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)

Research Group Profile: Professor Rod Wells

Prof. Rod Wells is rightly regarded as the ‘founding father’ of palaeontology at Flinders. His story of how he came to study palaeontology is fascinating, and is a lesson in following one’s dreams.

When I tell someone I am a vertebrate palaeontologist the immediate assumption is that I must have loved dinosaurs as a kid. Well, the answer is not particularly, but I was, and to some extent remain, interested in everything.

My earliest memories go back to the family home in Belmore, a suburb of Sydney, during the WWII. My father was a technician on the overseas radio terminal in Martin Place in Sydney, and mum was a house-wife. They had struggled through the depression years of the 1930s. What they lacked in material goods was more than compensated by a great love of learning. Both had left school at 14, and both were self-taught. Father subscribed to the National Geographic and Popular Mechanics, while mother took the Readers Digest. My brother and I were drilled by mother on the ‘It pays to increase your word power’ section of the Digest, and father would engage us in all sorts of discussions about the natural world, astronomy, curious insects, geology , archaeology and whatever was on the BBC or ABC news. If you couldn’t answer a question you had to ‘go and look it up’. I still have the much thumbed through volumes of the encyclopaedia. We kept silk worms in shoeboxes and watched them spin their cocoons, collected Emperor Gum Moth caterpillars off the street trees and fed them until they pupated, and watched their metamorphosis in awe as they emerged, slowly pumping up their wings. We collected all the colour morphs of cicadas we could find, and we kept frogs and a turtle in a pond in the back garden. We had a great Meccano set and of course Hornby trains. We made model aeroplanes from balsa wood kits. Many trips were made to the Australian Museum and to the Museum of Technology to look in wonder at the skeletons of giant mammals or the intricate workings of stationary steam engines. We were always challenged with the ‘why is it so’ type questions. We listened to the Argonauts on the ABC, and sent in our drawings and stories hoping to get a mention here or there. I still have my Argonauts badge.

After the war we moved to Leura in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. We lived on Railway Parade opposite the steepest part of the grade over the mountains. The house would shake as the giant 57 class steam locomotives struggled past on their way west. We would awake to a morning chorus of currawongs as they rose with the mist out of the valleys that surrounded us. This was a natural paradise far removed from the grime of city life and as we got older bushwalking became a passion.  Our 90yr old neighbour presented the family with William Ceram’s book “God, Graves and Scholars: The history of Archaeology”. I was totally fascinated by it. I still have it. Always inquisitive, the idea of being an explorer captivated me.

                At high school I studied Maths I and Maths II, English, French, Latin, Physics, Chemistry. During my matriculation year half of our town was destroyed in huge bushfires and I spent precious study time riding around on fire trucks and my grades suffered accordingly. My dream of getting into architecture was dashed. I did, however, get an engineering traineeship with the British Motor Corporation (BMC). A day off a week to go to University and four nights a week lectures. When it became obvious that BMC was collapsing I left to work for a company that specialised in building chemical plants and oil refineries. They were just giant Meccano sets and I was right at home.

                While studying I joined the University of NSW Speleological Society. Here was the opportunity to be a genuine explorer – to go where no one had been before. Not only did we discover new chambers in many caves but I also kept finding the bones and skeletons of marsupials; possums, wombats, kangaroos and koalas. Maybe, just maybe, I might discover the remains of some extinct species. I was hooked. In the Xmas of 1963/1964 I was a member of the joint University of NSW and University of Sydney expedition to explore the caves of the Nullarbor Plain. The late great geomorphologist, Joe Jennings, from ANU had obtained the aerial reconnaissance photos of the Nullarbor released after the war. Here were evident many unexplored dolines leading to goodness knows where. I was in the very first party into Mullamullang Cave, which was a giant underground passage that lead us excitingly on, and running out of carbide and water for our acetylene lamps we had to finally turn back with no end in sight. On that trip I met people from the Cave Exploration Group of South Australia (CEGSA) and the South Australian Museum, one of whom, Alice Woodroffe, was to become my wife. Here were people who had studied zoology, entomology, geomorphology, and botany, and were being paid to do what I was doing as a hobby. This was my road to Damascus.     To the consternation of my parents, and to the shock of my employer I resigned everything and returned to university as a “mature” age student with the aim of indulging my interest in natural history, exploration, and fossils. I studied botany, zoology, geology and palaeontology. I ended up with a first class honours in zoology and a Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue a PhD. Herein lay a problem, as no academic was prepared to supervise a PhD in vertebrate palaeontology. Invertebrate palaeontology as an aid to stratigraphy and oil search yes, but vertebrate palaeontology no. 

