little holding it all together. I was waiting for Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to jump out from behind some bushes at any moment with dinosaurs under each arm, saving the day. It’s that kind of movie.

There is one true hero in all this though, and praised be, they are a SHE. Yes that’s right. Hollywood managed to make a strong, independent, powerful, FEMALE character that didn’t need no man to complete HER! She opened up a serious can of kick-ass on all the bad guys without needing any help from men with guns and she didn’t do it to save a love interest either. Introducing the one and only: BLUE. 

Blue. The queen of JW’s velociraptors and probably one of the best characters in the whole movie. – Disclaimer to @SUEthetrex: I’m sorry, but it’s true, the velociraptor was better in this film. There, I said it

This movie is entirely worth watching just to see her in action. I won’t give away too much, but the dinosaurs totally make up for the lack of the human character development in this movie. There are a couple of personalities shining through from these guys, even in short roles.

Although there are so many things lacking in this film, I do think there is at least one message that comes through pretty strong. You will pick it up in the first few minutes and it’s the same message scientists having been screaming at you for years: it’s all your fault. The world is messed up, Jurassic World, or the one outside your office window. We did it with our endless thirst for entertainment and consumption regardless of the ultimate consequences (having your body fought over by an Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus, or swimming in an ocean filled with plastic; same thing). It’s an ugly truth but the movie does point it out fairly bluntly in a few scenes (there may or may not have been some animal-lover tears shed), so kudos deserved there.

I won’t give away much more, go see the movie for yourself. Complain about the missing feathers and oversized mosasaur because you know better. We all enjoy knowing someone with a budget 1000x times bigger than ours is wrong about something. Go watch it anyway because we all love how these films inspired us to become scientists and palaeontologists. Hopefully there are some clever kids in the audiences this year who come out equally as curious about whether or not any dinosaur fossils would be left after that eruption, and if the drowning ankylosaur bloats-and-floats later…


– Kailah (aka Professor Anning in the photo above)

Ancient fossil rewrites the hiss-tory of lizards and snakes

A life scene in the Dolomites region, Northern Italy, about 240 million years ago, with Megachirella wachtleri walking through the vegetation. (Image: © Davide Bonadonna.)

By Research Associate Dr. Alessandro Palci

It’s quite odd how sometimes things unexpectedly come back from our past in circuitous ways. It was the summer of 2000 when, still an undergraduate student, I was touring the Dolomites as part of a field trip organised by the department of Geological Sciences of the University of Trieste (Italy).

It was a sunny spring day, and I was looking down at some Jurassic dinosaur footprints, when I first heard of a small fossil reptile that had recently been found nearby, in 240 million-years-old rocks. The rumour was that someone was already working on its description. I won’t deny that I wished I could be that someone. Unfortunately, I was only an undergraduate student at the time, and a long way to go before my first palaeontological paper would be published.

The fossil was described and published by Silvio Renesto and Renato Posenato in 2003. It turned out that the fossil was preserved in rocks that originated on the bottom of a warm shallow sea. The little reptile was one of very few terrestrial organisms that had been entombed in those marine sediments, which makes its discovery incredibly fortuitous.

Renesto and Posenato named the fossil after its relatively large hands: “mega” and cheiros” are ancient Greek words for “large” and “hand”, respectively. They then classified the reptile as a member of the Lepidosauromorpha, a broad group of reptiles that includes lizards, snakes, tuataras, and many other more distantly related reptiles. Ten years later, in 2013, Megachirella was re-described by Silvio Renesto and Massimo Bernardi, and the authors confirmed the classification of Megachirella as some kind of lepidosauromorph based on a phylogenetic analysis, but did not resolve its affinities very precisely.

Another four years went by, and in the summer of 2017 I flew to Calgary, to attend the 77th annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. International meetings are a great opportunity for networking, but also for catching up with old friends spread around the world. One of these friends of mine is Tiago Simões, who was finishing his PhD in Systematics and Evolution at the University of Alberta. He told me that he was working on an interesting fossil reptile, what he suspected could be the oldest fossil lizard. He also told me that he was looking for someone who could work on its CT scan data. At the time I had no idea what the mysterious fossil was, but I had considerable experience working on CT scan data, so I offered to help him out.

