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!
Apologies for the long gap between posts readers (all three of you), it has been a combination of PhD work, other research, grant writing and my own sheer laziness that has caused it. Hopefully the lull will be a temporary occurrence and I will get back to posting once a week again from now on. But I digress…
A few weeks ago I received an interesting email from one of my PhD supervisors. In it he explained how he had traced his (and by extension my) academic ancestry. That is, who his PhD supervisor was supervised by, and who their supervisor was etc. After reading the list of names (and discovering a few missing links myself), the pressure I’m already feeling about my project increased quite a bit! There are some big names in my academic ancestry, I’ve got my work cut out if I want to accomplish even a portion of what these guys achieved. Here’s my academic ancestry:
Some names you may be extremely familiar with, some perhaps not so much. So here’s a little bit about each of them to give you an idea of whose shoulders I’m attempting to stand on.
Erich Fitzgerald: My current PhD co-supervisor (the other being Alistair Evans from Monash University). Erich is senior curator of vertebrate palaeontology at Museum Victoria in Melbourne. He also co-supervised me for my honours research on Australian fossil penguins and has been a co-author on all three papers I’ve written so far. In addition to trying to do the impossible and make a palaeontologist out of me, Erich’s research focuses on marine mammals, but he also works on birds, sharks, dinosaurs (non-avian), aquatic reptiles and terrestrial mammals. He received his PhD from Monash University in 2008 and was also a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian) as well as the Harold Mitchell Fellow at Museum Victoria before taking up his current position.
Tom Rich: Tom was and still is one of the heavyweights of Australian palaeontology. After studying at University of California, Berkeley, and Columbia University, New York Tom moved to Australia to take up his current position as senior curator of vertebrate palaeontology at museum Victoria. With his wife Pat Vickers-Rich (who still teaches at Monash University) they embarked upon a 23 year long quest to find Toms overriding passion; Mesozoic mammals, which involved them blasting a tunnel into the rock at the base of a 30 m high cliff at what is now known as dinosaur cove in the Otways here in Victoria (click here for a previous post by me detailing the most recent field trip to a nearby locality). Tom eventually got his Mesozoic mammal (and plenty more since then) but along the way has revealed more about the vertebrate palaeontology of Victoria than just about anyone else.
Malcolm McKenna: one of the most prolific palaeontologists in America in the 20th century, McKenna was curator of the prestigious American museum of natural history in New York. Like his mentor, George Gaylord Simpson he specialised in mammals and in 2000 he published a voluminous new edition of Simpson’s 1945 tome the classification of mammals with Susan bell. Also in 2000 he received the Alfred Romer medal from the SVP, the highest honour they give out. He also was a pioneer of the use of cladistics in palaeontology, a method which has since become a fundamental part of the field. He passed away in 2008.
Donald Elvin Savage: Born in Texas in 1917, Don Savage completed his undergraduate studies in his home state before moving to Oklahoma to undertake his Masters research. After WWII (where he spent six years in the U.S. Air Force), Savage relocated to University of California, Berkeley to complete his PhD. After completing his PhD in 1949, he took up a position at the University Of California Museum Of Palaeontology, where he eventually became the Director of in 1966. Like the majority of the scientists on this distinguished list, Savage specialised in the study of fossil mammals, with his research taking to locations such as Colombia, France and all over the USA, making an incredible contribution to the understanding of mammalian evolution as well as helping to develop and refine collection techniques of small vertebrate fossils. Savage died of pancreatic cancer in 1999, aged 81.
Ruben Arthur Stirton: Another name, another mammalogist! Stirt, as he liked to be called was born in Kansas in 1901. After studying zoology at the University of Kansas, Stirton took part in expeditions to El Salvador before heading to University of California, Berkeley to complete his PhD. In 1930 Stirton became the Curator of fossil mammals in the University Of California Museum Of Palaeontology, where he also lectured courses on fossil mammals. Stirton eventually rose to become Director of the museum in 1949 and held the position until his death in 1966. Whilst his early work looked at horses and beavers from western USA, Stirton also returned to El Salvador in 1941 to continue his previous work there. He continued his South American exploits in 1944 when he conducted a search for fossil mammals in Colombia, work that was continued by Savage afterwards. Stirton then shifted his focus to Australia in 1953, discovering several new Cenozoic faunas with the assistance of the South Australian Museum. This work was instrumental in Tom and Pat Rich’s decision to relocate to Australia several decades later. Stirton died of a heart attack in 1966.
William Diller Matthew: Taking my academic ancestry into the 19th century is the Canadian William Diller Mathew. Born in New Brunswick in February 1871, Matthew’s love of the earth sciences appears to have run in the family as his father was a geologist. After completing his PhD at Columbia University he, like McKenna after him, took the position of curator at the American Museum of Natural History, where he remained for some 33 years until he became the founding director of the University Of California Museum Of Palaeontology in 1927. Matthew, like his academic offspring, specialised in mammals but he also wrote papers on invertebrates, geology, mineralogy and even botany! As distinguished and successful a palaeontologist as Matthew no doubt was, he (understandably considering the lack of evidence in his time) got some things wrong, most notably arguing against continental drift and supporting the theory of an Asian origin for humans. Had he the evidence at his disposal that we do today; no doubt he would have abandoned his theories too.
Henry Fairfield Osborn: Born into a wealthy family in 1857, Osborn is one the best known figures in the history of vertebrate palaeontology. After studying at Princeton University, he became both a professor of zoology and the very first curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where so many of his academic descendants would also reside. Another mammal specialist, he also became the US geological survey’s senior vertebrate palaeontologist in 1924, and ended up becoming president of the American Museum of Natural History, playing an instrumental part in building its amazing collections. Perhaps his defining achievement came in 1905 when he named none other than Tyrannosaurus rex itself, surely the most well-known dinosaur in the world. Osborn’s legacy will forever be tainted however as he attempted to use his scientific knowledge to validate his own racist and eugenicist beliefs. Had he not done this then perhaps history would remember the great scientific work he did more fondly.
Edward Drinker Cope: Born in 1840, this behemoth of the palaeontology world published his first scientific paper at the young age of nineteen, by the time he died in 1897, he had amassed 1,400 publications to his name, a truly phenomenal feat regardless of whether every single paper has stood the test of time (some have since been discovered to be inaccurate). Cope is best known for his longstanding rivalry with fellow palaeontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, the period from the 1870’s to the 1890’s known as the “Bone Wars”. Cope didn’t actually publish his first palaeontological paper until 1864 (having published mainly on reptiles and amphibians previously) but certainly made up for lost time afterwards, managing a remarkable 76 publications in a year spanning 1879-1880. His efforts competing with Marsh drove him to the point of exhaustion and bankruptcy and he ended up having to sell a large proportion of his fossil collection. His legacy lives on in the vast literature he wrote as well as the many species of animals that have since been named after him, including amphibians, dinosaurs, lizards and fish.
Joseph Leidy: The last of my academic ancestors is one of the founding fathers of vertebrate palaeontology in America, Joseph Leidy. He produced some of the earliest works on extinct vertebrates from North America, naming well known taxa such as Hadrosaurus, the dire wolf and the American lion. He was a professor of anatomy and natural history during his career and in addition to his palaeontological work also was renowned for his research on parasites. Whilst not as prolific as his academic son Edward Drinker Cope, he still managed to write an incredible 553 publications during his scientific career.
So that’s my academic ancestry! As you can see, there are some truly great names there. Do you know who your academic ancestors are? I’d be interested in hearing what other peoples academic ancestry reveals. Feel free to drop me an email (address at the top of the blog homepage) or leave a comment. You never know, we could be academic relatives!