To the rescue came the late Peter Crowcroft, mammologist and Director of the South Australian Museum. Peter encouraged me to continue my study of a living vertebrate whose biology remained virtually unknown; viz.  Lasiorhinus latifrons, the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat. Peter left South Australia to become Director of the Chicago Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois, and in this capacity raised funds for the purchase of the property where I was carrying out my research, now Brookfield Conservation Park in the Murraylands near Blanchetown. Here we built a research station which is still in use today by many tertiary institutions.

I continued with cave exploration, now with CEGSA, and in 1969 I realised the dream, with the discovery of the immense deposit of extinct ice-age mammals in the Victoria Cave at Naracoorte, a site which we took to World Heritage Status in 1994. Today I look with great pleasure and pride at the achievements of all my graduate students that has led to the development of Australia’s premier paleontological research laboratory at Flinders University. I am “retired” but remain an honorary at Flinders and the South Australian Museum, and in recent years have turned my attention to other fossil sites in the Lake Eyre Basin and the regions east of Burra and Hallett in the mid north.

Some years ago for my 70th I realised another dream and sailed my vintage timber yacht, which I had lovingly restored, to Tasmania for the 2011 Wooden Boat Show, and for which I received a Royal South Australian Yacht Squadron cruising award. 

Do I have any wisdom to offer? I am not sure, but I would say this; you only have one body and one brain. Look after them, and forget the naysayers and follow your dream.

2018 James Moore Memorial Prize: Entry Deadline 25th. August 2017!

The deadline for the 2018 James Moore Memorial Prize is rushing up (25th. August 2017).

For eligibility criteria and full entry details visit: http://flinderspalaeosoc.org/james-moore-memorial-fund

The James Moore Memorial Fund in Palaeontology provides two annual scholarships that are awarded to one rural high school student and one metropolitan high school student. The scholarships offer students the opportunity to join the Flinders crew on a field trip and get some hands on experience. Teagan Cross, the 2017 recipient, writes about her experiences at the Wellington Caves.


2017 James Moore Memorial Prize:

Wellington Caves Palaeontology Trip

By Teagan Cross

When I found out I won this trip, I was so excited. On the 23rd of January I met up with Gavin and his crew, as well as two runner-ups for this competition, Lachie and Stephen, to start an adventure at Wellington Caves in NSW.

The first day was spent driving and getting to know everybody, and learning about the music they liked. On the first night we swagged it at a caravan park in West Wyalong. We got rained on during the middle of the night, but didn’t get eaten alive by bugs. The next morning we packed up and set off for Wellington.
We stayed at the UNSW Research Station, which was a few minutes out of Wellington, and about 10 kms from the Wellington Caves. We had the river flowing by us, and cattle to greet us every morning. The first day we went to the caves we had an early morning rise and got the outdoor station set up and the Pit inside of Cathedral Caves organised and ready to go.

Every day we would split up into two groups. One group would go into the caves and dig in the Pit, and the others would stay to sift and clean clay and fossils that had been found. The days’ temperatures reached 40 degrees, but we stopped at lunch-times to have breaks and even get in a swim at the caravan park pool to cool down. The Pit was one of the most exciting parts of this trip. Many people would eventually go a bit crazy being down in the Pit, 3 metres underground in a hole in the cave, surrounded by metal slats holding it up, but that was what made it interesting. Whilst using tools to dig for bones, there would be many jokes and laughter rising up from the Pit. It was a place of discovery and fun. I will never forget the moment when that spade first hit bone. Within minutes I was holding two tail bones from an extinct giant kangaroo. That feeling was incredible, and almost indescribable. It suddenly occurs to you that in your hand are the remains of an amazing creature that lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, and that you are the first person to see it and experience it. 

Up on land, on the edge of the hill and in front of The Phosphate Mine, was where the other station was located. We had a trailer and shade set up, and what Diana described as little ‘possums,’ (more accurately little calico bags filled with fossils and clay) hanging from a shelter. There were two final rinsing tanks set up, and many black plastic cleaning containers set up. We had to empty a bag of clay into a metal box-like object which would sit in the water-filled containers and be shaken to sift and separate mud from rocks and bones. This would be done a couple of times before the final rinsing stage, and after all of that we would scrape the fossils into a little calico bag and hang it up to dry. 

Above: Rinsing tanks at the Phosphate mine with ‘little possums’ hanging above. Photo: D. Fusco (2017)

In-between work we got to go on tours of the caves that were there; the stalactite and stalagmite filled Gaden Caves, the fossil filled Phosphate Mine Cave, and the Cathedral Cave. All were beautiful caves that were exciting to be in and probably held many secrets. If nothing was needed to be done for those who had finished sifting, we would go back to the research centre and sort through some dirt and fossils that had been cleaned and bagged from the last trip that was taken down there. Using paintbrushes and tweezers we discovered many molars, pre-molars, incisors and other bones of small mammals, and the more we found, the more exciting it became. Us rookies were tested on skulls to see if we knew which skull belonged to what organism, and we quizzed the pros to see if they could guess what organism belonged to the skull we had described. Really soon we could recognise different kinds of teeth, femurs, fibulas and tibias, among a few other bone types (however it was still sometimes confusing, but that was part of the learning experience). 

Above: Pit entrance in Cathedral Cave, Wellington Caves, NSW. Photo: D. Fusco (2017)

A few days before the trip was over, four more members came down to help out. Pretty soon we had a full house of 12 people, all working to help discover the megafauna that walked along this land many years ago. One of the moments that stood out a lot was our shopping trips. It was hilarious to watch the expressions of other customers when they saw us walk in covered with orange clay, and I always knew which aisle one of us had been in from the dirt we trailed on the floor! The mornings were fun too. It started off with waking up, getting brekky, and then doing the best you can to wake everybody else up. For me this involved running down the hall, banging on the doors and yelling “time to get up!” Diana’s approach was much nicer, knocking on the doors and asking them to please get up. Many nights we went to sleep after playing Grant’s board games (which were awesome) or watching Jake’s TV shows, and were lulled into our slumber by Sam’s serenading.

Above: Teagan (foreground) & Diana digging for ‘treasure’ at the
bottom of the pit.Photo: D. Fusco (2017)

Leaving was really hard. I had a blast down at the caves, and the team welcomed me in with open arms. To me, they felt like a family, and I’ll never forget the memories I made with them. Everybody was friendly and caring, and despite the heat and repetitive work, there was never a dull moment. This trip really was an exciting adventure, and I would go again and again if I could. I made many great friends and awesome discoveries, and I came home with many stories to share. To everyone who went, thank you all for the great opportunity! I had so much fun down there with you all, and can’t wait to join you on more trips. No pun intended, you guys rock!

Teagan Cross

Teagan is now in her first year of her science degree at Flinders taking the major in Vertebrate Palaeontology. This major is brand new and only became available this year. For more information click on link:


If you would like to donate to the James Moore Memorial Fund click on link:








The Eye of the Beholder

In our lab we become immersed in the study of our fossils. We clean and repair them, sort them from sediment, extract them from rocks, count them, measure them, scan them, draw them, classify them, ponder on their evolutionary history and taxonomy, work out how they fit into the ecological framework of their time and place, write papers, give lectures, and discuss them at length with colleagues.

But in among all this science something perhaps get lost along the way. Something that either we don’t notice at all, or for which we forget to look. Their simple beauty.

So it’s time to step out of the scientists’ shoes and value the fossils as simply beautiful objects in their own right, and perhaps to ponder on the living animals that fleshed out the bones, some of which we shall never see again.

Here are just a few photographs of some particularly beautiful specimens (not all from our lab).


Metamorphosis: Thylacine into……..butterfly?

Small Passerine bird mummy (unidentified) (modern)

Ngapakaldia sp. skull (~ 24 million years)

(Extinct herbivore in the Phascolarctidae family, related to wombats & koalas)

Beautiful symmetry – Shingleback lizard (Tiliqua rugosa) scales (modern)


A nose by any other name………. Diprotodon sp.

An exquisite male Microbrachius dicki 

(A tiny Placoderm species from the Middle Devonian ~387-382 million years)

Hand of Thylacoleo carnifex (late Pleistocene)

Last, but not least. Simply stunning – the ‘Ammolite Ammonite’

from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

If you enjoyed these then also check out our blog item ‘This Fish will Blow you Out of the Water!’ And, if you haven’t seen it already, the opalised fossil Plesiosaur in the S.A. Museum is equally stunning.



Research Group Profile: Assoc. Prof. Trevor Worthy

A palaeontologist is what many a kid dreams of becoming and I have been lucky enough to achieve that handle. Today I am a specialist in fossil birds and a bit of a meddler in various other groups such as bats, lizards and frogs. I joined the palaeo group at Flinders University in 2013 and am privileged to work alongside others who have a focus on mammals or fish, and get to do exciting expeditions into the deserts to the north of Adelaide, and study my precious, that is bird, fossil bones. 