The restudy of this beautifully preserved specimen of Megachirella wachtleri allowed the authors to re-write the history of all fossil and living lizards and snakes. (Photo: © Science Museum, Trento, Italy)

It turned out that the fossil of Megachirella had been scanned at the ICTP Elettra synchrotron facility in Trieste, Italy, and that was the data that Tiago wanted me to work on. Only now I realize how crazy all this is, it was that very same little fossil reptile I heard about in the Dolomites seventeen years before, and it had somehow finally found its way into my hands. The CT scan data provided a wealth of new information about the little fossil, and this helped us place Megachirella in quite a different and much more interesting light.

Alessandro working on the 3D digital reconstruction of the skull of Megachirella (Photo: Mike Lee)

The three-dimensional digital images generated from the CT scan data allowed us to look through the rock, at parts of the skeleton that were inaccessible before, without incurring in the risk of damaging this unique fossil by removing the embedding rock mechanically. What we discovered was that Megachirella already shows modifications in its skull and limbs that are shared with modern lizards (like for example a triradiate squamosal at the back of the  skull, a mobile quadrate bone bearing the upper jaw joint, an ulnar patella in the elbow, and the loss of the first distal carpal in the wrist), but it also retains some extra bones that were commonplace in early reptiles, and were lost much later in lizard evolution (like gastralia along the belly, and a quaratojugal in the cheek region). We included this new information in a an extensive phylogenetic dataset that Tiago had put together during the course of his PhD, and it turned out that Megachirella is indeed a stem-lizard. The oldest and most primitive lizard known to date, a finding that earned us the cover of the latest issue of Nature.

Megachirella gives us a new window on what the first lizard probably looked like and helps us understand how the anatomy of earlier reptiles gradually changed over time, in little steps, to produce the body shape of lizards that is familiar to us today.

This fossil is important not only because its anatomy bridges a gap between two major groups of reptiles, much like Archeopteryx, but also because it extends the fossil record of lizards back in time by about 70 million years, into the middle Triassic (~240 million years ago). That lizards must have been present in such deep time had been predicted by some molecular studies of modern lizards, based on the speed at which DNA strands accrue mutations over time; however, the oldest known fossil lizards before Megachirella were frustratingly “young”, coming from rocks that originated in the Jurassic, only about 167 million years ago.

Megachirella tells us that lizards were indeed around in the Triassic, and based on a new estimate of the rate of evolution of lizards, we can now place the origin of these reptiles in the late Permian.

So, next time you are out in the field looking for fossils and see a lizard scampering around, think of Megachirella, and that the evolutionary history of this amazing group of reptiles started 260 million years ago, long before the first dinosaurs appeared!

(Adapted from the original article appearing in The Conversation on 31.05.18)

On the hunt for tetrapod footprints

Dr Alice M. Clement


The appearance of the first tetrapods, the limbed vertebrates which today dominate the land, represents one of the greatest ‘steps’ in evolution. Evidence for the first vertebrates with four limbs and digits (fingers and toes) can come from fossilised body parts, or from trace fossils, such as footprints.

The oldest widely accepted tetrapod trackway, and indeed the oldest widely accepted evidence for tetrapods in general, come from intertidal sediments from a quarry near Zachełmie, Poland. These prints, first announced in 2010, have been dated to the Middle Devonian, about 395 million years ago, and more than 18 million years older than the oldest tetrapod body fossils.

The trackways indicate they were made by flat-bodied, lizard-like creatures, some of which must have reached up to 2.5m in length. There are multiple trackways from several individuals, and most importantly, they clearly show the impressions of digits!

A model showing what the makers of the Zachełmie trackways may have looked like in the Geological Museum of the State Geological Institute in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo: A. Clement).

In Australia there have been some similarly impressive finds of trackways in Devonian rocks, including those from Glenisla and Genoa River in Victoria. The Genoa River tracks from far-eastern Victoria, are Late Devonian in age and were the first tetrapod trackways ever described from the “Age of Fishes” when first described in 1972. There is evidence of two different types of animals, clearly showing overlapping and alternating impressions of the fore and hind limbs clearly showing digits.

