Strategic Professor in Palaeontology
School of Biological Sciences
I research the early evolution of vertebrates in order to unravel the early stages of how the modern vertebrate body plan was assembled. Many parts of our human anatomy had their origins back in the Early Palaeozoic (540-350 million years ago). This was when jaws, teeth, paired limbs, ossified brain-cases, intromittent genital organs,chambered hearts and paired lungs all appeared in early fishes. For the past 28 years I have been collecting from the Gogo sites in northern Western Australia, whose perfectly preserved 3-D fish fossils have yielded many significant discoveries, including mineralised soft tissues and the origins of complex sexual reproduction in vertebrates.
Current research projects include describing new Late Devonian Gogo fishes and reconstructing their soft tissue anatomy (with Assoc. Prof. K. Trinajstic, Curtin Univ.), new Early Devonian placoderm (stem-gnathostomes) from the Taemas region, NSW (with Dr G.C. Young, ANU); and investigating the role of trace elements in mass extinction events (with Prof. Ross Large, U.Tas). Our latest ARC Discover Grant will enable us to determine the timing and origins of two key sensory systems in early fossil vertebrates: electroreception and nocturnality (temporal niche partitioning) working with a team from around Australia, the USA, China and The UK.
I am the author of several adult and children's books, including non-fiction and fiction. My book Hung Like an Argentine Duck (Harper Collins 2011) gives an account of the Gogo discoveries of the world's oldest embryos and early sexual dimorphism in vertebrates, and explores the relevance of fossils to understanding sex in an evolutionary context.
Leading research directions in early vertebrate evolution, mentoring postgraduate students, fostering international collaborations in palaeontological research.
I research the early evolution of vertebrates (fishes and early tetrapods) with a particular focus on Devonian age material (359-409 million years ago) as Australia has some exceptional sites of this age with superb 3-D preservation of bones and, in some cases, mineralised soft tissues. My focus has been largely on the exquisitely preserved fishes from the Gogo Formation of Western Australia, studying placoderms, early ray-finned fishes, onychodontids,lungfishes and Gogonasus, a stem tetrapod. Our recent finds include the placoderm Materpiscis attenboroughi, the oldest known vertebrate mother with an embryo preserved, plus the first sharks, coelacanth and acanthodian fishes from the Gogo Formation (see Long & Trinajstic 2010 for a review of the fauna). I have also worked on early fish faunas from material collected in Antarctica, South-East Asia, China, South Africa, Morocco and Iran, as well as published a scattering of other papers on dinosaurs, ancient marine reptiles and prehistoric mammals.
I'm looking for students interested in tackling problems at the very base of the vertebrate evolutionary tree-like the origin and evoloution of limbs, teeth, jaws, breathing ,braincases, electroreception, nocturnality, and complex reproductive strategies -to determine how the higher vertebrate body plan and physiologically advanced behaviours first evolved. To do this we study remarkably well-presrevd fossils of fishes from the Palaeozoic Era (mainly Devonian period, 408-359 million years ago). Our PhD programs typically involve active field work at fossil sites throughout Australia (eg Ggo, Kimberley, central Queensland, the mountains of Victoria, the south coast NSW), and use of cutting edge techniqies (micro-CT scanning, synchrotron imaging, isotopic analysis).
2012-2014 Vice President, The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
2013-2014 Organising Committee for Early Vertebrates/Lower Vertebrates Meeting, Australia 2015