            One might ask, how did this situation come about? The road has been somewhat long and bumpy you might say, but ever since I was a kid on a farm in a poor rural part of New Zealand I knew I wanted to do science, and biology in particular. My Grandma was a shell collector (actually quite a famous one I later learned), and from her I learned to sort stuff – leaf litter for land snails, and dredgings for marine molluscs – starting from about 10 years old I’d say. I was never any good at remembering what I was meant to do, but got to know shells, and digested books.

            I was lucky enough to have parents who packed me off to boarding school. There I found an escape in the weekends teaming up with the Ornithological Society’s Beach Patrol schemes: basically one got to walk on beaches and pick up dead birds. And so I was introduced to bird bones. Then I moved farther from home to Hamilton and Waikato University where I joined the caving club. In my caving trips – every weekend, and sometimes mid-week as well, for the next several years – I saw heaps of moa and other fossil bones. In my naivety, I figured no scientist would ever go down to these places, and so I resolved to somehow study these resources. I moved to the caving centre of NZ at Waitomo Caves and joined the local museum on some scheme for unemployed/able folk. There I got a specific ‘job’ to go out and collect fossil bones and build a collection for the museum. How cool was that! So for months I roamed caves all about, looking for fossil deposits. This led to a publication 1984 on a spectacular deposit that had lots of fossil insects among a rich haul of bones.

            After that I went back to University and did another MSc on fossil frogs, and from there went into what is now Te Papa in Wellington, and made sufficient nuisance of myself that they gave me something to do. This led to a contract to survey Honeycomb Hill Cave system, a spectacular cave with 70 entrances and 20 or so kilometres of passage – and heaps of fossil bones. We then started worked on those bones in 1987, and one contract led to another. In 2005, the latest in a succession of contracts came to an end in NZ. I had by then never had a job, just worked contract to contract, with myself the boss – so it was time for a change.

            A young fellow I had tutored at one stage, was now Director of ACAD and said, ‘Come over here and we will support you for a PhD’, and so next thing I knew, after 15+ years doing research, I took up a PhD. Really it was just another fossil bird project, and when that was done, an interval at University of New South Wales, back to Adelaide University and thence Flinders. All the time chasing bird bones about the world.  So little has changed, I still don’t have a job, I still study fossils, still get to do the things I love, but I now do know a little bit about bird bones.  This week I again visited some of the bones I collected in 1987 for a current project… no end is in sight.

Above: Trevor at the Manuherikia River Site, St Bathans, Otago, NZ in January 2005. This bed is the source of near 70 vertebrate species (12 fish, 40 birds, a croc, a turtle, 2 frogs, a tuatara, 4 lizards, 5 bats, and 2 other mammals) plus molluscs.

A great example of where a childhood interest can take you. Trevor has accumulated an impressive list of academic achievements and awards along the way, including publication of more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, 4 books and numerous other technical publications, and has been involved as a consultant in several television documentaries.

            In addition to his position within the Flinders Palaeontology research group he was Elected President of the Society of Avian Palaeontology and Evolution (2012 – 2016), is a continuing member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology and of Zootaxa, and is Honorary Research Associate in the Vertebrate Fossil Department, Museum of New Zealand.

Trevor’s full academic profile can be viewed at these sites:























A great example of where a childhood interest can take you. Trevor has accumulated an impressive list of academic achievements and awards along the way, including publication of more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, 4 books and numerous other technical publications, and has been involved as a consultant in several television documentaries.

            In addition to his position within the Flinders Palaeontology research group he was Elected President of the Society of Avian Palaeontology and Evolution (2012 – 2016), is a continuing member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology and of Zootaxa, and is Honorary Research Associate in the Vertebrate Fossil Department, Museum of New Zealand.


Trevor’s full academic profile can be viewed at these sites: http://www.flinders.edu.au/people/trevor.worthy https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Trevor_Worthy

Palaeo in the Pub with Prof Rod Wells and Dr Aaron Camens

Deserts, lakes and ancient rivers: the search for the ancestral marsupials

6pm, Thursday 14th September
Flinders University Tavern

Guest speakers Professor Rod Wells, the founding father of Palaeontology at Flinders University; and Dr Aaron Camens, lecturer in Vertebrate Palaeontology; will be showering us with tales of their experiences of central South Australian Desert landscapes, and the awe-inspiring fossils found within them.

Now in his late seventies Rod Wells continues to lead a rich and rewarding life steeped in science and natural history. Engineer turned zoologist turned palaeontologist Rod will chat about his fascination with the giant extinct marsupials of Australia and his journey of exploration across Australia’s desert landscapes in search of their bones..