The Glenisla trackways are more problematic. The trackways were described in 1986, identified on a slab of rock in a homestead courtyard near the Grampians. However there remain persistent doubts over the precise age of the rock, with estimates ranging as far back as the Silurian Period, and the identity of the track maker has been questioned. If these really are tetrapod tracks and the Silurian date is correct, this represents the oldest evidence of limbed vertebrates in the world!

Professor John Long from Flinders University wanted to settle the controversy once and for all and so assembled a team of tetrapod trackway hunters to boldly venture into the remote wilderness of Victoria in search of fresh evidence. His team consisted of the walking encyclopaedia Dr Brian Choo, whizz-kid PhD student Ben King, venerable Swedish Professor Per Ahlberg, and myself.

Tetrapod-trackway hunters, Brian Choo, John Long, Per Ahlberg, Peter Ward and Alice Clement in the Grampians National Park (photo: A. Clement).

Our first stop was the Grampians, where we were joined with an old friend of John’s, Peter Ward, a structural geologist and all-round handy camp guy. In addition to examining the original track-slab at Glenisla homestead, we visited two disused quarries and were able to pinpoint the true provenance of these enigmatic prints, along with the discovery of numerous other trace fossils made by various invertebrates. Of course, being in the Grampians, we were also rewarded with some spectacular views, incredible wildflowers and many friendly kookaburras and shingle-back lizards around our campsite.

After a few days we moved onto Melbourne for a much-need shower and for the chance to examine some old fossil samples collected decades ago from Genoa River, currently housed at The University of Melbourne Geology Department. The specimens contained tantalising material from a number of different types of fish and gave us great hope of finding new specimens in the field.

Prof Per Ahlberg at the University of Melbourne, Geology Department, with a porolepiform specimen from Genoa River.

The Genoa River site is located in spectacular country within the Coopracambra National Park in far-eastern Victoria, some 50km northwest from Mallacoota Inlet. The National Park is a true wilderness and the playground of only the most determined hikers. For us it was either a 25km+ trek up and down cliffs through thick, temperate rainforest with all our gear and supplies, or a slightly more exhilarating transport option: GET TO THE CHOPPER!

The intrepid team before our first flight into the Coopracambra National Park. (Left to right: Dr Brian Choo, Prof John Long, Prof Per Ahlberg, Dr Alice Clement and Mr Ben King.)

Our weather-beaten but highly experienced pilot, Grant Shorland and his wife Ros, helped us reduce our load to just the essentials, and squeeze (just barely) into the 6-seater Écureuil. By following the course of the Genoa River, we were able to identify the area where we hoped to find fossils. However, the forest was so thick and the river often channelled between tall cliff faces, we struggled to find a suitable sandbank on which to be put down.

Even though we had seen the park from the air, it was still a surprise to experience how difficult it was to move through the undergrowth. We soon resorted to rock-hopping and eventually simply wading through the river itself. Genoa River was a spectacular site in which to spend four nights – we were lucky to share our camping spot with a plethora of skinks (Brian can tell you which species), beautifully-coloured water dragons, a few snakes, an easy-going platypus (that let us share his pristine swimming hole), and a deafening chorus of giant cicadas. 

While new tetrapod-trackways remained elusive, we did manage to map the geology of the area, find some fish fossils and even an arthropod trackway suggesting we were on the right track! All of the team were in agreement that any future trips should take inflatable pack-rafts for ease of traversing the beautiful yet wild country of far-East Gippsland!


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Research Group Profile: Dr. Alice Clement

Alice didn’t come to Flinders Palaeontology via the usual route – she travelled half the world to get here, but, as in all the other profiles we have presented here, she just followed her dreams….

Left: Alice with a lungfish at Melbourne Museum


Somewhat unusually for a palaeontologist, I never caught the “dinosaur bug” as a child. I always had a great love for animals and the outdoors, but wasn’t one of those children who knew all the dinosaur names. I was born in England, but my family moved to Australia when I was four years old. My parents were amazed by their new country, and we endeavoured to experience as much of it as we could.

Every school holiday was spent camping in the bush around south-eastern Australia, feeding King Parrots from our hands, diving for abalone off the Victorian coastline, chasing small skinks and being chased back by giant goannas.        I held a special fascination for marine animals, taking a set of Great White Shark jaws to Ascot Vale Primary School for “show and tell”, much to the bemusement of my classmates, and later opting to visit the Tasmanian Aquaculture and Fisheries Institute for my year 10 work experience.


