What do Rocks taste like?
**Cue music (intro theme)
Rose – Welcome to the particle podcast where we talk about science and the people that just love it.
Rose – I’m Rose, I’m a biologist, broadcaster and before today the most I knew about dinosaurs, was what I learned from Jurassic Park!
And appropriately today I’m joined by Liam Olden; he is an enthusiastic palaeontology and science communicator who loves a pun. We had a chat about becoming a paleontologist; feathers on dinosaurs, drop bears, and licking rocks. Hope you enjoy!
Rose – Hi Liam, welcome to the podcast!
Liam – Hi Rose! Thank you for having me.
Rose – Tell me, what does a palaeontologist like yourself actually do?
Liam – So, a palaeontologist is quite simple, if you think of yourself as a kid, you know, you’re always running around playing with dinosaurs and digging and eating sand. As a palaeontologist I get to do this for a living!
Rose – Eat sand?
Liam – Yeah! Yeah, sand. Yeah. So generally, there’s different types of palaeontology, so there’s different backgrounds, so you can have a biology palaeontologist, what we call a ‘palaeobiologist’ or you can have a geology palaeontologist so a ‘paleogeologist’. So, I’m the second category; So I did start off as a sedimentologist so I understand and studied sediments and this is really important as we need to understand what different environments did our organisms and our fossils live in before they got preserved.
Rose – hmm, so while you’re at Uni –
Liam – Yes
Rose – When you were kind of starting out, what did that look like? What was the base knowledge you had to form before you could go, I am a palaeontologist?
Liam – So, there is no easy way to become a paleontologist. Ah you cannot just go and study it. So what you have to do, you have to get a background as I mentioned, you know, you either go in through the biology route or you can go through an earth science route, so I took the earth sciences route because… I love rocks.
Rose – (Laughs)
Liam – Ooo Yeah
Rose – Were you one of those kids…that had a rock collection?
Liam – … oh honey, I still have one.
Rose – My house is full! Like people think “like oh yeah, ya know”. I warn them! Like before they come over for like a barbeque I was like ‘Hey, just a heads up, I’ve got rocks everywhere” and they’re like “ooh, sure! okay” and then they come in and they’re like “ohh damn” and you know you go into my bedroom, and like a chest of draws are covered in fossils and rocks, you open my cupboards and there’s just rocks falling out on you.
Rose – By why rocks? I understand kids, you know, love animals because they’re cute, I liked plants because my name is Rose (laughs) and I didn’t have a choice in the matter! What was it about rocks that really captured your interest?
Liam – Well Rose it’s quite simple… they simply rock!
Rose – (Laughs and groans)
Liam – Yeah! Exactly!
Rose – Ooo! I feel physical pain! Physical pain over that joke!
Liam – (laughing) Physical pain over that! Ahh no! It’s as I was saying you know, it’s about understanding the world around you. You see a different type of rock and you go ‘oh, oh my God! That’s this’ and some of them you know are absolutely gorgeous, you know you look at some metamorphic rocks and they have lots of pretty colours and things like that, you know, and fossils are awesome, because they are basically like a window back in time, but rather than you know you’re in a little time machine, you’re looking back maybe a couple of minutes or something! Or you look in a mirror and go, that’s what I looked like when I was sleeping.
Rose – Is it because it’s a window into the past, that you like it so much?
Liam – Exactly! Yeah you know the rocks and earth sciences and fossils provides us information not only about the past but like the past, past, past, past, past, like of billions of years have passed! But also, the future you know? Are we going to merge into another massive supercontinent? We probably will in a couple of million years, not that I’ll be here for it! You know! But we will probably be another massive supercontinent. What will that mean for Earth’s climate? Things like that, yeah.
Rose – Do you have a favourite rock that you own?
Liam – … you really have to do this to me don’t you! (Laughs)
Rose – Might be like picking between your children.
Liam – it is…
Rose – Or today what’s your favourite? That is something I like to ask people when I ask them their favourite of something, when they can’t pick, I’m like what’s your favourite today? And I promise you can change tomorrow! You’re not disowning any of your children.
