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Research group Profile: Professor Rod Wells

Prof. Rod Wells is rightly regarded as the ‘founding father’ of palaeontology at Flinders. His story of how he came to study palaeontology is fascinating, and is a lesson in following one’s dreams.

When I tell someone I am a vertebrate palaeontologist the immediate assumption is that I must have loved dinosaurs as a kid. Well, the answer is not particularly, but I was, and to some extent remain, interested in everything.

My earliest memories go back to the family home in Belmore, a suburb of Sydney, during the WWII. My father was a technician on the overseas radio terminal in Martin Place in Sydney, and mum was a house-wife. They had struggled through the depression years of the 1930s. What they lacked in material goods was more than compensated by a great love of learning. Both had left school at 14, and both were self-taught. Father subscribed to the National Geographic and Popular Mechanics, while mother took the Readers Digest. My brother and I were drilled by mother on the ‘It pays to increase your word power’ section of the Digest, and father would engage us in all sorts of discussions about the natural world, astronomy, curious insects, geology , archaeology and whatever was on the BBC or ABC news. If you couldn’t answer a question you had to ‘go and look it up’. I still have the much thumbed through volumes of the encyclopaedia. We kept silk worms in shoeboxes and watched them spin their cocoons, collected Emperor Gum Moth caterpillars off the street trees and fed them until they pupated, and watched their metamorphosis in awe as they emerged, slowly pumping up their wings. We collected all the colour morphs of cicadas we could find, and we kept frogs and a turtle in a pond in the back garden. We had a great Meccano set and of course Hornby trains. We made model aeroplanes from balsa wood kits. Many trips were made to the Australian Museum and to the Museum of Technology to look in wonder at the skeletons of giant mammals or the intricate workings of stationary steam engines. We were always challenged with the ‘why is it so’ type questions. We listened to the Argonauts on the ABC, and sent in our drawings and stories hoping to get a mention here or there. I still have my Argonauts badge.

After the war we moved to Leura in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. We lived on Railway Parade opposite the steepest part of the grade over the mountains. The house would shake as the giant 57 class steam locomotives struggled past on their way west. We would awake to a morning chorus of currawongs as they rose with the mist out of the valleys that surrounded us. This was a natural paradise far removed from the grime of city life and as we got older bushwalking became a passion.  Our 90yr old neighbour presented the family with William Ceram’s book “God, Graves and Scholars: The history of Archaeology”. I was totally fascinated by it. I still have it. Always inquisitive, the idea of being an explorer captivated me.

At high school I studied Maths I and Maths II, English, French, Latin, Physics, Chemistry. During my matriculation year half of our town was destroyed in huge bushfires and I spent precious study time riding around on fire trucks and my grades suffered accordingly. My dream of getting into architecture was dashed. I did, however, get an engineering traineeship with the British Motor Corporation (BMC). A day off a week to go to University and four nights a week lectures. When it became obvious that BMC was collapsing I left to work for a company that specialised in building chemical plants and oil refineries. They were just giant Meccano sets and I was right at home.

While studying I joined the University of NSW Speleological Society. Here was the opportunity to be a genuine explorer – to go where no one had been before. Not only did we discover new chambers in many caves but I also kept finding the bones and skeletons of marsupials; possums, wombats, kangaroos and koalas. Maybe, just maybe, I might discover the remains of some extinct species. I was hooked. In the Xmas of 1963/1964 I was a member of the joint University of NSW and University of Sydney expedition to explore the caves of the Nullarbor Plain. The late great geomorphologist, Joe Jennings, from ANU had obtained the aerial reconnaissance photos of the Nullarbor released after the war. Here were evident many unexplored dolines leading to goodness knows where. I was in the very first party into Mullamullang Cave, which was a giant underground passage that lead us excitingly on, and running out of carbide and water for our acetylene lamps we had to finally turn back with no end in sight. On that trip I met people from the Cave Exploration Group of South Australia (CEGSA) and the South Australian Museum, one of whom, Alice Woodroffe, was to become my wife. Here were people who had studied zoology, entomology, geomorphology, and botany, and were being paid to do what I was doing as a hobby. This was my road to Damascus.     To the consternation of my parents, and to the shock of my employer I resigned everything and returned to university as a “mature” age student with the aim of indulging my interest in natural history, exploration, and fossils. I studied botany, zoology, geology and palaeontology. I ended up with a first class honours in zoology and a Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue a PhD. Herein lay a problem, as no academic was prepared to supervise a PhD in vertebrate palaeontology. Invertebrate palaeontology as an aid to stratigraphy and oil search yes, but vertebrate palaeontology no. 

To the rescue came the late Peter Crowcroft, mammologist and Director of the South Australian Museum. Peter encouraged me to continue my study of a living vertebrate whose biology remained virtually unknown; viz.  Lasiorhinus latifrons, the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat. Peter left South Australia to become Director of the Chicago Zoo in Brookfield, Illinois, and in this capacity raised funds for the purchase of the property where I was carrying out my research, now Brookfield Conservation Park in the Murraylands near Blanchetown. Here we built a research station which is still in use today by many tertiary institutions.

I continued with cave exploration, now with CEGSA, and in 1969 I realised the dream, with the discovery of the immense deposit of extinct ice-age mammals in the Victoria Cave at Naracoorte, a site which we took to World Heritage Status in 1994. Today I look with great pleasure and pride at the achievements of all my graduate students that has led to the development of Australia’s premier paleontological research laboratory at Flinders University. I am “retired” but remain an honorary at Flinders and the South Australian Museum, and in recent years have turned my attention to other fossil sites in the Lake Eyre Basin and the regions east of Burra and Hallett in the mid north.

Some years ago for my 70th I realised another dream and sailed my vintage timber yacht, which I had lovingly restored, to Tasmania for the 2011 Wooden Boat Show, and for which I received a Royal South Australian Yacht Squadron cruising award. 

Do I have any wisdom to offer? I am not sure, but I would say this; you only have one body and one brain. Look after them, and forget the naysayers and follow your dream.

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