Left: A young Alice enjoying the beaches of her new home country

It was in year 10 that my feelings for science really began to blossom. A particularly enthusiastic and inspiring teacher, Mr MacDonell, opened up my eyes to the fascinating world of science, something that I had only found daunting before then. I then went on to study Biology, Chemistry and Maths Methods, alongside English, Renaissance History and Japanese in my final years of high school (VCE).  I took a year off after high school to go on a two-month camping trip with my father to the Gulf of Carpenteria and Arnhem Land, before moving to Hokkaido, Japan, to teach English for six months.

Upon my return to Australia I enrolled in a double Arts/Sciences bachelor degree at the University of Melbourne so that I could continue my Japanese language studies. Finding the Japanese courses a bitter disappointment, I focussed instead on my Science, going on to do a double major in Zoology and Conservation. It was then that I came to another point in my life that changed my trajectory forever.

Although having not studied any palaeontology at university, I knew I had an interest in evolutionary biology, but wasn’t tempted by any one of the four major themes of research being offered by the Department of Zoology. I spoke to Dr David Young, whose comparative anatomy lectures I had enjoyed most of all, and asked his advice about what to do. David suggested I speak to a palaeontologist he knew who was working at the Melbourne Museum, Prof. John Long.


Right: Alice in the field at the Gogo Formation, WA in 2008

Fortuitously, John was shortly due to give a public lecture at RMIT about his research. I was immediately blown away by the spectacular Gogo fossils he showed. I commenced my Honours project with him shortly thereafter for my first foray into palaeontology. John had a near-complete lungfish fossil from Gogo that had been discovered the year prior, and entrusted me to prepare and describe the specimen. In my Honours project I named my first lungfish, Xeradipterus hatcheri, named for Lindsay Hatcher who had discovered the specimen.

In 2009 I commenced my PhD, again working with John at the Melbourne Museum, but this time enrolled at Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, under the additional guidance of Prof. Tim Senden. I continued my work on fossil lungfish from Australia, going on to describe another two new species and with the opportunity to partake in some incredible fieldwork adventures.

Halfway through my PhD, John threw a spanner in the works and announced he was to move to Los Angeles. This meant that I no longer was to be working alongside one of my supervisors, and ANU started to make more and more grumblings that I should really be working on campus in Canberra. In late 2010 I moved to Canberra, leaving my partner, friends and family behind. In the next 18 months I worked closely with Dr Gavin Young who agreed to come on as an additional supervisor for me. I was also fortunate enough to meet the powerhouse duo of Prof Ken Campbell and Dr Dick Barwick, two giants of Australian palaeontology, and known in particular for their huge body of work on fossil lungfishes. During my PhD I had wonderful opportunities for travel, visiting fossil collections in museums around the world, and meeting scientists whose names I had only read in papers before then. I visited and worked in the Natural History Museums of London, Paris, Stockholm, Edinburgh, LA, Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York. There is something truly magical about being granted access to the countless cabinets of priceless treasures held in the world’s best museums.

Above: Alice in the Muséum National d’Historie Naturelle, Paris 2010

On my travels I had met Prof. Per Ahlberg and colleagues at the International Congress on Palaeontology in London 2010, and visited his Evolution and Development lab in Uppsala, Sweden. I immediately fell in love with Sweden and the friendly atmosphere of his working group. After graduating with my PhD in 2012, I hassled Per until he gave me a job. This is my top tip for up-and-coming palaeontologists; there is a lot to be said for persistence! In early 2013 I moved to Sweden and worked with Per and his group for just over two years. There I was very productive scientifically and also made many good friends, including meeting the man who would eventually become my husband, Niels Nielsen.

Above: Alice and Niels visiting Innes National Park, South Australia in 2017

Niels and I moved from Sweden to Australia in late 2015, and I took up my current role, again working with John Long, at Flinders University in Adelaide. Having grown up in Melbourne, Adelaide was a new city for the two of us, and we took great pleasure in exploring the beaches, wineries and burgeoning café culture that our new home had to offer. Now I was working in the largest Vertebrate Palaeontology group in Australia, alongside experts in Mammals (Gavin Prideaux, Rod Wells, Aaron Camens), Birds (Trevor Worthy), Reptiles (Mike Lee) and of course fish! Here I continue my work on fish, using modern scanning and imaging techniques to examine spectacular 3D fossils to answer questions not answerable by more traditional means. 

