Research website of Dr Gilbert Price

Tall Poppy Awards

One of the things that I really enjoy about my work is telling people about it! I mean, who doesn’t love a good yarn about an Ice Age cold case featuring some of the coolest, biggest and meanest beasts that ever walked the planet! It’s an easy sell too- most people know a little about dinosaurs, but when you tell them that there were giant wombats, massive kangaroos, and marsupial lions living alongside Australia’s earliest peoples… well, their jaws just drop!

I was recently invited to attend the awards ceremony of the Queensland Young Tall Poppies. The awards are an initiative of the Australian Institute of Policy and Science, or AIPS. Each year, AIPS celebrates and recognises the achievements of young scientists across Australia as part of their Tall Poppy Campaign. Their ultimate aim is to strive towards the building of more engaged scientific leadership across Australia, and that by necessity, means scientific communication, not just between scientists, but with the general public alike.

Tall Poppy Awards

Discussing my research at the 2013 Queensland Tall Poppy Awards (it’s not often that you’ll find me this clean and wearing a suit!)

The awards are made on a state-by-state basis and recognise the achievements of outstanding young researchers across a huge variety of scientific fields including medical research, technology, engineering and mathematics. I’m pleased to say that my name was among the list of 11 awardees for the 2013 Queensland Young Tall Poppies. It was a real thrill and surprise for me. The award ceremony was held at the Queensland University of Technology’s Science and Engineering Centre in mid-November (a really impressive place that you should check out next time you are in Brisbane City!), hosted by Queensland’s Chief Scientist, Dr Geoff Garrett, with the individual awards presented by the Queensland Minister for Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts, Mr Ian Walker.

Out of the 11 awardees, one was chosen to become the Young Queensland Tall Poppy of the Year. The 2013 candidates are an incredible bunch of young scientists and include researchers working in a variety of different areas from molecular biology, public health, neuropharmacology, tissue engineering and more. I was really blown away to hear about their research- they’re doing some massively impressive things. But what surprised, and humbled me more than anything, was when I heard my name read out for the top prize! I really couldn’t believe it!

My boss, Professor Gregg Webb, was in the audience- he was super pumped, perhaps even more than I was! It’s a great opportunity, not just for me, but for my research group to really start showing off some of the cool palaeo-type things that we do. Although I tend to talk up my megafauna research much more than anything, the real crux of what I do really goes far beyond those Ice Age megabeasts. Yep, it would be awesome if we could figure out why diprotodon and co suffered extinction, but wouldn’t it be brilliant to know how the species that we still have around us today staved off extinction? How did they respond to the massive climatic changes and anthropogenic impacts that have gripped Australia since the last Ice Age? How were they able to adapt at a time when a huge variety of different creatures were dropping off the evolutionary family tree?

Receiving the 2013 Tall Poppy Award

Receiving the 2013 Tall Poppy Award from the Honorable Mr Ian Walker

So that is the ultimate research question- how have modern floras, faunas and ecosystems responded to past episodes of climate change and environmental peturbation? And critically, what can we do with that knowledge? The past is what informs that present, and it can also help us understand where we might be heading in the future. That’s an insight that can only be provided by the fossil record and is especially important at this time of widespread apprehension over the potentially devastating impacts of future anthropogenic climate change. There are a lot of lessons that we can learn about the past, with great potential for applying that to modern conservation approaches and ecosystem management.

I’m looking forward to the opportunities that the Young Tall Poppy award will bring me over 2014. It’ll be a great chance to spread the fossil-word to one and all, and hopefully attract a bit more community support for the palaeo-sciences, not just in Queensland, but across Australia more broadly.

Excavating the owl’s dinner plate

Undergraduate student volunteer Nick Wiggins (UQ) excavating at Colosseum Chamber

Recently I wrote about an ongoing study at Colosseum Chamber, an extensive fossil deposit located at the Capricorn Caves tourist park, just north of Rockhampton in central eastern Queensland. The chamber occurs within an ancient cavernous limestone, which itself dates back to the Devonian (over 350 million years ago). The Colosseum deposit is around 2 m deep and, to put it simply, is chockfull of the fossilised remains of an ancient feast. The bones are the leftovers – the undigested parts – from the feeding activities of owls over the past several thousand years. The fossils consist of a huge number of teeth, jaws, and post-cranial skeletal elements from a range of small-bodied species such as frogs, skinks, bandicoots, dunnarts, antechinuses, planigales, possums, and rodents.

Having first identified the deposit back in the mid-2000’s, we were lucky enough to obtain some recent research funding from the Ian Potter Foundation, The University of Queensland and Australian Research Council to continue our excavations. In mid-April, we ventured out for a new fieldtrip to the site.

Lower jaw of brushtail possum from the Colosseum Chamber fossil deposit

The trip was led by Dr Julien Louys from UQ with me as second-in-charge, and we were joined by other colleagues from UQ, the Queensland Museum, and volunteers including PhD student Jonathan Cramb (QUT) and undergraduate student Nick Wiggins (UQ). Although these were the folk who did most of the digging, the trip just would not have been possible without the generous support of the Capricorn Caves tourist park who put us up and allowed access to the cave, and local cavers, Noel and Jeanette Sands who also assisted with the excavations (Noel also cooked up an awesome barbie for my last night in town!).

From our preliminary dating study, we know that the deposit accumulated over the last 80 thousand years. This is a particularly exciting time period to be investigating. The last 80 thousand years included an episode of great climatic upheaval, numerous species extinctions, and was also the time that saw humans first set foot on the continent. The goal of our work is to use the Colosseum Chamber

Maxilla of southern brown bandicoot from Colosseum Chamber. The species is extinct from the region today.

fossil record to explore how the local faunas reacted to such prehistoric events. Having a robust understanding of species response(s) to past environmental perturbations is absolutely fundamental in informing modern conservationists and climate scientists about the possible effects of climate change on living populations.

Previously we had excavated the deposit to a depth of around 90 cm from the modern cave floor. This year we were able to extend the dig much deeper, to almost 2 metres deep. The digging got quite difficult the further down we got- both logistically (it’s not particularly comfortable working in such a cramped environment with other sweaty, smelly palaeontologists!), and because we hit a lot of large chunks of limestone, signalling that we were getting close to the bottom of the deposit.

Lower jaw of an extinct rabbit rat, recently discovered by PhD student Jonathan Cramb

Thousands of kilograms of sediment were removed from the cave in buckets and were taken down to the bottom of the ridge for sieving. Digging is fun, but the sieving is where you get to see all the amazing fossils that the deposit contains. Jonathan, our resident rodent expert, recently discovered a new fossil species of Rabbit Rat from Colosseum Chamber (named Conilurus capricornensis– the species name is in honour of the Capricorn Caves tourist park), and was extremely excited to see a whole heap more of his unusual rodent emerge from the sieving!

During the trip we were able to collect new samples for dating including charcoal (radiocarbon dating), straw stalactites (uranium-series dating) and sediment (optically stimulated luminescence dating). Getting those samples dated is now the next major job, not to mention the huge amount of bones that need to be taxonomically identified and sorted into skeletal groups. No doubt we have a mammoth task in front of us, but the information that we can potentially extract from the deposit is just so critical and important for modern conservation that we just can’t ignore it. Updates to come!