Liam – Ohh okay, so favourite rock type is sedimentary rocks – so that’s rocks that are made up of sediment, so if you think of beach sand and all that once that gets compacted together like the limestone you use to build walls around your garden, rocks like that, that’s my favourite type of rock. In terms of fossils, in my own collection, so I specialise in Microbialites and so I have a fossilised stromatolite which is Cyanobacteria.
Rose – Just jumping in for a second, in case you didn’t know. Microbialites are colonies of bacteria living together. Stromatolite, Is a type of Microbialites that has a layered internal structure.
Rose – So if you think about it like a layered cake you’ve got a layer of the bacteria and then another layer comes on top as the layers build up the bottom layers actually end up fossilising.
Liam – And this one is about 260 million years old
Rose – (Gasps)
Liam – And is very much possibly the first recorded occurrence of cyanobacteria throughout our complete stromatolite; which is amazing!
Rose – How did you get it!
Liam – How did I get it? So, this is actually part of my research
Rose – Ahh
Liam – Yeah, so we heard about some stromatolites in the middle area of West Australia, so we basically decided to go up there and investigate and do a little bit of work on them and so while sampling all that we try to figure out their age a little bit better, because they were originally thought to be part of the end-Permian mass extinction. So the mass extinction that led to the evolution of the dinosaurs. So throughout my research we found out that this probably wasn’t the case, that they were probably much older than that, so Permians were before that mass-extinction event but while we were doing some study of these, we found these really unusual structures between them. And so this is really unique as you know, I’ve come into this palaeontology field, I thought, “ah cool, we’ve got fossilised bacteria” and then in having a chat with other specialists on this subject, they basically said, “no, you can’t get fossilised bacteria, it’s very difficult”. Especially not the amount that I had. So we decided to try and figure out what were these structures and after a lot of money, and time and research and trying to convince people, we’ve decided that yeah, this is fossilised bacteria throughout our complete stromatolite.
Rose – Wow!
Liam – Yeah!
Rose – Going back to university for a second, you started your undergrad in a more geology space?
Liam – Yeah, so I did a what we called an applied geology degree. So my degree was very hands on, I spent a lot of time outdoors,
walking around, looking at rocks, sampling, trying to understand the geology of the region.
Rose – And when you say, you study the geology of a rock, I’ve heard geologists be called ‘Rock Lickers’ before… Do you in fact lick rocks?
Liam – I can 100% confirm that we do lick rocks, and it is lot of fun!
Rose – (Laughs) Why? Why do you lick rocks?
Liam – Why not Rose? Why not lick those rocks!
Rose – Is it so that you can see, I was under the impression it was so you could see the colour of the rock if you cleaned it.
Liam – Yeah, so there are a lot of actual really useful tools of licking a rock. So, as you mention when we wet a rock, we can actually pick out a lot of features that you would not normally be able to see, without a wet surface. So it’s like you might see polished rocks in the shops, we are essentially doing the same thing, but with our saliva. The joys.
Rose – Yep.
Liam – Another great way, so being a sedimentologist is sometimes it’s really difficult to tell the size of grains. So, in sediment, if we think like the beach and things like that, grains can reach a range of up to big boulder style all the way down to finer than you can see with the human eye. So, this becomes really difficult then to try, when we are on the fly, to identify the sizes, otherwise we have to take the sample back with us to the lab, and then re-analyse it and that becomes a lot of work. So, what we do (Laughs) is we get the rock or piece of sand and we rub it on our teeth.
Rose – What?
Liam – Yeah, so you can kind of do the same thing with your nails, except I don’t like rubbing my nails off, so as I said I choose to destroy my teeth, but …
Rose – That must be so bad for your teeth though! Doesn’t it hurt or scratch them?
Liam – No but yeah it does scratch. So basically, if it’s nice and smooth we call it ‘clay’; it’s clay size. That means less than, let’s get this right…180 micron. So very small.Ros: Ahh so very fine.
Liam – Very, very fine. And then the other one is what we call ‘silt’ so you can, you know. It looks very smooth to the touch and everything, you rub it on your teeth and it feels a little gritty, you know if you forget to, you know you go out fishing, you have a nice piece of fish and you forget to wash it properly, or you know there is a little bit of grit in there, and that’s what it feels like when you’re in your teeth or if your washing it round your mouth, yeah.
Rose – Which rock tastes the best? (Laughs)
Liam – I don’t think any rock tastes well, very nice (laughs)
Rose – Fine, I was hoping for a secret rock that was a good snack, but that’s alright.
Liam – A secret rock… ooh yeah no, but animals do lick rocks that are rich in salts, obviously because the salts and minerals are good for them and all that, so you will see some animals just going along licking rocks…
Rose – Aww how cute!
Liam – Yeah! Proto-geologists (both Laugh)
Rose – what does the proto stand for in that?
Liam – Proto means ‘pre’.
Rose – Ahhh
Liam – Yeah, yep. So, it’s before something, so if I was to say, for example Rose you’re a proto-geologist, it means you would do things of a geologist but you’re not a geologist yet!
Rose – Oooo, like a prototype, but a proto-geologist.
Liam – Like a prototype, yeah! So we actually have this really cool term, so that actually pops up throughout our geological classifications as well. So when we understand Earth-time, we have different time intervals, and one of them is called the Proterozoic.
Rose – Hmm
Liam – So Proto meaning ‘pre’, Zoic means ‘life’.
Rose – Ahhhh.
Liam – So we have protozoic – Prelife, Phanerozoic – Life.
Rose – Ahhh interesting.
Liam – And then we also have Mesozoic – middle life and Cenozoic – New life
Rose – And so, what happened after you did your undergrad? What did you have to do then to kind of step up and level up in geology?
Liam – So after I did my undergraduate I was basically a qualified geologist now, I decided to do an honours degree, which is a one year extension of the undergraduate; but its more research focussed. So, I did that on my current research topic of the stromatolites and so this is kind of where we start bringing in more of the palaeontology. So during your undergraduate you do do a little bit of palaeontology depending on what universities you are, each university has its specialities and things like that but now we can start specialising and that’s what I did. I started specialising in palaeontology but using the palaeontology to rather than just understand the organisms to try and understand how Earth has changed over time as well.
Rose – What do you think your inspiration was to move into that area of research?
Liam – Oooo (laughs)
Rose – Was it something that you’d always been interested in since you were a kid?
Liam – Yeah I, as I said you know, I’m a kid that never grew up. As a child, you know, everyone wants to be a palaeontologist, I never gave up on that dream. I continued I used to walk around the farm as a kid, I was a farmer originally; I would find rocks and bones, and bring them back thinking they were dinosaurs and then my old man would go and throw them back out into the paddock again for the next day and off I’d go again.
Rose – aww
Liam – And yeah you know, the passion you feel, the enthusiasm you have for science continued before I could read; I was picking up big scientific encyclopedias and just looking at the diagrams of different things in it (laughs).
Rose – aww
Liam – So you know, it’s a passion that’s continued with me and I’ve been really fortunate that I have swayed this way and that way, like, ‘oooh is this what I want to do?’ and I then try something else out and I’m like no. I’m definitely a palaeontologist in my heart.
Rose – Yeah, that’s good to know.
Liam – Yeah!
Rose – It’s like your little science identity.
Liam – Yeah! (laughs) wear it with a badge of pride (laughs).
Rose – Yeah; did you come from a scientific family?
Liam – No. So, I’m actually from a very long, long, long generation farming family. So yeah, so much farmers that, my dad’s side of the family were farmers and came across as convicts and my mum’s side of the family were also farmers but came across as soldiers. And my parents met farming and yeah. (laughs) My sister and I are the only ones in the whole family to not farm.
Rose – Do you think that your family had an influence on your love of palaeontology? Do you think they fostered your love of science? Because it’s interesting that you were in an environment that isn’t necessarily deemed scientific in a way, but you had this sense of exploration.
Liam – Yeah, so you’d actually be surprised a lot of regional areas, you do have that fascination with Earth around you, you know, Earth Sciences. So being on a farm I got to see sediment movement in practice, I got to see, you know, outcropping of different types of rocks, and I’d go pick them up and try to understand things. I still every time I go home to the farm, my dad has a pile of rocks there for me to identify.
Rose – Aww.
Liam – Usually it’s mostly like one rock (laughs)
Rose – Yeah
Liam – It’s like, ‘Dad, that’s just quartz’ (laughs). Or something like a mineral you know. It’s interesting, the neighbouring farms have fossilised wood on their property and are always interested in asking questions. And that’s the thing you know; yes, I did come from a non-scientific background growing up. But you know, there was plenty of opportunity there and that’s the thing all around us-Science is all around us. So, if you are interested in Science – especially Earth Science, all you have to do is look at your feet, look up, look around. It’s all there.
Rose – Yeah and having that curiosity to explore I suppose.
Liam – Exactly the curiosity, yep. Apparently as a child, you know, I was a very lovely child
Liam – But you know two things that would never, well one thing that would never happen today, is that I used to walk off with strangers… in book shops and they would buy me dinosaur books.
Rose – (Gasps)
Liam – Yeah, like I would just walk off with random people and would take a random book to them, like because I liked books, just looking at the diagrams and things, and apparently a lot of the books, like childhood books I have at my home house, like family home, is all books brought by strangers!
Rose – (Laughs) Because they liked this kid; who really wanted the dinosaur book.
Liam – Yeah, Yeah! Exactly! And you know the second one was I was, I apparently used to be sat in front of David Attenborough as a child, as a baby… Maybe this is what influenced it, because I have heard that when I do big talks and things, that I do sound like David Attenborough!
Rose – (Laughs)
Liam – So you know, maybe, maybe this could be it.
Rose – Maybe.
Liam – But you know. I’d it down as a baby watching documentaries and I’d be so happy like you know, put on cartoons and I’ll be crying and all that… put on a documentary, I’m all happy.
Rose – Interesting
Liam – Yeah, yep yep, you know monkey fell out of the boat, I’m crying. Monkey’s back in the boat I’m all good now (laughs).
Rose – Awww.
Rose – And your research area is pretty specific. How long have you been in that research area?
Liam – Two years, yep! So not too long. (Laughs)
Rose – Are there many people who study what you study?
Liam – Um, Yes and no. There are a couple around-ish (laughs). It is quite a unique field, so as I mentioned, you know palaeontology is a small field in itself and then when we start studying separate things, you know, a group of people study a certain type of dinosaur, and then some people will just study how to name a dinosaur. So there are lots of ‘us’-ish but there’s very little pockets of study and specialist areas; so mine being cyanobacteria and fossilised stromatolites, but I work mostly in the Mesozoic and Phanerozoic. So when there’s a lot of life around, there’s other microbialite people and stromatolites people that work at the earliest life. So I’ve got a colleague Kath Grey who’s actually the world expert on this topic and was one of the people who has been working on the 3.64 billion year old stromatolites in Western Australia.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – So oldest evidence of life on Earth.
Rose – Wow and it’s in W.A.?
Liam – In W.A., yeah! W.A. is really fortunate, we not only have the oldest example of life on earth, we have Shark Bay which is a world heritage listed area, that actually contains stromatolites, and is the best, other than the Bahamas, the best occurrence of these. And you could use a lot to try and understand what life was life back in early Earth, but also, to try and look for life on other planets.
Rose – (gasps) Ooo that’s exciting
Liam – It is! It’s very exciting!
Rose – What did life look like at that really early stage?
Liam – At the really early stage?
Rose – Yeah.
Liam – Single cells. So, what’s really cool you know is we think of Earth, as you know a clock. Right? So in time… people can’t probably see my hands right now!
Rose – Liam is gesturing in a timeline like fashion.
Liam – Arms radiating around (Laughs). So at 12 o’clock Earth forms, okay? And let’s see if we can get this right. We go down to 3.64 billion years ago, and so that’s around 1:30 / 2 o’clock I think and so that’s when we get the first life – so that’s single celled organisms, and so these developed photosynthesis, without these there would be no other life on Earth. So we have everything to thank due to bacteria, so every time you see bacteria I say, thank you.
Rose – (laughs)
Liam – But then these organisms dominated 80% of life of Earth. So it wasn’t until around, I think it’s around 500-600 million years ago, we got our first complex life – so multi-cellular.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – So that shows you, you know, that they have about 3 billion years on everything else, and the fact that they still exist today, they’ve not gone extinct at all.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – Yeah.
Rose – So what do they, when you’re doing your research and you’re looking for evidence of early life, what does that look like?