I am so incredibly fortunate to have a job doing what I absolutely love, constantly learning and discovering things never before known to the human race! Aside from palaeontology, I enjoy being active and have played water polo (badly) for more than half of my life. I still enjoy the camping and the outdoors, travel, as well as sharing good food and wine with friends.

If you would like to learn more about Alice’s research click on the following links:

Alice’s own blog:


Dr. Alice Clement receives Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Early Career Researcher

And the awards keep coming!

Last month Dr. Alice Clement received a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for an Early Career Researcher. 

Alice works on early vertebrate evolution especially  early tetrapods and their closest fish relatives. In particular she has been re-constructing brain morphology using endocasts of the braincases of fossil lungfish (Sarcopterygii: Dipnoi) in comparison with extant lungfish. She was the first to produce the first virtual endocast of any lungfish published, in this case Rhinodipterus kimberleyensis, from the Late Devonian Gogo Formation of Australia.

Congratulations Alice!

Look out early next year for Alice’s Research Group Profile here in the Palaeo Lab’s blog.

Riversleigh Society Medal 2017

At the recent CAVEPS event (Conference on Australasian Vertebrate Evolution, Palaeontology and Systematics) held at Queenstown, New Zealand in October, our very own Assoc. Prof. Trevor Worthy won the Riversleigh Society Medal for his contributions to Australian and New Zealand avian palaeontology. The medal was awarded jointly with Dr. Ken Aplin.

The Medal is the highest honour the Riversleigh Society bestows each year. Past recipients have included our own Prof. John Long, Prof Mike Lee, and Sir David Attenborough.

The Riversleigh Society is a non-profit organisation that supports research and public promotion of Australasian palaeontological science.

Research Group Profile: Professor John Long

Professor Long is an expert in ancient fishes, and has undertaken many international expeditions in search of them, but he has many other strings to his bow, some of which are quite surprising… read on.

My interest in palaeontology started  in grade 2 at school (aged 7) when I sat next to a kid whose father collected fossils for a hobby. I was invited to go ‘fossiling’ with them to a quarry near Lillydale, Victoria, where we found 400 million year old Devonian trilobites and other marine creatures. From there I discovered sites closer to home, around Melbourne, so searched the beach at Beaumaris for sharks’ teeth and other treasures, plus with parental help enjoyed occasional trips to Tertiary sites further afield like Geelong, Torquay, or Hamilton. My collection grew and I began researching my fossils and keeping notebooks full of drawings about them . I was always keen to visit other fossil sites of different ages, and Victoria was perfect as it had almost the entire geological sequence within a few hours of Melbourne..

At age 12 my cousin and I jointly won an intermediate division prize ($50) in the State of Victoria Science Talent Search for work summarising Victorian fossils, and at age 14 I won the junior division 1st prize ($60) for my descriptions of “ Fossil Fishes of Victoria” (200pp).These notebooks included attempted scientific descriptions of undescribed species of Miocene fishes from Beaumaris amongst other things. My teenage years were a mixture of fossil hunting on weekends, karate lessons, and as I turned 17, getting my first motorcycle so I could get around on my own.

Above: John aged 19 on his BMW motorcycle.

By final year at school I was convinced I wanted to become a palaeontolologist, so I did the compulsory maths, physics and chemistry subjects and successfully won a place at Melbourne University to undertake a science degree. After two years there I did all the zoology, botany and geology units I was allowed to do (including 4 third year palaeontology units), then transferred across to Monash University, because Prof Pat Vickers Rich had just started there, and Melbourne lacked any vertebrate palaeontologists. Prof Jim Warren, also a vertebrate palaeontologist, was the Head of Zoology at the time, and had just discovered a rich site full of new kinds of Devonian fishes at Mt Howitt. I enrolled in third year, and that year completed a research project on Bacchus Marsh Diprotodon taphonomy. My Honours year (1980) was on Bothriolepis fishes from Mt Howitt, and this lead me to an MSc (which I later converted to a PhD) on Victorian Palaeozoic fish fossils.

