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.
AWARDS & HONOURS:
Research & Scientific Awards:
2008: Listed in the top 100 Scientific discoveries of the year for the world by Discover magazine (USA, out of only 4 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?