Large shark’s teeth tend to scare most people, but when John Long clamped his hands around one at the age of eight it sparked a lifelong love affair with collecting artefacts from another time.
“When you are collecting, the reality is that you just have to be persistent. The only way you can find out if there is a fossil inside the rock is to smash it, so you have to pick up a rock, smash it, look and if there is nothing, pick up another smash it, look and so on,” Professor Long said.
“It’s very hot work, it’s pretty tiring and if you are lucky you find one good fossil each day. But the feeling you get when you see in your hands something that is not just a fossil, but something that you haven’t seen before that could be new – that feeling makes it all worthwhile.”
Decades in the field have left him with a realistic rather than glamorous view of a palaeontologist’s life, but his passion is undimmed – perhaps because he has earned an international reputation for finding the world’s oldest vertebrate embryo and uncovering the origins of sex.
Professor Long has recently pushed back the origins of sexual reproduction after analysing 385 million year-old fossilised fish found in Scotland. These insights have reshaped understanding of the beginnings of human evolution.
Currently serving as the President of The Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology, author of a monthly column on fossils, and periodically engaged by the Australian Federal Police to help prevent illegal fossil trades, Professor Long mysteriously still finds time for other pursuits, such as writing 26 adult and children’s books relating to fossils.