I’ve sometimes been asked why I stayed at Monash to do my PhD. I did get an offer to go to Berkeley in the USA and work on what I regarded as ‘second rate fossil material’, but stayed at Monash where the entire Mt Howitt fauna was mine to describe – all new genera and higher level taxa of fishes. I’ve never looked back from there. It’s not where you do your thesis that counts, but whom you work with and the quality of fossil material that you work on that will make your name and set you off on a career in palaeontology.

During some of my university years I lived up at Emerald, near Tom and Pat Rich, sharing a house with my cousin, Tim Flannery. We would often do work for the Rich’s, picking out fossil mammal teeth from sieved residues, and we accompanied them on several field trips, getting first hand experience at excavating Diprotodons (at Bacchus Marsh) or searching for Pliocene mammals at Hamilton. I also spent a week working with Janette Hope and Ken Aplin at McEacherns cave near Nelson sieving cave sediments for fossil bones. Most of my time at University I rode motorcycles to get around. I had an old BMW R60, a Honda 750/4 and some smaller bikes.

After completing my PhD in late 1983 in just under 3 years, my family moved to Canberra where I had a 2 year postdoctoral position working with Devonian fish experts Gavin Young, Ken Campbell and Dick Barwick. This allowed me to collect at Taemas and run an expedition to central Queensland, where we collected Carboniferous fish material. From there we moved over to Perth for 2 years while I held a Queen Elizabeth II Award at the University of WA, and this allowed me to go to Gogo for the first time in 1986. I applied for a National Geographic Grant and was successful, so bought my own second hand 4WD, and funded a 5 week trip to the Kimberley. We found many spectacular specimens, including new genera of placoderms and lungfishes, and the first complete head of Gogonasus. However, it was an expedition plagued with vehicle breakdowns, which on two occasions, saw me undertake very long walks to the highway at night to get help.  When this ran out, I was offered a 2 year position at University of Tasmania, working with Dr Clive Burrett on the Palaeozoic fossils of SE Asia.


This involved several field trips working in the Devonian of Thailand and Vietnam, where we found many fish fossils. I also wrote some papers on conodonts at this time. Sometimes our field work was a bit risky, like working in the jungles of the Golden Triangle near the Burmese Border. At one time we were questioned by local ruffians with large guns, and escaped an incident by being picked up just in time by our Thai driver.

All through these six years as a postdoc I routinely applied for jobs at universities, but missed out on these positions. At the end of 1989 I applied for a job at the Western Australian Museum (WAM) as Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, and got it. I settled in to that role for the next 16 years, searching many remote parts of Western Australia for fossils.
When I started my job at the WAM I had no computer, nor any funding for field work. I decided to be a ‘scientific entrepreneur’, so started The Dinosaur Club in 1990, and within a year had 10,000 members paying us $10 each, so although most of these funds went to the museum, my share enabled me to buy a new computer and run some field expeditions. I ran the club for the next 16 years publishing almost 20 issues of ‘Dinonews’ magazine with help from my colleagues at the WAM.  Highlights of my time at the WAM include the many trips to Gogo and the Pilbara Devonian sites, as well as leading 3 expeditions to the Nullarbor Cave sites (2002-2004), working with Gavin Prideaux at Flinders and the caving associations who discovered the sites. My three-month long expedition to Antarctica in 1991/92 collecting Devonian fishes was another highlight, resulting in many new species described, and my book about the trip called ‘Mountains of Madness- A Scientist’s Journey Through Antarctica’ (2000). Working the Mesozoic reptiles was another plus, as we found the first articulated Mesozoic marine reptiles in WA near Kalbarri. I also described WA’s first dinosaur remains, naming the Jurassic theropod ‘Ozraptor’ 1998.

Right: John in sledging gear – Antarctica 1991.

Aside from doing scientific research and writing my first books (Australian Dinosaurs, Rise of Fishes, Prehistoric Mammals of Australia etc.), my time in WA was also spent returning to my childhood sport of karate and my hobby of riding motorcycles. In 1992 I began martial arts training again, achieving my black belt in 1996. That same year I rode my BMW K100RS bike across Australia and back. I reached 3rd dan black belt in karate in mid 1999, and that same year competed in an international tournament in Okinawa (1999) where I came home with gold medal for performing a team event with sai swords. I eventually became the state Chief Instructor of my style, Uechi Ryu, for 14 years, mentoring nine of my students through to black belt grades, and taught Matayoshi Kobudo (weaponry) as well. It was a very active time in my life, but the hard physical training definitely helped on the long field trips.

Above: Gjaj-martial arts Training with Okinawan master Gaja in Perth 2002.

At the end of 2004, encouraged by Tom Rich, I was appointed as Head of Sciences at  Museum Victoria, and moved to Melbourne. Although the job included a high degree of administration, I was allowed to keep researching and managed to have a productive time in this job. I supervised three PhD students (Tim Holland, Brian Choo and Alice Clement), and was able to run expeditions to Gogo and central Queensland, and attend major overseas meetings. During this time (2004-2009) we published five Nature papers (three about about the origins of sex based on our embryo finds in Gogo fishes), plus many solid descriptive works, and several books. These included children’s books like The Big Picture Book series (illustrated by Brian Choo), one about the history and significance of the Gogo sites (Swimming in Stone), a new edition of The Evolution Revolution, and a book featuring artwork by Peter Schouten, Feathered Dinosaurs –The Origin of Birds.

In early 2009 my wife Heather and I decided to look for a job overseas as we had never had the experience of living in another country. I was accepted for the job as Vice President at the LA Country Museum and moved to Los Angeles in late 2009. My three years in LA were very busy, as we were building two new galleries of palaeontology and one of local history. Nonetheless I enjoyed my time there and I was allowed to periodically visit Australia for field work and research collaboration, so I kept my research ticking over.

Finally, in late 2012, I was offered a permanent on-going role at Flinders University as one of their new Strategic Professors, and was very happy to return to Australia in a job that was research focused.

My advice to up and coming young palaeontologists is to take any opportunity you can get to participate in field work, and work far and wide as possible to gain experience working with professional palaeontologists. Lead a balanced life, keep healthy and active, and foster other interests aside from science, as I have done with my karate and motorcycles. I think this approach really helps keep the brain developing new pathways, and thus better adapted to problem solving.

Professor Long’s achievements are many and varied – far too many to list here, but here are just a few of the more recent appointments and awards:

2009-current: Honorary Researcher, Museum Victoria.
2010-current: Adjunct Professor, University of Southern California, School of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
2012-current: Honorary Research Associate, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, California, USA.
2014-current: Chair, Interagency Reference Group, Naracoorte Caves World  Heritage site.
2016-current: President, The Royal Society of South Australia.


Research & Scientific Awards:

2008: Listed in the top 100 Scientific discoveries of the year for the world by  Discover magazine (USA, out of  only Australian first-authored science discoveries selected).
2011: Finalist, The Eureka Prize for Scientific Research (team “Mother Fish”).
2011: Winner, The Royal Society of Victoria Research Medal.
2014: Winner, The Verco Medal (for research) 2014, the Royal Society of South Australia.
2016: Winner, The 2016 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific  Research, as part of the TEPO team (with Prof Ross Large, TEPO-Trace  Elements in Past Oceans.)

Literary Awards & Other Honours:

2006: Winner, Australian Publishers Award for best primary reference book. “The  Big Picture Book”.
2007: Short-listed. Victorian Premiers Literary Awards for Science Writing for “Swimming in Stone -The Amazing Gogo Fossils of the Kimberley”.
2008: Special Commendation. Australian Geography Teachers Association, for “The Big Picture Book of Environments”.
2008: Listed in The Age (Melbourne newspaper) annual top 100 list of the most influential people in Melbourne for the category of Science and Medicine (Dec. 12h 2008).
2009: Short-listed, Australian Publishers Award for best library reference book for “The Big Picture Book of Human Civilisation”.

In addition to authoring (or co-authoring) 28 books both technical and popular, plus edited scientific volumes, John has written around 170 scientific peer-reviewed papers and scientific book chapters (combined), as well as 124 popular science articles. He is a regular contributor to popular science publications and blogs such as Australasian Science and The Conversation, and has appeared in many TV programmes such as the ABC’s Catalyst, and also on the Discovery Channel. If that’s not enough he has served on the organizing committees of several palaeontological conferences as well as being invited as guest speaker at many conferences and symposia.

