I’m one of those annoying people who decided what they wanted to do when they were five and didn’t look back. No agonising over what subjects to choose in high school, no worrying over whether or not my degree would result in me actually being employable. I’ve always had a strong interest in natural history, I started collecting rocks and fossils when I was five or six and never looked back.
I was lucky enough to undertake my degree at the University of Adelaide at a time when it had a strong invertebrate palaeontology group and a diverse range of geology topics available for study. I ended up majoring in zoology and geology resulting in a strong base from which to study palaeontology. The drawback was that, with a focus on invertebrate palaeontology, it was not until the third year of my degree that I even found out what a Diprotodon was! My parents met some old bloke called Rod Wells down at the caves at Naracoorte and mentioned that they had a son studying palaeontology. A month later I met Rod for the first time when I volunteered at an excavation at Rocky River on Kangaroo Island. I was digging up a Diprotodon skull before I even understood much about what they were.
That dig got me hooked and I decided then and there Rod was going to supervise an honours project for me. Luckily he agreed to it and I shifted to Flinders to undertake honours looking at the hands and feet of Diprotodon and Zygomaturus. This started my fascination with postcranial morphology and the amazing array of things we can learn about an extinct animal from studying the non-heady bits.
I shifted back to the University of Adelaide in 2006 to undertake my PhD on the functional morphology and systematics of diprotodontid marsupials (completed in 2010). At my PhD induction day I met some kiwi with a funny accint called Trevor Worthy, who was also starting a PhD in palaeontology. In the subsequent years Rod, Trev and I got to explore many of South Australia’s most productive fossil sites. Along with Rod’s mentor Dick Tedford, we went up to the Warburton River in 2006 to look for fossils in the Pliocene Tirari Formation sediments and the Pleistocene Katipiri Formation. On that trip we also found a series of fossil footprints of the Pliocene diprotodontid Euowenia grata, a discovery that led me down the ichnological pathway that has me studying footprints from all over southern Australia today.
My research now revolves around the palaeobiology and ecology of Australia’s extinct marsupials, ranging from the extinct megafauna of the Late Pleistocene to the Lake Frome Basin, where some of the earliest known representatives of modern marsupial groups have been found. In the last seven or so years I’ve also focused on vertebrate trace fossils in the aeolianites fringing the southern and western coasts of Australia and the Plio-Pleistocene deposits of the Mid-North and the Lake Eyre Basin.
Something that I would encourage any budding palaeontologist to do is to seize every opportunity offered to volunteer on fieldwork. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved with ACAD (the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA) in the study of some of Australia’s youngest megafaunal deposits at Mt. Cripps in Tasmania (from which my colleagues managed to retrieve the first useful DNA from extinct Australian megafauna); investigation of the timing of human arrival in Madagascar with archaeologists from ANU; excavation of the Cambrian lagerstatte at Emu Bay on Kangaroo Island with John Paterson and his crew of invertebrate palaeontologists; and the early Miocene fossil deposits of St Bathans in New Zealand with Trev. All of these trips were peripheral to my chosen areas of study but have resulted in both great friendships and the development of a diverse network of palaeontological colleagues that spans much of the globe.
From digging up Diprotodons at Burra, to camel treks through the Simpson Desert; from crawling through caves in Tasmania, to clambering around on cliffs on the remote west coast looking for footprints whilst whales breach below; the study of palaeontology has provided me the opportunity to see parts of Australia that very few people see and to make fantastic discoveries along the way. I love my job.