Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Fossil File

Fossil File

Footprints in Time

By John Long

Tetrapod trackways are helping to decode the behaviour of these Devonian creatures.

I write this column from the blustery wind-swept coast of Valentia Island, a small island off the west coast of Ireland. I’m here studying some of the oldest known undisputed tetrapod trackways in the world, dating back to Middle Devonian times about 385 million years ago. The tracks are beautifully preserved, and show evidence of a large newt-like animal, just under a metre long, that has left large feet and small hand impressions.

Fossil Sites Can Co-exist with Ecotourists

By John Long

Palaeo-ecotours could generate income for research and conservation at fossil sites.

Last week I was collecting fossils in the spectacular country west of Alice Springs, in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Although we visited a well-known site discovered in 1973 by Dr Gavin Young of the Australian National University, we still found a significant number of important new specimens of ancient fishes of Devonian age. At least two are new to science, and one will certainly shed important light on the big evolutionary transition of fishes to land animals when it is prepared and described in detail.

The Best of Australian Palaeontology on Show

By John Long

The public is welcome to attend one of Australia’s largest palaeontology conferences.

Adelaide has always been a hotspot for top-class palae­ontology research. South Australia is home to one of Australia’s two Unesco World Heritage fossil sites, the Naracoorte Fossil Caves, and has the internationally famous Ediacara Hills sites, which date to the Ediacaran Period (635–542 million years ago) and should also be made a World Heritage site one day. The newly discovered Emu Bay fossil site on Kangaroo Island is also one of the most significant sites of Early Cambrian age anywhere, with exquisite soft-bodied preservation of a diverse assemblage of creatures.

The Heart of a Good Fossil

By John Long

Palaeontologists have found their Holy Grail: the fossilied heart of a Cretacean fish.

Most of us think of fossil vertebrate remains as being bones or teeth. In rare cases we can sometimes see skin impressions or the outline of feathers on fossil birds and dinosaurs, but these are among the top 1% for fossil preservation.

When Will Australia Get Its First Real Mounted Dinosaur?

By John Long

Australian museums don’t display any dinosaurs mounted from real bones into a life-like position.

While Australia’s state museums have a great reputation for the quality of their displays, there’s still one big thing missing from all our galleries of past life: a dinosaur skeleton. Not a replica, but a real one. Not one museum in Australia has ever mounted a real dinosaur skeleton for public display. Instead we mount replicas that have been restored and modified to show what the creature might have looked like.

The Rise of High-Tech Palaeontology

By John Long

High-tech scanners now enable palaeontologists to gain new insights from significant fossils embedded in solid rock.

For many years palaeontologists had a fairly simple way of working. Many of us used to dig up fossils, photograph and draw them, describe them and publish a paper about them. What we could see was really all we could study.

This approach has changed dramatically in the past decade as high technology imaging now allows us to mine fossils for new layers of information. This has caused a revolution in the study of palaeontology as we can now apply various methods to image any part of a fossil, even if it’s still enclosed inside rock.

Solving the Mysteries of the Australian Megafauna

Credit: Aaron Camens, Flinders University

A skeleton of Diprotodon, Australia’s largest ever living land mammal, exposed at Lake Callabonna in South Australia. Credit: Aaron Camens, Flinders University

Two new papers have narrowed the date of Australia’s megafauna extinctions as well as the cause of their demise.

Delving into Dinosaur Body Temperatures

By John Long

New research finds that the dinosaur ancestors of birds had quite high body temperatures.

In 2010 I was working in Los Angeles when I met a young PhD student from England working at Caltech named Rob Eagle. Working with Prof John Eiler, they set up a lab to try and solve one of the greatest mysteries of palaeontology: determining the body temperatures of dinosaurs.

A New Cause for Three Global Mass Extinction Events

By John Long

Dangerously lows levels of trace elements might be implicated in three mass extinctions.

Throughout the past 600 million years there have been five major mass extinction events and a host of smaller biotic crises, each of which saw the demise of large swaths of life on Earth and in the oceans. While some of these events are very well studied, such as the killer asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, others are more enigmatic and entertain a variety of possible causes.

Reflection on the Discovery of a New Fossil Human Species

By John Long

The discovery of a new ancient human is a reminder about how much we’ve modified the planet.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, the former President of the American Museum of Natural History (1908–33) is well-known as the scientist who first studied and named Tyrannosaurus rex in 1905. He was also passionate about human evolution. In his book published in 1916, Men of the Old Stone Age, he wrote: “I am perhaps more proud of having helped to redeem the character of the cave-man than of any other single achievement of mine in the field of anthropology”.