Liam – It’s actually really easy to see! So obviously cells are really small and especially bacteria. But when they come together, so this is what we are looking at, we are looking for colonies of cells. These are our Microbialites and stromatolites, colonies of bacteria. These actually form very big structures; so the largest in the world of preserved stromatolite, I think is over 5 meters tall!
Rose – Wow!
Liam – Yeah! So mine aren’t that big, mine get up to a bit over 2 ½ meters; which is still massive considering you know, that these are composed of tiny little cells, but yeah.
Rose – Do you know how many cells are in a like 2 ½ meter tall stromatolite? Is it possible to know?
Liam – (Laughs) No.
Rose – And when you test them, are you taking a sample? Looking at it under a microscope? What does your research actually entail in terms of that field work and testing things out?
Liam – Yeah so, you can’t exactly test living ones anymore because they are heritage listed, and so few and far between and protected. So with fossilised stromatolites, exactly what you mentioned, we try to take as much of a sample as possible, when it’s at 2 ½ meter size… you take a photo (laughs). But yeah, we usually try and you know if there is that 2 ½ metre size and there’s a couple of smaller ones around it, you know we might cut some of the smaller ones up, take it back into a processing lab, we’ll then proceed to slice them up into slabs and determine what are the things we’re trying to identify. So, if I have a sample and it has a couple areas of interest, so I’m going to go okay, so we block those areas of interest out, and we can send them off to get turned into, what we call, a thin section. So that is essentially a piece of glass slide with a rock resent onto it, and then the rock is planed down to 30 microns thickness.
Rose – Wow
Liam – Yeah, so thinner than a piece of hair, it’s yeah.
Rose – Really tiny.
Liam – Really tiny, very fragile (laughs). Yeah, then we can put those thin sections under microscopes – regular microscope, optical microscopes or electron microscopes is what I have been using a lot of recently, yeah.
Rose – And what are you looking for?
Liam – Anything.
Rose – Anything?
Liam – Anything! Yeah so, we use thin sections a lot, so for me as a palaeontologist, I look a lot at the shapes of the organisms, different types of preservation. So how did that organism get preserved? So we can look at different minerals and try and understand what times they came into the setting, and then we can basically unwind it; it’s like undoing a jigsaw puzzle, or putting one together in fact. We have one piece, it’s like okay, okay let’s go next, and next, and next and so we’re taking steps, we’re not just trying to jump in and understand everything at once, we’re taking a very methodological approach to this.
Rose – So, the goal of the research, is to find stuff out that we really just don’t know about the history of the Earth?
Liam – Yeah. that’s science and research to a T. We are constantly asking questions and we will answer those questions – sometimes we are wrong; I can confirm my honours work I did it, I was going to publish it, I presented it at a conference even, and then I decided that doing some further research I wanted to continue researching that topic before publishing it with a scientific journal and I ended up going back out there and found out that everything that I’d done the year before was completely wrong.
Rose – (Gasps)
Liam – I know.
Rose – Did you cry?
Liam – No.
Rose – I think I might of!
Liam – But that’s science!
Rose – Yeah.
Liam – That’s science! It’s so exciting you know, we went out there, we spent 3 or 4 days out in the field, looking at an area, and then when I managed to get a grant to give us a bit more money to do go back out there again, and so we set up a site, and were like okay so we have been to this area, we want to check it again, because we think we might have missed something. Because we didn’t have a lot of time. We had 3 days in the field and essentially 4 months to write up this research originally, so not a lot of time. So the more time we have the better the research we can get out. And so we got some more money, we had a lot more time, so we went another 2 weeks out in the field, and we discovered a lot. So originally these stromatolites were known from about 6 square kilometres. We pushed it out to over 24 square kilometres.
Rose – Yeah wow.
Liam – With it likely going much, much further, we pushed the unit thickness, so you know, originally it was only thought to only be a couple metres thick – we think it’s much bigger. We’ve re-changed the age of the sequence – they thought it was early Triassic parts of big mass extinction. We think it’s older, likely Permian. Yeah, the list goes on, and that’s the thing, we present and I did a conference at the end of, well mid-end of 2019 and I got up and I said many people here have probably heard or seen a similar presentation to this, you know I did one last year, I’m here to tell you that I was wrong.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – And that’s science, that’s good science! It’s when you know, we’re happy to admit we’re wrong. As long as we provide enough scientific evidence to say hey, this is wrong, this is a better analysis, idea, things like that, yeah that’s science, yeah we continue with that.
Rose – And continuously building.
Liam – And continuously building, yeah. Science never stops you know, we can, one person will come up with one idea, and then you know, someone might not like my work and they might publish something else that, you know, might contradict my work a bit, and then you know, their science might be valid as well. So that shows that we just need to do more work into this field, to try and figure out what’s going on yeah.
Rose – Do you see yourself doing research in this field for the rest of your life?
Liam – Not specifically on Microbialites, just in palaeontology, yeah. So you know, continuing to do my research and doing talks about it, and just getting people excited about science! It’s why I’m here today.
Rose – Why should people care specifically about palaeontology?
Liam – (laughs) Okay, so there’s a lot of different was we can look at this. One of the big things is with the palaeontology is that we can understand how organisms used to live. If we can understand how organisms used to live, how life adapted to get where we are today, we can get an idea of where things might be going in the future. Some of the stuff I do, so I do paleo-environmental reconstruction
Rose – Can you say that …slowly.
Liam – (Laughs) Paleo – Environmental – Reconstruction. So, Paleo means ‘old’, environmental is environment and reconstruction is reconstruction. So, I’m reconstructing old environments.
Rose – Ah huh!
Liam – Yeah. (laughs) It’s a little bit easier once I break it down, but basically what I’m doing is I’m using fossils and their geology to try and understand what did the environment of Earth look like at different times throughout Earth’s lifespan. So that’s really important as well; trying to understand what might be going on, especially with the climate change going on today. Also one of the really cool things that’s happening with palaeontology right now, is this thing called “D-Extinction” have you heard of it?
Rose – Yes, but … please explain it if someone hasn’t heard it before.
Liam – So, I’m sure we’ve all watched Jurassic Park yeah?
Rose – Jurassic Park, Jurassic World.
Liam – Yeah so not that extreme, but we’re already doing it today! Which is surprising, yeah? So the best example that I can think of at the moment, is the Yellowstone National Park in America. So when the English colonised America and all that, they decided to drive a lot of the local wolf populations away, because it inhibited agriculture, endangered populations. Whereas the local Americans lived synonymous with them. So what has happened, is basically that the deer population ran rampant, yeah that’s the world.
Rose – Yeah exploded, got lots of them!
Liam – Yeah! Exploded, over-populated, and that you know that’s the thing Rose, as a botanist, you’d understand, you know, if we have a lot of herbivores or grazers what happens to the plants?
Rose – Yeah, if you take them away or you’ve got too many it changes the amount of plants. Yeah.
Liam – Yeah, we’ve got too many grazers that the plants are in crisis, now that the plants are in crisis, the soils no longer stabilise, then if soils not stabilised, we lead to erosion, soil degradation, landscape degradation and then that has impact for aquatic life as we are push sediment into the water… it’s a domino effect.
Rose – Mmm
Liam – Just because we moved one organism from the system. So, guess what they’d done recently?
Rose – (laughs) You can tell me! I want to know!
Liam – I can tell you! They’ve put the wolves back in.
Rose – Wow
Liam – And behold, everything is stabilised. So, it’s kind of like a seesaw, everything needs to be in balance.
Rose – So they went extinct in that area and brought back different ones?
Liam – It’s not a true extinction.
Rose – Yes, so like a localised extinction? Is that the idea?
Liam – So basically, Caucasian people drove them to local regional extinction, in that area; so there were no more wolves living in that area. So that’s the big thing, about with what we are doing with climate change, and trying to understand the science behind it; is we can see the palaeontological record, when things, when an ecosystem isn’t balanced, everything goes out of whack. There’s a lot of pressure on everything, organisms go extinct, and that leads to biotic crises, mass extinctions really, really difficult, yeah.
Rose – So is it safe to say that, people should care about palaeontology because although it’s looking at the past it can help you determine what’s happening now and what might happen in the future.
