A palaeontologist is what many a kid dreams of becoming and I have been lucky enough to achieve that handle. Today I am a specialist in fossil birds and a bit of a meddler in various other groups such as bats, lizards and frogs. I joined the palaeo group at Flinders University in 2013 and am privileged to work alongside others who have a focus on mammals or fish, and get to do exciting expeditions into the deserts to the north of Adelaide, and study my precious, that is bird, fossil bones.
One might ask, how did this situation come about? The road has been somewhat long and bumpy you might say, but ever since I was a kid on a farm in a poor rural part of New Zealand I knew I wanted to do science, and biology in particular. My Grandma was a shell collector (actually quite a famous one I later learned), and from her I learned to sort stuff – leaf litter for land snails, and dredgings for marine molluscs – starting from about 10 years old I’d say. I was never any good at remembering what I was meant to do, but got to know shells, and digested books.
I was lucky enough to have parents who packed me off to boarding school. There I found an escape in the weekends teaming up with the Ornithological Society’s Beach Patrol schemes: basically one got to walk on beaches and pick up dead birds. And so I was introduced to bird bones. Then I moved farther from home to Hamilton and Waikato University where I joined the caving club. In my caving trips – every weekend, and sometimes mid-week as well, for the next several years – I saw heaps of moa and other fossil bones. In my naivety, I figured no scientist would ever go down to these places, and so I resolved to somehow study these resources. I moved to the caving centre of NZ at Waitomo Caves and joined the local museum on some scheme for unemployed/able folk. There I got a specific ‘job’ to go out and collect fossil bones and build a collection for the museum. How cool was that! So for months I roamed caves all about, looking for fossil deposits. This led to a publication 1984 on a spectacular deposit that had lots of fossil insects among a rich haul of bones.
After that I went back to University and did another MSc on fossil frogs, and from there went into what is now Te Papa in Wellington, and made sufficient nuisance of myself that they gave me something to do. This led to a contract to survey Honeycomb Hill Cave system, a spectacular cave with 70 entrances and 20 or so kilometres of passage – and heaps of fossil bones. We then started worked on those bones in 1987, and one contract led to another. In 2005, the latest in a succession of contracts came to an end in NZ. I had by then never had a job, just worked contract to contract, with myself the boss – so it was time for a change.
A young fellow I had tutored at one stage, was now Director of ACAD and said, ‘Come over here and we will support you for a PhD’, and so next thing I knew, after 15+ years doing research, I took up a PhD. Really it was just another fossil bird project, and when that was done, an interval at University of New South Wales, back to Adelaide University and thence Flinders. All the time chasing bird bones about the world. So little has changed, I still don’t have a job, I still study fossils, still get to do the things I love, but I now do know a little bit about bird bones. This week I again visited some of the bones I collected in 1987 for a current project… no end is in sight.
A great example of where a childhood interest can take you. Trevor has accumulated an impressive list of academic achievements and awards along the way, including publication of more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, 4 books and numerous other technical publications, and has been involved as a consultant in several television documentaries.
In addition to his position within the Flinders Palaeontology research group he was Elected President of the Society of Avian Palaeontology and Evolution (2012 – 2016), is a continuing member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology and of Zootaxa, and is Honorary Research Associate in the Vertebrate Fossil Department, Museum of New Zealand.
Trevor’s full academic profile can be viewed at these sites: