Research website of Dr Gilbert Price

Unravelling Ancient Mysteries: Exploring Human Evolution in Southeast Asia

Have you ever wondered about the footsteps of our ancient ancestors? Picture this: lush, remote islands in the Riau archipelago off the coast of Sumatra, where the secrets of human evolution may lie buried beneath the earth. Thanks to groundbreaking research funded by National Geographic Grant NGS-59859R-19, we’re getting closer to unlocking the mysteries of our past.

Between May 22nd and June 10th, 2023, our team of scientists, hailing from both Australia and Indonesia, embarked on a journey to explore the islands of the Riau archipelago. Our mission? To hunt for ancient human fossils using cutting-edge remote sensing and modelling techniques.

Imagine peering through the lens of technology to map out the ancient pathways that Homo erectus and other large mammals once traversed through Sundaland, a landmass connecting Southeast Asia to Java. Through detailed modelling, our results pinpointed the Riau Archipelago as a promising hotspot for exploration, where hidden clues to our evolutionary past might be waiting to be unearthed.

Examining a quarry on Karimunbesar Island

Our adventure began with a survey of several islands, each holding its own geological tale. Batam, with its striking red, yellow, and white clay outcrops, revealed layers of sediment steeped in history. From weathered granitic deposits to evidence of tectonic activity etched into the landscape, Batam whispered tales of epochs gone by.

As the expedition continued west to Karimun, the terrain shifted, offering a glimpse into a different geological narrative. Here, granite outcrops mingled with coarser sands and gravels painted a picture of a land shaped by relentless weathering. Amidst the rugged beauty, the soil hinted at a story of acidity unsuitable for preserving fossils, reminding us of the challenges inherent in unravelling ancient mysteries.

Exploring an outcrop at Kundur Island
Exploring an outcrop at Kundur Island

Heading southwards, Kundur beckoned with its metamorphosed outcrops, offering a glimpse into the island’s deep geological history Amidst the rocky terrain, a standing stone stood as a silent sentinel, marking a milestone in the archaeological record of the Riau archipelago.

Bintam held its secrets close, with rhizoliths (plant root fossils) peppering the landscape and rare channel deposits hinting at a dynamic past. Yet, despite the tantalising clues, the elusive fossils remained out of reach, reminding us of the delicate dance between preservation and time.

A promising but unfortunately an unproductive deposit on Batam Island
A promising but unfortunately unproductive deposit on Batam Island

Singkep and Lingga, with their mountainous landscapes and dense vegetation, teased with fragments of pottery and artifacts scattered among weathered clays. Here, the challenge lay not only in the rugged terrain but also in the scarcity of suitable raw materials for crafting tools. This stands as a testament to the resilience of our ancestors in the face of adversity.

As the expedition drew to a close, one thing became clear: while the journey may not have led to the discovery of ancient vertebrate deposits or early hominin presence, it offered invaluable insights into the preservation potential of Southeast Asian islands. From unforgiving geology to the urbanised landscapes of today, each island whispered a tale of resilience and adaptation, reminding us of our shared journey through time.

As we ponder the footsteps of our ancient ancestors, let’s not forget the lessons hidden within the Earth. For in the untamed wilderness of Southeast Asia, the echoes of our past reverberate, waiting to be heard by those who dare to listen.

The lengths (and depths) one goes to find fossils

There’s nothing better than finding fossils, right?! Just knowing that your eyes are the first to see something in hundreds, thousands, or millions of years is quite a thrill in itself. But how far, or more specifically, how deep would YOU go to find fossils?

Climbing out of a 22 metre deep cave

Climbing out of a 22 metre deep cave

I’m just back from a quick fieldtrip to the caves of the Manning River Karst Area of eastern New South Wales. The work is in partnership with new colleagues from the Newcastle & Hunter Valley Speleological Society, plus some old mates from the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History in Winton, Queensland.

On a previous trip, the Newcastle guys noticed some interesting fossil specimens in the dark, murky depths of a cave in the region. They subsequently passed the information to the gang from Winton, and through the new partnership, I became involved in the work.

Dimiti from the Australian Age of Dinosaurs abseiling into a cave

Dimiti Bambrick from the Australian Age of Dinosaurs abseiling into a cave

To keep it brief, the fieldtrip was a great success, but it certainly wasn’t easy. The caves in the region occur in Devonian limestone, dating to some 380-ish million years old. The caves themselves are a lot more recent, but are challenging to work in considering that the limestone has been somewhat distorted as a result of geological processes.

Sedimentary rocks are usually layered down horizontally (or so the Law of Horizontality supposes). However, the limestone that we visited has been pushed up such that the bedding layers are almost vertical. That’s great if you want to develop caves along the bedding planes of the limestone, but it makes for hard work to enter the caves in search of fossils.

Julien Louys from Griffith University looking for fossils underground

Julien Louys from Griffith University looking for fossils underground

Almost every cave in the region requires an abseil in, some in the order of 20+ metres.

Personally, I’m a tad fearful of heights, but combine your standard abseil with the dark, squeezy, murky depths of a cave, and you can probably appreciate the challenges involved in searching for fossils in caves. Just check-out the video below!

The caves essentially act as massive, natural pitfall traps. Unwary animals fall in, and if they can’t get out, they die and become part of the cave’s fossil record. Most of the fossilised remains we found on the trip comprised the skeletons of marsupials such as kangaroos and wombats.

The work, while extremely challenging, was fascinating. We’ve found some interesting fossils too, many of which will be the focus of a future blog post (pending the writing-up of the results). In the meantime, enjoy the above video of the trip, as filmed from a Go-Pro camera strapped to my helmet.

Special thanks to the Newcastle and Hunter Valley Speleological Society and the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum for this wonderful fieldtrip.

Saving the Tasmanian Devil

The potential of reintroducing locally extinct species back into their former ranges has garnered increased interest amongst ecologists and conservationists in recent years. The idea is that if you are lucky enough to have a ‘healthy’ population of a given organism, individuals of that species may be reintroduced back into their former home range presuming that it had at some time in the recent past become extirpated from that area.

The hope is that it may be an effective way of staving off species extinctions in the future. There may also be additional benefits such as the restoration of ecological balance to anthropogenically disturbed environments. It’s an idea that is gaining more and more support across the planet.

Tasmanian Devils feeding at the Devil Ark

Tasmanian Devils feeding at the Devil Ark

You may have heard about the reintroductions of wolves to the Yellowstone National Park in the USA and the positive ecological feedback that it had. Even this week, several news outlets have reported plans to reintroduce Spotted Quolls (Dasyurus viverrinus) to the wilds of southeast mainland Australia.


Tasmanian Devils

Last week, I was lucky enough to visit the Devil Ark, a Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) breeding sanctuary nestled in the Barrington Tops of central eastern New South Wales. As the name suggests, Tasmanian Devils are today restricted to the island of Tasmania, but interestingly, they once had a much wider geographic range, having been found across much of mainland Australia in the geologically recent past. The Barrington Tops occurs in highlands and was selected as a breeding site in part because it has a similar climate and vegetation to the modern Tasmania.

The Tasmanian Devil is today a species at risk of extinction. Population numbers have plummeted dramatically over the past 20 years. The main threats include loss of habitat, vehicle strikes, and more than anything, death at the hands of the devastating Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD).

Tasmanian Devil fossil from a cave in Queensland (maxilla)

Tasmanian Devil fossil from a cave in Queensland (maxilla)

This is a non-viral, clonally transmissible cancer that is passed from devil-to-devil via the sharing of bodily fluids, especially saliva. It results in lesions and bumps on the face that eventually develop into tumors. Upon contracting DFTD, death is usually imminent within about six months. The disease has caused devastating impacts on Tasmanian Devils, with overall population estimates thought to have plummeted from several hundred thousand in 1996 (the year that DFTD was first recognised) to just 10,000 today.

One of the primary goals of the Devil Ark is to breed up enough healthy, disease-free individuals as an ‘insurance’ population, with a view that they may be able to be reintroduced back to the Tasmanian wilderness. Healthy, breeding-age individuals were sought from the wilds of Tasmania and various zoos, and are today held in a series of enclosures within the Devil Ark property. To date, the breeding program has proven most successful with several hundred joeys born over the past decade or thereabouts.



Reintroducing Devils

According to our hosts on the visit, Renae and Mark, there have been some attempts to reintroduce healthy Barrington Tops individuals back to Tasmania, but with varying success (an ongoing local Tasmanian problem being vehicular strikes). A longer-term goal of the Ark is to also introduce Devils, plus a swag of other marsupials such as wallabies, quolls, and bandicoots, into a purpose-built enclosure on the Barrington Tops themselves.

That’s something that I’m particularly interested in – the possibility that Devils could successfully be reintroduced back to the mainland. I was part of a research group a few years ago that even wrote a paper toying with that idea.

Our study was spurred on by previously documented fossil records of Tasmanian Devils on the mainland. In fact, over 100 incidences of mainland Tasmanian Devils have been reported in the scientific literature on the basis of their fossils.

Lower fossil jaw of a Tasmanian Devil from Queensland

Lower fossil jaw of a Tasmanian Devil from Queensland


New Tasmanian Devil fossils on the mainland

My research team and I have even been lucky enough to find some Devil bones ourselves in a series of caves just west of Townsville in the tropics of Queensland (we also found Tasmanian Tiger fossils there too!). Remarkably, the specimens were found lying on the surface of the cave and are exactly the same species as the modern Tasmanian Devil. We’re not currently sure how old they are, but we hope to produce new radiometric dates for them in the future.

Cuddling a Tasmanian Devil

Cuddling a Tasmanian Devil (it was a bit shy and didn’t want to show its face!)

Regardless, these fossil records suggest one important thing to us: that the apparent climatic tolerance of the Tasmanian Devil is much greater than what their modern distribution suggests. Devils clearly have the ability to occur in a wide range of climates, from temperate (as per Tasmania today) to tropics.

If we are to seriously explore potential areas for mainland reintroductions in the future, I think that we need to put more emphasis on habitat, rather than climate, in the selection of potential target areas.

Anyway, if you can ever make it up to the Barrington Tops to visit the Devil Ark, I highly recommend it. The tour was great, the knowledge of the guides exceptional, and you might even have the chance to pat a Devil or two!

That time I wrote a song

Many years ago, I was invited to the South Australian Museum’s Palaeo Week. I’m not sure if the museum still runs it, but it was amazing: a week-long celebration of all things palaeontology. South Australia has some most brilliant and world-class palaeontological resources, from the incredible Ediacaran biota through to the World Heritage Naracoorte Caves.

My job at Palaeo Week was simply to talk to members of the public about how wonderful fossils are. An easy job, right!

When I arrived at the Museum, I was led out to a big marquee that was setup behind the main galleries. There were tons of folk in there keen to learn more about the exhibits and fossils around them.

I took my place towards the back of the marquee and started chatting with various members of the public. And that’s where I met Professor Flint.

Professor Flint

Professor Flint with a skeleton of the Marsupial 'Lion'

Professor Flint with a skeleton of the Marsupial ‘Lion’

I had never heard of the Professor before. He was a loud Scotsman who bellowed and cried the virtues of palaeontology. He was also one of the experts that the Museum had appointed for the week. I was blown away by his knowledge, the way that he engaged the public, and how he made science so fun.

I later found out that the Professor was the alter ego of Michael Mills from Heaps Good Productions. Michael is a most gifted science communicator. Not a research scientist per se, but he has a voice that can deliver extremely complex scientific ideas, information and theories to the public (and especially kids) in a way that makes it all so accessible.

Michael, or I should say, Professor Flint, is also an incredible performer. He writes children’s songs not only about palaeontology, but AUSTRALIAN palaeontology, and delivers it in a way that inspires and educates his young audiences.

I got to know the Professor on that trip, and stayed in contact with him over the years.

Planting the seed

Fast forward to 2014 and I ran into Michael again, this time in Brisbane when we went out to dinner with some friends from the Queensland Museum. Michael (and Professor Flint) was up in Queensland doing some science engagement activities. It was a great night catching up, talking palaeo and reminiscing about old times.

During the evening, Michael said to me that if I was ever interested in writing a song for the Professor, or at least suggesting some ideas, that he would consider adding it to his repertoire. Now that got me thinking!

When I was a kid, I played trombone in my primary school’s concert band… which I hated! But when I was a little bit older, I got more into music, and played bass guitar and keyboards (somewhat poorly) in a cover band. I’m not sure that I would even consider myself a ‘musician’, but that little kicker from Michael inspired me to hammer out some lyrics for a new song.

The Invictokoala holotype fossil

The Invictokoala holotype fossil

I got home and started thinking about what I could write about. I eventually settled on a song about an extinct koala from Australia that my colleague Scott Hocknull and I had described in the scientific literature a few years beforehand.

We named it Invictokoala monticola, which translates as the ‘Invincible koala from the mountain’. The original fossil was found at Mt Etna (hence the species name), just outside of Rockhampton in central eastern Queensland. It dates to around 300,000 years ago.

What is really special about Invictokoala though is that it appears to have been a rainforest-adapted koala. The fossil record previously suggested that koalas became extinct from rainforests during the Miocene around 10-12 million years ago, so for it to turn up so recently in geological time was quite unexpected.

The song itself is a ballad about Invictokoala and why it went extinct. We suspect it was related to significant habitat loss associated with a major shift towards drier conditions.

I drafted up the lyrics and then sung it into my computer (again, very poorly), before emailing it off to Michael.

Reconstruction of Invictokoala (image: Laurie Beirne)

Reconstruction of Invictokoala (image: Laurie Beirne)

Michael got back to me in a day or two thanking me. I didn’t really expect to hear anything more, but was then bowled over to receive a message from the Professor himself about a week later: he had tweaked the lyrics a tad, added music to the track, then re-recorded it… he made it incredible!

The final song

I was amazed and so chuffed when the song was added to Professor Flint’s second album, Dinosaurs Amongst Us, released in December 2016. If you haven’t done it yet, you can download it from iTunes, CD Baby, and Amazon, among other websites. You can even listen to it on Spotify.

But even more excitedly, I received a Twitter notification from the Professor just yesterday. Our song, Invictoooookoala, will be performed LIVE for the first time at Flint’s weekend concert, Picnic With The Dinosaurs!

The concert kicks off at the Adelaide Botanic Garden in the early afternoon of Sunday, December 3rd 2017. It’s a free concert, but be sure to register for your tickets here.


*DISCLAIMER* I receive $0 from proceeds towards the Professor’s albums. But please, please, please, I implore you to download it, not just to support Michael Mills and Heaps Good Productions, but to inspire a new generation of young Aussie kids in the virtues of Australian palaeontology, and Science, more broadly.

Revealing the life and times of an Ice Age giant

My team and I have just had a new study published that that looked at the question of migration in a species of giant, now-extinct, Ice Age megafauna of Australia.

The beast under the ‘microscope’ is Diprotodon optatum, famous for being the largest marsupial that ever existed. It stood 1.8 metres tall at the shoulder and weighed in at around 3,000 kg.

A herd of Diprotodon being stalked by the giant lizard, Megalania, while a couple of megafaunal kangaroos look on (image: Laurie Beirne)

A herd of Diprotodon being stalked by the giant lizard, Megalania, while a couple of megafaunal kangaroos look on (image: Laurie Beirne)

Diprotodon was one of the very first fossil animals ever described from Australia. Subsequent fossil records show that it had a near cosmopolitan distribution across Ice Age Oz, plus was one of the last surviving members of the megafauna.

But there’s a lot that we just don’t know about this animal, such as how it responded to seasonal changes; what its ecological role was; it’s basic biology… important questions that are critical in helping us understand why we don’t have Diprotodons anymore.


What we did

Our new study focussed on the life and times of an individual that once called the Darling Downs of southeast Queensland its home. We wanted to know what it ate, if it was a migratory species, and how it responded to changes in its environment.

Unlike some of their placental cousins, most modern marsupials don’t migrate at all. Some species, such as Red kangaroos (Macropus rufus) occasionally exhibit ‘nomadic’ migration where an individual or two will leave a home range, but with no specific plan or intention to return.

But what about Diprotodon? Weighing in at three tonnes, it’s more than 30 times the mass of the largest living marsupial, and likely had a very different ecological role when alive.

We applied a variety of geochemical analyses to a Diprotodon incisor tooth that we had borrowed from the Queensland Museum.

Diprotodon had ever-growing front chompers, so we predicted that our geochemical analyses (including carbon, oxygen, and strontium isotopes) would reveal lifetime changes in things like diet, water intake, plus also information about possible migration.


What we found

Without getting into the nitty gritty details, our study yielded some fascinating results. Firstly, our Diprotodon was clearly a seasonal migrant. It would undertake massive round-trips of up to 200 km per year as it tracked its preferred food source (basically, a combination of different species of grasses and leaves).

This is known as ‘two-way’ migration and is an evolutionary response to annually fluctuating resources.


Our discovery of such migration is a first for any marsupial living or extinct. That’s wildly fascinating in itself because marsupials have been around for a very long time. In fact, marsupials and their broader cousins, the metatherians (the group that includes all modern marsupials, but not placental or egg-laying mammals), have been on Earth for at least 160 million years. And until now, none have been known to have conducted such migration.

But perhaps more importantly, our data suggest that Ice Age Australia was just so ecologically different to anything that we’ve previously imagined.

In fact, the palaeo-ecosystem that we envisage seems more like the modern Serengeti than anything that we have Downunder today.


Some burning questions

Zebra are modern migrating mammals of East Africa's Serengeti

Zebra are migrating mammals of East Africa’s Serengeti

At the end of the day, we’re left with even more questions than what we started out with. Which other megafaunal species migrated? What were the consequences of their removal from Ice Age ecosystems? And especially, what are the implications for understanding Australia’s modern ecology?

These are major questions that need to be addressed, and will form the focus of future investigations.

We are massively appreciative of all the institutions that supported this research: The University of Queensland, University of Rochester, Southern Cross University, and Griffith University. Huge thanks to the Queensland Museum (and especially Kristen Spring) for their support, Nathan Siddle for making the 3D model, and the Australian Research Council for funding this research.

Is the Tasmanian Tiger really extinct?

There’s been a flurry of media reports out this year that have asked the question: Is the Tasmanian Tiger really extinct? Many of the stories are based off a media release put out by James Cook University where a couple of their researchers have plans to set-up a camera trap survey in north Queensland in search of this enigmatic marsupial.

Tasmanian Tigers, otherwise known as ‘Thylacines’ or ‘Marsupial wolves’, are thought to have suffered extinction on the 7th of September, 1936. That might sound like a very specific date to know when anything went extinct, and it is. But there’s quite a tragic story behind it.


The demise of the Tasmanian Tiger

Most people will know that Tasmian Tigers were the top land-dwelling predator in Tasmania until British colonisation. A devastating combination of over-hunting, competition with feral dogs, and exposure to new foreign diseases, did not bode well for their survival.

In 1901, the Tasmanian Government recognised that they had a conservation problem on their hands… but did nothing serious to remedy the situation until it was too late.

It wasn’t until the 10th of July, 1936, that legislation was finally passed that allowed for the protection of the Tasmanian Tiger. At that stage, Tasmanian Tigers hadn’t been reliably recorded in the wild for several years. In fact, the only known living member of the species at the time was Benjamin, a young adult male in Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo.

Thylacine hunter

Thylacine hunter

Sadly, on one cold night in September 1936, a keeper forgot to let Benjamin back into his shelter and he was found deceased, exposure being the killer.

59 days.

59 days from the time that the Tasmanian Tiger was officially protected, to the time that the last known individual died.


But what if Tasmanian Tigers aren’t actually extinct?

Since 1936, there have been numerous but hitherto unverified reports of Tasmanian Tiger sightings. But is that about to change now that Science has become more involved?

It was interesting to read the plethora of comments that the public have left on the recent news articles and in social media. They vary from “hey, this is cool!” to “if they’re really out there, just let them be!”

As someone who researches, writes, and teaches science, I’m very much in the “this is cool” camp, but with a caveat. We can’t save what we don’t know about. I think that the key to conservation and environmental management is public awareness and education.

All that aside though, the recent media reports did get me thinking. What if Tasmanian Tigers aren’t really extinct? Could there be a viable population living in remote parts of north Queensland?

We know on the basis of the fossil record that Tasmanian Tigers did once live on the mainland. In fact, prior to around 4,000 years ago, Tasmanian Tigers also used to call New Guinea their home.


An unexpected discovery

My crew and I went on a fieldtrip a couple of years ago to some caves west of Townsville in north Queensland. Squirming around on my stomach in a tight squeeze of one particular cave, I stretched out my hand and picked up a bunch of loose teeth from the surface. It was an amazing moment for me and something that I’ll never forget: they were the teeth of a Tasmanian Tiger.

Fossil Tasmanian Tiger teeth from a cave in North Queensland

Fossil Tasmanian Tiger teeth from a cave in North Queensland

They were discoloured, so not quite the pearly whites that you’d expect with fresh teeth, but they were remarkably well-preserved. Both the crowns and roots were completely undamaged. That’s very unusual for any type of fossil, so you can imagine my surprise to find them like that.

Does this astonishing preservation and fact that they were found simply lying on the surface mean that they are actually really young?

I’ve not yet had an opportunity to fully analyse and date the teeth yet, but wouldn’t it be amazing if they were from an animal post-dating 1936. It would certainly challenge everything that we know about Tasmanian Tiger and their supposed time of extinction, not to mention also giving credence to anyone who has claimed to have seen a living Tasmanian Tiger on the mainland.

Better get to the lab…!

What happened to Australia’s Ice Age megafauna: The public perception

Diprotodons, giant kangaroos, marsupial lions, and massive lizards: just some of Australia's Ice Age megafauna

Diprotodons, giant kangaroos, marsupial lions, and massive lizards: just some of Australia’s Ice Age megafauna

Huge land turtles, 8-foot tall kangaroos, massive cold-blooded killer goannas… these are but a few of the giant animals that once roamed Australia during the Quaternary: the period of geological time that we often refer to as the ‘Ice Ages’. But what happened to these megafauna? When did they go extinct and why?

It’s a research area that I am most fascinated by. And talking to others, it’s definitely something that inspires a lot of discussion and debate. I mean, who doesn’t love a good mystery, right? And in this case, it’s an Ice Age cold case and one of the biggest research questions in the Australian palaeo-sciences.


Extinction and public opinion

I recently had the privilege of being invited to give a presentation for BrisScience. BrisScience is a Brisbane-based monthly lecture series that aims to bring scientists and their science out of the lab and deliver it direct to the public. So for me, that meant packing up my thoughts and turning it into something digestible and interesting for a diverse audience.

What happened to the marsupial 'rhino', Zygomaturus?

What happened to the marsupial ‘rhino’, Zygomaturus?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a hardcore scientist or just a regular person walking down the street, everyone seems to have an idea about what happened to the megafauna. For scientists, they might form their opinion based on reading scientific literature. For members of the public, a lot of the time their thoughts might be crafted by things like media reports or easily assessable information websites such as Wikipedia.

Working in this space day in, day out, it’s sometimes hard to gauge an idea what people outside of the research community actually think. But here at BrisScience, I had an opportunity to go direct to the public and get their thoughts.

Why the megafauna went extinct: the public perception (credit: Tara Horner via Twitter)

Why the megafauna went extinct: the audience votes! (credit: Tara Horner via Twitter)

During the presentation, rather than have the audience put up their hands and shout things out, I used Mentimeter software to pose the question: “Why did the megafauna go extinct?” The audience were invited to go to a particular website and type in their answers using their phones. The answers were then broadcast live directly into my PowerPoint presentation as an evolving word cloud.

The results were really fascinating! There were 105 respondents out of the 300 or so in the room. Aside from a few creative answers such as unicorns, Jesus, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters, there seemed to be a clear candidate for the extinctions: climate change.


The results are in!

The results are in!


An unexpected response

Science tells us that the time of the megafauna was punctuated by repetitive wet and dry phases in climate, with a long-term trend towards progressively drier and drier conditions. In fact, the last glacial cycle that led into the most recent Ice Age was the harshest episode of climatic change of the entire Quaternary.

But I didn’t tell the audience that prior to the survey. All I had mentioned was that humans arrived in Australia around 55-60 thousand years ago, that the Quaternary was characterised by swings in climate, and that the megafauna were (mostly) extinct.

Climate change was not the answer that I was expecting; I thought it would have been human hunters for sure. But in a way, I found a lot of comfort in the overarching public view.

That’s not because I necessarily think that climate change wiped out all 90 species of Australian megafauna, but because of the worrying way that the debate has been playing out of late.


What we really know about the extinctions

There have been a spate of finger-pointing research articles recently, all arguing that human hunters solely drove the extinctions. Those research articles have translated into extensive and global media coverage as well, with headlines screaming out: ‘PEOPLE DID IT!’

I’ve read those research papers very closely and must say that I’m not convinced. Aside from some howling mistakes (like this one reporting the extinction of the kangaroo, Macropus, 43 thousand years ago… Macropus are very much alive and well, and include modern species like Red and Grey kangaroos, as well as 13 or so other extant members), the data just don’t stack-up to comprehensively ‘prove’ that humans did it.

Some of the recent headlines

Some of the recent headlines

Ideally, to test the human overkill model, you need to first show that as soon as humans arrived, all 90 species of megafauna immediately went extinct, and that climate change was not significant at the time.

A close reading of the actual datasets shows only around 15 species of megafauna date to the time period of human arrival. Most species significantly pre-date humans, or have no reliable dates at all. That is, we don’t even know when the majority of megafauna evolved, let alone, went extinct. As for climate change, a huge range of independent datasets demonstrate a big shift toward arid conditions right around the time of human arrival, so obviously, climate change cannot be excluded from the extinction equation.

The BrisScience survey was a great exercise in the end. The thing that pleased me the most, perhaps with the possible exception of whoever gave the answer “Flying Spaghetti Monster”(!), was seeing a public that are independent thinkers and are driven in seeking out the truth using alternative media.

To the BrisScience audience that night, thank you so much for coming and of course, thank you for your wonderful participation!

The Ice Age Lizards of Oz

Komodo Dragons once stalked Australia (credit: Bryan Fry / Gilbert Price)

Komodo Dragons once stalked Australia (credit: Bryan Fry / Gilbert Price)

There’s an old joke in reference to the wildlife in Australia that “everything is trying to kill you”. While that might be a fun way to scare tourists, there is no joking about the murderous killer lizards of the last Ice Age. In fact, we have just uncovered the first fossils to show that those huge lizards were still stalking the bush when the indigenous people migrated from South-East Asia to the Australian continent.

Imagine being one of those first human inhabitants of Australia. It’s around 50,000 years ago, and you’ve just finished a most extraordinary sea journey from tropical South-East Asia. You’ve already said goodbye to your family and friends and are about to begin life in a foreign southern land where the climate, landscape, vegetation and animals are completely different. It’s a scary enough image as it is, but throw in the giant predators of the last Ice Age and that image becomes truly terrifying…


Read the full article in the April 2016 issue of the pop-science magazine, Australasian Science. This write-up is based off an earlier technical publication from my research team:

Price, Gilbert J., Louys, J., Cramb, J., Feng, Y.x., Zhao, J.x., Hocknull, S.A., Webb, G.E., Nguyen, A.D., Joannes-Boyau, R. 2015. Temporal overlap of humans and giant lizards (Varanidae; Squamata) in Pleistocene Australia. Quaternary Science Reviews 125(1): 98-105. Available here:

The hammer that shaped a university

Nearly every profession has its own iconic piece of equipment. Doctors check vital signs with stethoscopes; photographers capture images with cameras; and chefs dice ingredients with knives. But if you’re an earth scientist, that critical go-to piece of gear is almost always the trusty rock hammer.

Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption sought solace in his hammer. Not just as a means of breaking out of jail, but to keep him sane, especially as he spent his days shaping and carving lumps of soapstone into chess pieces.

Screenshot of Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) using his rock hammer in The Shawshank Redemption (source: Castle Rock Entertainment).

Screenshot of Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) using his rock hammer in The Shawshank Redemption (source: Castle Rock Entertainment).

For the practising geologist or palaeontologist, a similar kind of comfort is wrought by the humble hammer.

Imagine using one to split a rock: the rock breaks in half to reveal the fossilised remains of an ancient, extinct creature. You are the first person in all of human history to ever set eyes on it. The fossil tells you a story, a small part of a much larger jigsaw perhaps, but a story about the history of our planet. And all this from the simple strike of a hammer.

So the rock hammer is by far the most valued bit of gear for any earth scientist. You can probably imagine then, the emotions among my team and I when we first laid our eyes on the rock hammer that once belonged to the legendry Professor Dorothy Hill.


A science great

Dorothy was a giant, not only of palaeontology and geology, but of science more broadly. And she has an incredible legacy at The University of Queensland.

Dorothy Hill

Dorothy Hill

She first attended UQ as an undergraduate student in the mid-1920s, when the university’s total enrolments numbered around 700; today, that figure is in excess of 50,000. She graduated with Honours in 1928, later accepting a scholarship to travel to England  to undertake a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Dorothy graduated after only two years; an incredible achievement in itself, but all the more remarkable in that she was only the second Queenslander to earn their stripes at that prestigious institution.

When she moved back to Australia in 1937, Dorothy took up a lectureship in the geology department at UQ. Times were tough coming out of the Great Depression, and not made any easier during World War II. Dorothy’s research was put on-hold temporarily when she took up a position ciphering code for five-star American army general Douglas MacArthur.

A post-war Australia saw Dorothy’s scientific pursuits flourish. Her research specialty was in ancient fossil corals, an area in which she eventually published more than 100 papers. She named numerous new species previously unknown to science. This earned her widespread recognition and the award of several prizes and fellowships.

Dorothy was also a great servant of science. In 1947 she became President of the Royal Society of Queensland, the State’s oldest scientific institution. In 1970 she assumed the role of President of the Australian Academy of Sciences. And in 1971 Dorothy became President of the Professorial Board at UQ. These achievements were no mean feat. In fact, Dorothy was a trailblazer in that she was the first female president ever in each of those roles.

Dorothy Hill in 1987, standing below her sandstone grotesque where it adorns the Richards Building in the Great Court.

Dorothy Hill in 1987, standing below her sandstone grotesque where it adorns the Richards Building in the Great Court.

Dorothy died in 1997, but is today still recognised widely among the scientific community. She is honoured in numerous ways, including having a UQ library named after her, a PhD scholarship, a couple of national science prizes, and even a drill rig. She is also the only woman scientist depicted in the sandstone carvings of UQ’s Great Court.


Dorothy’s hammer

My team had heard the legend of Dorothy’s hammer and were keen to get our hands on it. After several inquiries, we were excited to learn that it was in the possession the School of Earth Sciences’ Professor Gregg Webb, who happily passed it to us.

To first lay eyes on the hammer, one wouldn’t be all that impressed. It’s a very simple design: a plain hickory wooden handle, with a very rusty, ridged, angular steel head. It lacks the flair and curves of most modern rock hammers. But it has an underlying appeal, especially if you know its history, for it is more than just a hammer: it’s a symbol of curiosity, exploration and determination. It’s Dorothy Hill’s rock hammer.

We dare not use the hammer ourselves, thus, preserving knowledge that the last time it was struck to reveal an ancient fossil, it was at the hands of Dorothy herself.

We’ve made a 3D model of the hammer, with the intention that it will be used in an upcoming exhibition celebrating the life of Dorothy. But we share it here in the hope that it can bring the same level of inspiration to others that it brought to us.

This post first appeared on UQ’s Small Change blog.

How to explain everything

When I’m not doing research, I coordinate a second year Science course at uni, ERTH2002 Palaeobiology. It’s essentially a course where we take the students on a journey through the 4.6 billion year history of life on Planet Earth. One of the things that I’m really keen on is making the class really engaging and hands-on. After all, life is pretty amazing as it is, but throwing a bunch of fossils into the mix can really spice things up.

Each of the prac classes are taught with real fossils and rocks. We would have literally hundreds of different types of things over the semester, from ancient stromatolites nearly 3.5 billion years old, through to Ediacaran fossils, beasts of the Cambrian Explosion, all the way down to the Ice Age megafauna of the last 50 thousand years. At the start of each class, we basically just run through the prac and the specimens, emphasising why this stuff is important for the students to know, and go from there.

Using Explain Everything in class

Using Explain Everything in class

I always found the intro bits a little static- just standing in front of the class, sometimes with a PowerPoint presentation, running through what the students need to do, then letting them loose on the fossils. I recently came across some new software that makes the class a lot more interactive, interesting, and definitely engaging. The software is called ‘Explain Everything’.

Explain Everything is kind of like a digital whiteboard for your tablet or computer, but really, it is much more than that. The teaching space that I have is a large room with a single data projector. I was able to download the software (only around $4!) from the Windows store and install it on my Surface Tablet (a Surface 2). To stream it through the projector without the use of cables, I had to buy a Windows wireless adaptor (around $100). It took a bit of mucking around with the adapter and computer settings, but we (with the help of someone a little bit more computer savvy than myself) were able to get it going.

Tallying up species counts of Triassic plants using Explain Everything

Screenshot tallying up species counts of Triassic plants using Explain Everything

With Explain Everything, there is just so much stuff you can do with it- from not only drawing on it and have it broadcast live to the class on the projector, to annotating pics of fossil specimens, browsing websites (and annotating them too), pdfs of papers, taking live photos and videos (and more annotating, of course!).

That last bit is especially the thing that I like the most. With some types of fossils, it’s hard to get more than one specimen. By necessity, that means that the students have to share them. With Explain Everything, if there is something particularly important or interesting that I want everyone to see, I would typically walk up to the fossil in class and either take a photo or video of it. There’s no need to pre-photograph or video anything as it loads into Explain Everything live. With the set-up that I’ve got, whatever you see on the tablet screen is what gets projected to the class. And having a wireless connection to the projector, I can easily move around the entire classroom to wherever the fossils are laid out.

It’s just so easy to then describe the specimen- draw all over it, flip it around the screen, whatever you need to do to convey the important bits. You can also even press the ‘record’ button and it’ll basically capture the screen as you’re photographing / drawing or whatever. It even records audio. You can then export this later and if necessary, upload it to the class teaching site so that the students can access it either during the class, or later for home study. Check out the video to see it in action:

In the prac session depicted in the images and video of this blog post, the students were required to identify a range of fossil plants (dating to the middle Triassic… so dinosaur food!), tally up the numbers to assess diversity, and a range of other things. We used Explain Everything here to write up a list of plant names and score up the tally, as well as take photos of representative species to help with the plant id’s. It’s just too easy to use. The final tally was saved and exported as a JPEG file, and later uploaded to the class Facebook group page so that the students could complete the prac in their own time. It’s just such useful software.

This blog post might sound like an ad for Explain Everything, but I can assure you that it is not. I was not invited by Explain Everything to write this post, and I’ve not received a dime or any incentive at all to talk about it. It’s just a nifty, and very inexpensive, bit of software that I think would benefit a wide variety of teaching, not just in palaeontology. I’ll definitely be using it in the years to come.