Following in Rod’s footsteps, Aaron Camens has been introduced to many of the fossil localities in arid South Australia that help us unravel the evolutionary history of our iconic fauna. Aaron’s research currently focuses on these central Australian sites and he is extracting new information from the collections made by Rod and his contemporaries. He will talk about his experiences collecting fossils from some of the most remote parts of the state and new discoveries Flinders palaeontologists have been making in Central Australia.

This event is free, bring a friend.
Due to the venue, suitable only for ages 18+
Parking is free from 6pm

Nibbles will be provided!

Please RSVP by 5pm Tuesday 12 September so that we can cater accordingly.


This fish will blow you out of the water!


Content: Dr. Brian Choo

Edited by: Susan Double

The art of the fossil preparator is an unseen, and perhaps underrated discipline. The fossils we see in museum and lab collections rarely come in from the field in a fit condition to display or study. Someone has to separate them from the sediment or rock they may be encased in, clean them, sometimes fix them if broken and finally harden the bone so that they may be preserved and protected into the future. This can take many weeks or months depending upon the process used.

            A fossil fish was recently brought into the prep lab by researcher Dr. Brian Choo (http://www.flinders.edu.au/people/brian.choo). Encased within a calcareous nodule, which had been cleaved neatly into part and counterpart in the field, it was barely recognisable, except by a fish expert, that is. The nodule was passed to our chief preparator, Carey Burke, to see if he could extract the fossil seen vaguely within. Thus began the long preparation process.

Above: The calcareous nodule containing the Moythomasia durgaringa as it arrived in the prep lab from the field (Photo: Carey Burke, 2016).

The fish is a marine Moythomasia  durgaringa  from the Upper Devonian Gogo Formation of Western Australia. This particular specimen was discovered by Diego Garcia-Bellido Capdevila (University of Adelaide) in 2015. While not a particularly rare specimen its state of preservation is remarkable given its age (~390 million years) – but we weren’t to know that until Carey had released it from its rocky prison.

            Carey used a process called the ‘Transfer Method’ which uses a clear plastic resin to preserve the specimen. Each half-nodule was set face down within transparent acrylic, then given repeated baths in a weak acid solution to remove the matrix. The end result is each half of the fish mounted on a clear slab.

Above: The two halves of the nodule encased in their clay moulds with plastic resin poured on top (Photo: Carey Burke, 2016)


Actinopterygians, or ray-finned fishes, today comprise over 30,000 species, or the vast majority of animals we recognise as “fish”. Back in the Devonian, the ray-fins were not particularly diverse, with fewer than 30 species described worldwide.

            Moythomasia is one of the earliest and most primitive actinopterygian in the fossil record. It was also the first genus to attain an effectively global distribution, with different species known from Late Devonian marine deposits in Australia, Latvia, Germany and the USA. 

            The Australian species, Moythomasia durgaringa, thanks to the splendid preservation of the Gogo Formation, is the best known species in the genus, and one of the most completely known of all Palaeozoic ray-finned fishes. The earliest actinopterygians had delicate bodies, and are usually recovered as flattened whole fishes or isolated 3-dimension fragments. The Gogo ray-fins are unique in being complete and uncrushed.


380 million years ago, during the Frasnian stage of the Late Devonian, a vast tropical reef system, over 1400 km in length, stretched along the coast of eastern Gondwana. While corals were present, the main reef builders were algae and massive calcareous sponges called stromatoporoids.

            Away from the vibrant shallows, the seabed dropped off into deep, dark anoxic basins.  The bodies of reef-dwellers which sank into these oxygen-poor areas were untouched by scavengers and became sealed within calcareous concretions. These deepwater sediments, with numerous limestone nodules, are today what we call the Gogo Formation. Over 50 Gogo fish species have been described, including four actinopterygians.

The end result of the painstaking preparation is breathtaking. Almost every anatomical detail of the fish is present, including tiny teeth and scales (see close-up photos below). It is a stunning example of the preparator’s art and Carey has to be congratulated on the result.

Above: The finished specimen                 (Photo: Brian Choo, 2016)

Above: Close-up of head – note teeth!        (Photo: Brian Choo, 2016)

Above: Close-up of scales.              (Photo: Brian Choo, 2016)

FUPS presents another classic movie!


Don’t miss it! Put the date in your diary. FUPS presents the 1954 3D cult classic,


6.15pm Thursday 15th June

Multimedia Room, Flinders University Hub

$2.00 Popcorn – $2.00 Ice creams

Entry: FREE!

With guest speaker Professor John Long discussing where the movie’s scientists got it wrong! The creature is real and the Professor knows the who/what/when and where…