Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Fossil File

Fossil File

The Cutting Edge of Palaeontology

By John Long

New techniques are enabling palaeontologists to test hypotheses about major evolutionary transitions.

Recently I spent a few days working with my colleagues at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. We used the facility to get clear 3-D images of our ancient fossil fishes for various research projects. The facility is costly to run, so we utilised the time around the clock, with specimens being changed at all hours of the night to maximise our allocated beam time.

The Placoderm Renaissance

By John Long

Placoderm fish were once thought to be an evolutionary dead end, but new evidence is rewriting their importance to the ancestry of all jawed animals – including humans.

Back in the 1960s, most of us had little interest in dinosaurs. They were thought to be a “dead end” lineage with no direct relationship to anything. Bob Bakker, a student at the time, said they were seen as “symbols of obsolescence and hulking inefficiency”. They were often depicted on the silver screen by using close-ups of living lizards bearing sails on their backs or with horns attached to their heads.

World's Oldest Fossil Sperm Found at Riversleigh

By John Long

Synchrotron imaging of a 16 million-year-old ostracod found in NSW has revealed the world’s oldest fossilised sperm.

Exquisite preservation of soft tissues in fossils includes many mind-boggling recent examples, from muscles and placental cords in 380 million-year-old fishes from Gogo, impressions of cranial veins and arteries in 520 million-year-old arthropods to an amazing a 320 million-year-old fossilised brain in a bizarre shark-like fish from the USA.

The Rise of Arthropods

By John Long

Spectacular arthropod fossils have shed light on their early anatomy, and might one day help resolve the mystery of their distant origins.

Arthropods are joint-legged animals, one of the most successful animal groups on the planet. They include insects, crustaceans, spiders, scorpions, millipedes, centipedes and many other kinds of living and extinct animals, all of which share segmented jointed legs and an outer exoskeleton of a special kind of chitin, which they moult to grow.

Scans Reveal Our Fishy Ancestry

By John Long

A synchrotron scan of a 400 million-year-old fish has revealed how far back our own facial structures evolved, and a 28 million-year-old toothed whale fossil has revealed the origins of echolocation in modern whales.

In this modern age of rapid technological breakthroughs, what real currency does palaeontology still have in our lives? Why should I bother reporting on old dead things that seemingly have no real meaning in today’s society?

Recently I addressed a gathering of about 100 members of a well-known museum in Sydney. My talk was about exciting new fossil discoveries that elucidate the deep origins of the human body plan, largely based on a slew of recent spectacular fossil finds of early fishes that made headlines around the world.