So what do you do in your ‘spare’ time, John?



Research Group Profile: Dr. Aaron Camens

I’m one of those annoying people who decided what they wanted to do when they were five and didn’t look back. No agonising over what subjects to choose in high school, no worrying over whether or not my degree would result in me actually being employable. I’ve always had a strong interest in natural history, I started collecting rocks and fossils when I was five or six and never looked back.


I was lucky enough to undertake my degree at the University of Adelaide at a time when it had a strong invertebrate palaeontology group and a diverse range of geology topics available for study. I ended up majoring in zoology and geology resulting in a strong base from which to study palaeontology. The drawback was that, with a focus on invertebrate palaeontology, it was not until the third year of my degree that I even found out what a Diprotodon was! My parents met some old bloke called Rod Wells down at the caves at Naracoorte and mentioned that they had a son studying palaeontology. A month later I met Rod for the first time when I volunteered at an excavation at Rocky River on Kangaroo Island. I was digging up a Diprotodon skull before I even understood much about what they were.

Above: Sometimes you get so wrapped up looking at a trackway you forget to keep an eye on the sea…. (Photo: Matt Cupper)

That dig got me hooked and I decided then and there Rod was going to supervise an honours project for me. Luckily he agreed to it and I shifted to Flinders to undertake honours looking at the hands and feet of Diprotodon and Zygomaturus. This started my fascination with postcranial morphology and the amazing array of things we can learn about an extinct animal from studying the non-heady bits.

I shifted back to the University of Adelaide in 2006 to undertake my PhD on the functional morphology and systematics of diprotodontid marsupials (completed in 2010). At my PhD induction day I met some kiwi with a funny accint called Trevor Worthy, who was also starting a PhD in palaeontology. In the subsequent years Rod, Trev and I got to explore many of South Australia’s most productive fossil sites. Along with Rod’s mentor Dick Tedford, we went up to the Warburton River in 2006 to look for fossils in the Pliocene Tirari Formation sediments and the Pleistocene Katipiri Formation. On that trip we also found a series of fossil footprints of the Pliocene diprotodontid Euowenia grata, a discovery that led me down the ichnological pathway that has me studying footprints from all over southern Australia today.

Above: The trackways that started it all (Euowenia grata, Warburton River, Tirari Fm.) (Photo: Trevor Worthy)

My research now revolves around the palaeobiology and ecology of Australia’s extinct marsupials, ranging from the extinct megafauna of the Late Pleistocene to the Lake Frome Basin, where some of the earliest known representatives of modern marsupial groups have been found. In the last seven or so years I’ve also focused on vertebrate trace fossils in the aeolianites fringing the southern and western coasts of Australia and the Plio-Pleistocene deposits of the Mid-North and the Lake Eyre Basin.

Above: Me photographing a Thylacoleo trackway in D’Entrecasteaux NP,SW WA.(Photo: Steve Carey)

Something that I would encourage any budding palaeontologist to do is to seize every opportunity offered to volunteer on fieldwork. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with ACAD (the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA) in the study of some of Australia’s youngest megafaunal deposits at Mt. Cripps in Tasmania (from which my colleagues managed to retrieve the first useful DNA from extinct Australian megafauna); investigation of the timing of human arrival in Madagascar with archaeologists from ANU; excavation of the Cambrian lagerstatte at Emu Bay on Kangaroo Island with John Paterson and his crew of invertebrate palaeontologists; and the early Miocene fossil deposits of St Bathans in New Zealand with Trev. All of these trips were peripheral to my chosen areas of study but have resulted in both great friendships and the development of a diverse network of palaeontological colleagues that spans much of the globe.

Above: : A hodgepodge sieve station using a tarp and an inflatable Zodiac that we set up for excavations in Madagascar (Photo: Geoff Clark)

From digging up Diprotodons at Burra, to camel treks through the Simpson Desert; from crawling through caves in Tasmania, to clambering around on cliffs on the remote west coast looking for footprints whilst whales breach below; the study of palaeontology has provided me the opportunity to see parts of Australia that very few people see and to make fantastic discoveries along the way. I love my job.

Above: Me and James Moore out in the Simpson on a camel trek (Photo: Ilse Pickerd)