It’s been a few weeks since I last posted anything, so I thought it’s about time to remedy that situation. The reason there’s been a lull in activity on the blog (other than the usual PhD and related research) is that all last week I was attending the 14th Conference of Australasian Vertebrate Evolution, Palaeontology and Systematics (better known as CAVEPS) in Adelaide.
The conference is held every two years (the previous meeting was in Perth) and it draws in almost every vertebrate palaeontologist in Australasia, as well as archaeologists, palynologists (fossil pollen people) and several palaeontologists from across the globe. It gives us fossil nerds a chance to catch up, discuss our research, perhaps plan some new collaborations and share a beer or two (or ten). It is exceptionally useful to students like me who have heard, seen or watched these big names in our field but have never met them. We can actually get the chance to put a face to the name and maybe even get to have a chat with them, in addition to meeting fellow students who may we not have even been aware of and make some connections. Palaeontology, like a lot of things in life, is all about who you know!
The conference started off with a series of workshops. There were drawing fossils, fossil casting, radiometric and luminescence dating and phylogenetic methods workshops to choose from. I went to the fossil casting workshop as this was something I had seen done but had never done myself. I had an attempt at casting the tooth row of a wombat which didn’t come out as horribly as I expected!
On the Tuesday the talks began. The first symposium was dedicated to Ruben Arthur Stirton, the man whose 1953 expedition is part of Australian palaeontological legend, and his subsequent researches have had a lasting and profound impact on palaeontology in this part of the world. The conference celebrated the 60th anniversary of the expedition. For the student poster session that evening, myself and Flinders University PhD student Sam Arman tried to quantify Stirton’s impact on Australasian palaeontology by tracing the academic ancestry of the attendees of CAVEPS 2013, finding that 26% of them could trace their lineage back to him. This poster stemmed from an earlier blog post of mine (see here), where I traced my own academic ancestry (Stirton is my great-great-great academic grandfather) and it was a very cool project to do that seemed to go down well with almost everyone at the conference.
Wednesday’s talks were very interesting, the main theme being phylogenetics. Colleagues of mine who aren’t particularly interested in the subject even found the talks interesting, so the speakers must have been doing something right! Wednesday night saw the conference auction, which saw several of my hard earned dollars depart from my wallet in exchange for a couple of books and some papers I look forward to reading.
I missed Thursday morning’s lectures due to being just a tad hungover from the night before (I was at a conference after all), but I heard from people who were there that they were very good! After enjoying the afternoon talks it was time for the conference dinner, where we were treated to a performance from Professor Flint and the Flintettes, an experience not to be missed! You can see an example of their work in the video below.
Friday was the last day of the conference, and also the day of my very own talk. This meant I got the unfortunate pleasure of having to wait all week before being able to finally relax! I presented on some fossil penguin research that I will hopefully be submitting soon. That night we relaxed with some dinner and a few celebratory drinks before departing off on the long drive back to Melbourne on Saturday morning. A great week; and I look forward to the next CAVEPS, which will apparently be held in Alice Springs of all places! Another road trip to look forward to then…
A massive thank you to the Flinders crew for putting on such a great conference, fantastic work!
One of the best things about being a palaeontologist (even a student one) is getting to travel around the world to visit other museums, fossil sites and to attend conferences. At the moment I’m attending the 7th Southern Connections Congress 2013 in Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand (planning to post about this at the end of the week). But since I was coming to New Zealand I thought I would include a trip to the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch to visit their collections and have a look around.
I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that the fossil record of penguins in Australia is somewhat fragmentary. There’s very few complete elements, let alone complete skeletons. New Zealand does not suffer this affliction too however, with some absolutely amazing specimens that I would kill for to have in Australia!
So when I spent two days last week in the collections of the Canterbury Museum, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy shop. There were some amazing penguin specimens and some very interesting cetacean specimens too. I took as many photographs as possible in the short time I had to build up my reference collection. It’s a lovely museum with beautiful botanical gardens and park right beside it, well worth a visit if you’re ever in that part of the world.
I couldn’t write something about Christchurch without mentioning the earthquake that struck on the 23rd February 2011, killing almost 200 people and destroying most of the CBD. When you see things like that on the news it’s almost impossible to comprehend the extent of the devastation of an event of that magnitude. But it was certainly brought home to me during my few days in Christchurch, even nearly two years after the earthquake. The CBD is still fenced off and out-of-bounds to the public and the city itself is effectively one big construction site, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
I was even given a brief reminder that the tectonic activity underneath Christchurch continues unabated. I was sitting in my room at the hostel I was staying in on Saturday night (I’m a party animal, I know) when the whole building began to shake! Fortunately it was a relatively weak quake and only lasted for around 10 seconds, but for those 10 seconds my heart rate increased rather rapidly!
But the city is rebuilding, and the feeling I got from the people I spoke to in Christchurch is that it will be stronger than ever when it is rebuilt. It is certainly worth visiting.
A big thanks goes to Dr. Paul Scofield for granting me access to the collections in Canterbury Museum and for the lunchtime beers!
Everybody loves penguins. From Happy Feet to the plethora of nature documentaries on the breeding cycle of the Emperor penguin, who can resist that awkward shuffle on land and the effortless grace in water? One facet of the penguin story that most people won’t be as familiar with is penguin palaeontology. This field has seen a renaissance since the early 1990’s with New Zealand and South America and Antarctica leading the way and South Africa also having their fair share of attention. One region that has been left out of this flurry of penguin research is Australia.
The published fossil record of penguins in Australia, although limited compared to that of Antarctica, New Zealand and South America, spans some 40 million years from the late Eocene to Recent (Ksepka and Ando, 2011). The majority of previous work has been produced by one author, none other than George Gaylord Simpson (Simpson, 1957, 1959, 1965, 1970), with the first publication released in 1938 (Finlayson, 1938) and the last primary research conducted by Van Tets and O’Connor (1983) a 30 year lull! A total of ten different localities are known from South Australia and Victoria (Park and Fitzgerald, 2012). In addition to numerous unidentifiable fragments, a total of five species have been named from the Australian material: Pachydyptes simpsoni (Eocene); Anthropodyptes gilli (Miocene); Pseudaptenodytes macraei (Miocene); Pseudaptenodytes minor (Miocene) and Tasidyptes hunteri (Holocene). Only two of these (A. gilli and P. macraei) are at present considered taxonomically distinct and only one species (P. simpsoni) is known from associated remains. All other species are based on individual and/or partial specimens, with the majority of specimens being too fragmentary for identification below the family level.
A new paper co-authored by myself and Dr. Erich Fitzgerald (senior curator of vertebrate palaeontology at Museum Victoria) reviews the fossil record of penguins in Australia. Whilst the record is undoubtedly fragmentary, material is known from every epoch since the Eocene and virtually every find up until now has been by chance. So the potential is there for new discoveries to be made, should actually someone go and specifically look for fossil penguins. Furthermore, material has continued to accumulate in museum collections over the past 30 years despite the lack of research, some of it worthy of further study (keep your eyes peeled later in the year for that). So consider this an unfinished story, the fossil penguins of Australia have a few more tales to tell.
Link to the paper: http://museumvictoria.com.au/pages/41623/momv-2012-vol-69-pp309-325.pdf
Finlayson, H. H. 1938. On the occurrence of a fossil penguin in Miocene beds in South Australia. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 62:14–17.
Ksepka, D. T., and T. Ando. 2011. Penguins Past, Present, and Future: Trends in the Evolution of the Sphenisciformes; pp. 155–186 in G. Dyke, and G. Kaiser (eds.), Living Dinosaurs. The Evolutionary History of Modern Birds. Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex.
Park, T., and E. M. G. Fitzgerald. 2012. A review of Australian fossil penguins (Aves: Sphenisciformes). Memoirs of Museum Victoria 69: 309–325
Simpson, G. G. 1957. Australian fossil penguins, with remarks on penguin evolution and distribution. Records of the South Australian Museum 13:51–70.
Simpson, G. G. 1959. A new fossil penguin from Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 71:113–119.
Simpson, G. G. 1965. New record of a fossil penguin in Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 79:91–93.
Simpson, G. G. 1970. Miocene penguins from Victoria, Australia, Chubut, Argentina. Memoirs of the National Museum, Victoria 31:17–24.
Van Tets, G. F., and S. O’Connor. 1983. The Hunter Island penguin, an extinct new genus and species from a Tasmanian midden. Records of the Queen Victoria Museum 81:1–13.