Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Lessons from the Chinese Palaeontology Boom

By John Long

Lack of funding and technical support ensures that many significant Australian fossil specimens will continue to gather dust.

Recently I visited the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, China, the world’s single largest institution for the study of ancient vertebrate fossils. Housing some 500 employees, including around 60 scientists with PhD degrees, the only larger institution worldwide for palaeontological research is the one set up for the study of fossil invertebrates and plants in southern China, the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology, which I’m told is about 20% larger than IVPP.

Working at the IVPP is a dream for any visiting researcher, not only because of the breathtaking specimens of Chinese fossils they house – feathered dinosaurs, the oldest complete mammals and birds, superb ancient fishes and many other things – but also because of the high level of technical support their scientists are given to do their research.

In Australia we fight hard just to get an ARC grant, and rarely ever get the full amount needed to do the follow-up work, such as the time-consuming preparation of fossils, registering of fossils into museum collections, or use of professional artists and photographers. Most of us, myself included, still do about 80% of these jobs ourselves, taking up valuable time and funds that could be delegated to specially skilled technicians.

In most Australian museums, even the largest institutions, the ratio of support staff to research staff for palaeontology is pitifully low. Most have a curator or two (if lucky) and a collection manager. They may have a preparatory as well, but many collection managers serve as part-time preparators too.

Many Australian palaeontologists have a large backlog of highly significant specimens found during field expeditions that are awaiting preparation before they can be fully researched, but there is woefully minimal support to do this in this country as scientific funding bodies like the ARC are stretched to the limit at present, and secondary support is the first thing to be cut from most grants.

During my week working at IVPP the level of support I witnessed was just as amazing as their fossils. Prof Zhu Min, with whom I was working, has seven full-time preparators working just on his specimens of Silurian fishes from Yunnan. The site was discovered about 10 years ago, and every year his team went out and began collecting specimens. Most of the early finds were fragmentary and rare, but every year his team collected more of them as they represented some of the oldest known placoderm and bony fish remains on the planet.

Eventually they struck the jackpot, finding some fairly complete fossil fishes, including the oldest known osteichthyan or bony fish. Named Guiyu oneiros and featured as a Nature article in 2009, it changed our perceptions about the early evolution of bony fish as prior to this we had thought the ray-finned fishes (Actinopterygii) were the most basal group. Yet Guiyu was a sarcopterygian or lobe-finned fish. Recently Zhu Min’s team discovered

Entelognathus, a placoderm with osteichthyan-like jaws, which was also published as an extended Nature article in 2013.

However, this is just the tip of a scientifically significant iceberg. His office is full of almost unbelievable new discoveries that will rewrite the basic text books on early vertebrate evolution when they are published. I felt deeply honoured to be invited to collaborate with him on some of these discoveries.

Most importantly, and a lesson for us here in Australia, was that the scientific significance of these discoveries has been recognised and given full support by the Chinese government to enable him to get the material ready to study. Without having to wait 10 years.

It made me reflect on how much more advanced Australian palaeontology would be if given just a bit more technical support by its museums, or recognised through ARC grants, to get our piles of already collected specimens prepared and then get their scientific information out there. After all, we are the lucky country with more than our fair share of highly significant international fossil sites. It’s just that we won’t hear about many of the biggest finds for some years into the future, when their lucky number to be prepared finally comes up.

John Long is Strategic Professor in Palaeontology at Flinders University, and current President of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.