Liam – Yeah, but it could also help us in the future. So back to the good old Jurassic Park using D.N.A., so permafrost is a really great, so that’s basically ice and soil together and so that’s a really good way to preserve things and so we’ve found complete mammoths preserved.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – Yeah!
Rose – Like a whole big mammoth?
Liam – Whole mammoths and baby mammoths and yeah
Rose – How is a whole big mammoth just hanging out and no one noticed? Where was it? Like was it underground?
Liam – (Laughs) Yeah it gets stuck in the permafrost.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – Yeah, it’s absolutely awesome, it’s like if we put food in the freezer, it preserves it, right? It gets frostbite and things like that, if we leave it in there for years and years and years but it’s still there we’ll take it out, defrost it, it will still defrost, it won’t be as nice…so maybe let’s not have a mammoth steak, but you know it’s still there.
Rose – (Laughs)
Liam – And so the cool thing is that their habitat still exists today.
Rose – In a similar state?
Liam – Ahhh here we go, yeah. In a not so a similar state because very much like removing the wolves from Yellowstone National Park, when the mammoths went extinct; their ecosystem became unbalanced, and so the permafrost started melting and then plants start losing, so the ground’s no longer hard enough for the plants to have stabilised root systems, everything’s kinda slush. When permafrost melts, it actually releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as well; methane, things like that. So the idea is that if we were to reintroduce the mammoth, so bring it back. We’d have to cross it with an Asian elephant, long-haired Asian, that’s the closest living relative to the mammoth and basically reintroduce it back into that area, they compact the ground and restabilise it.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – Yeah so that ecosystem has only become unstablised, because we removed the stabilising factor.
Rose – Do you think realistically that’s something that as a society we’re going to be able to do ethically? Or do you think there will be too much backlash and maybe not be able to get off the ground?
Liam – That’s a really interesting question Rose, and that’s kind of what’s impeding this scientific push forward. You know there are groups that think it’s ethically not right to bring back organisms, and I agree. I don’t think we should bring back things that don’t belong, I completely agree with that. But with something that humans have had a direct impact on, you know. The Tasmanian tiger in Australia, a great example, we drove it to extinction, with the fires over East at the moment, you know, a lot of species are going along the critically endangered list. Testing out this science could theoretically bring back organisms that we as humans were the direct cause for their extinction, you know. So we may not have been the direct cause of the mammoth extinction but we definitely did have an influencing factor. I think a lot of scientists can agree that at least, we had an impact on them, you know, depending on the amount, because there wasn’t really a predator until we decided to hunt them.
Rose – Yeah.
Liam – And then they were good, they provided a lot of food (Laughs). Which is great for our evolution but you know… there is that ethics but that’s a chat we need to have as a society as well as the scientific body, you know, what are the ethics behind it, but all science we have to, anything to do with genetics, like I don’t have to because what I’m dealing with is fossils and things like that, but any people who deal with human biology and things like that you have to go through a very, very, very, very extensive ethics review, code of conducts… yeah, the list goes on. So it is a discussion that needs to be had I think, but I hope that one day we will be able to do it.
Rose – It will be exciting at the very least.
Liam – It would be really exciting! Yeah absolutely exciting to bring back species that, you know, rightfully should be here living with us, not you know, just a name in a book. Yeah.
Rose – Well it will be interesting to see if we end up with dinosaurs (Laughs).
Liam – (laughs) Maybe, maybe not, D.N.A. doesn’t last that long (laughs)
Rose – Are there any misconceptions about palaeontology or maybe palaeontologists?
Liam – Hmmm
Rose – Because for a lot of people the only palaeontologists they know is Ross from Friends.
Liam – (Laughs)
Rose – Is he a good representative?
Liam – (Laughs) Umm surprisingly, a little bit actually. We do give talks at universities and all that. So you know Ross obviously ran a class in palaeontology. I think Ross was a dinosaur specialist though; So he, as I mentioned, there are so many different fields, there will actually be a big team of people, teaching a unit and things like that. So I work at Curtin University with a mammal palaeontologist and things like that. But Ross’ attitude; the lame jokes all the time – that’s us! Yeah.
Rose – (laughs)
Liam – 100% the best palaeontologist, the best scientists are the craziest, wackiest, scientists.
Rose – Who like to express their love for science.
Liam – