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Feature article

What Lies Beneath

Gavin Prideaux excavating an extinct kangaroo skull from beneath the Nullarbor.

Gavin Prideaux excavating an extinct kangaroo skull from beneath the Nullarbor.

By Stephen Luntz

A small pit in the ancient Nullabor woodlands proved to be a deathtrap for ancient Australian marsupials, birds, reptiles and frogs – and a treasure trove of intact skeletons for palaeontologists.

On an August 2011 expedition to a cave beneath the Nullabor, palaeontologist Dr Gavin Prideaux provided the world with an online opportunity to learn what really occurs on a dig. The richness of the site ensured that visitors to his temporary blog had a chance to experience important developments in our knowledge of Australia’s ecological history.

The Nullabor cave is remarkable, both because it contains millions of years of vertebrate history and because the skeletons to be found there are so often intact.

Microdevices Muscle Up

Muscle fibre

Muscle fibre

By Geoff Spinks

Artificial muscles are evolving from laboratory curiosities to serious applications in surprisingly diverse areas, from cochlear implants to robotic fish.

Deafness, cancer and pollution would seem to have very little in common, but in fact can all be helped by shape-shifting materials: artificial muscles that change their shape or size when stimulated. These fascinating materials are being developed for a wide range of micro-devices, including the next generation cochlear implant, a wearable garment to massage away excess limb fluid after cancer treatments, and a robotic fish that can swim about looking for water pollution.

Geoff Spinks is conducting his research at the University of Wollongong’s Intelligent Polymer Research Institute.

Remote Housing Need Not Cost the Earth

Example of a modern rammed earth house in Western Australia.

Example of a modern rammed earth house in Western Australia. Photo: Stephen Dobson

By Daniela Ciancio

Building and maintaining houses in remote Aboriginal communities is difficult and expensive, but engineering improvements to rammed earth constructions offer a viable alternative.

Building a house in any of Australia’s remote communities can be a challenging project due to the isolation of the site and hence the difficulties and costs involved in the transportation of the construction materials and labour force. Sadly, the majority of Australia’s remote communities are Aboriginal, and are less prepared to sustain the expensive costs of a dwelling.

Daniela Ciancio is Assistant Professor of Structural Engineering at the University of Western Australia.

Tequila Sunrise

Agave crop

Blue agave at Kalamia Estate, Queensland, in March 2010 during the crop’s first wet season. Photo: Don Chambers

By Daniel Tan

Agave is most popularly known for its use in tequila, but it could also usher in the dawn of a sustainable biofuel industry that does not compete with food crops for arable land.

Travellers in rural Australia are familiar with Agave americana. The blue-green leaves of the century plant are often the only reminders of long-abandoned farmhouses.

Agave was introduced into Australia for ornamental and possibly medicinal purposes, and has proved to be a successful survivor in the often arid Australian landscape. Now, researchers are asking if that capability could be the basis of a sustainable biofuel industry.

Daniel Tan is a Senior Lecturer in Agronomy at the University of Sydney and President of the NSW Division of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology.

The Missing Matter

cosmic filaments

These frames simulate the evolution of large-scale structures in the universe, including galaxy clusters and cosmic filaments. The frames show the evolution of structures from 140 million light years ago (left) to the present day (right). Simulations performed at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications by Andrey Kravtsov (University of Chicago) and Anatoly Klypin (New Mexico State University). Visualisations by Andrey Kravtsov

By Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway

Cosmic filaments are the largest structures in the universe, and are the most likely places where the universe’s missing matter resides.

We live on a planet that is 13,000 km in diameter, orbits around a star that is 1.4 million km in diameter, and resides in a galaxy that measures 100,000 light years in diameter but only 1000 light years in height. The closest galaxy to us is the Canis Major dwarf galaxy, which was discovered in 2003 and is located about 25,000 light years from our solar system and 42,000 light years from the centre of our galaxy.

Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway is Margaret Clayton Research Fellow at the School of Physics, Monash University.

A Taste for Fat


There is evidence for a direct role of the taste system in the consumption and preference of high-fat foods. Image: iStockphoto

By Russell Keast

Desensitisation to the taste of fat may be an important factor in the obesity epidemic.

The sense of taste presumably evolved to inform us about the nutritious or toxic value of potential foods. The primary organ responsible for the sense of taste, the tongue, contains taste receptors that identify non-volatile chemicals in the foods and non-foods we place in our mouth.

Russell Keast is Associate Professor in the Sensory Science Group at Deakin University.

The Bionic Eye Is In Sight

The Hatpack simulator. Image: Monash Vision Group

The Hatpack simulator. Image: Monash Vision Group

By Namita Bhojani

After conquering the bionic ear more than 30 years ago, Australian scientists have set their sights on the bionic eye.

In 1970, Professor Graeme Clark led the team that developed the bionic ear. He implanted it successfully into the first patient in 1978 and, since then, the cochlear implant has helped tens of thousands of hearing-impaired people. Now, more then 30 years later, the race is on to develop a bionic eye, and Australia is once more a serious contender.

Namita Bhojani is a freelance science writer, and an Education Officer with the CSIRO and Monash Science Centre.

How Jumping Genes Drove Primate Evolution


Image: iStockphoto

By Keith Oliver & Wayne Greene

Jumping genes have been important in the evolution of higher primates, leading to faster brain function, improved foetal nourishment, useful red-green colour discrimination and greater resistance to disease-causing microbes – and even the loss of fat storage genes in gibbons.

Keith Oliver is a biologist and philosopher in the School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology and Wayne Greene is Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics in the School of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at Murdoch University.

A Nobel Week

Brian Schmidt

Image: Belinda Pratten

By Stephen Luntz

Brian Schmidt’s world was turned upside down when he was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics for research that has turned our understanding of the universe inside out.

Prof Brian Schmidt has lost count of the number of interviews he conducted in the week after the announcement that he had won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics. The media office at the Australian National University, where Schmidt is professor of astronomy, estimates it at 150. At least 16,000 articles were published worldwide during that time. In addition Schmidt suddenly found himself invited to meet the Prime Minister and give public lectures.

Fish in Hot Water

Banded marwong

Banded morwong on the extreme warm edge of their range are starting to experience negative effects from increased temperatures.

By Anna Neuheimer

Warming waters in the Tasman Sea may have exceeded the tolerance limits for fish growth. Image: Hugh Pederson

Like insects, reptiles and amphibians, most fish are cold-blooded, with temperature shaping all aspects of their biology, including their growth rate. When temperature increases a small amount, biological reactions can proceed more quickly, growth increases and fish get bigger.

However, temperatures can eventually increase past the tolerance limits of the fish. When temperatures become too high, the fish can’t keep up with energy demands, and growth and fish size decreases.

Anna Neuheimer completed this work during an Endeavour Research Fellowship at CSIRO in Hobart, and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Denmark.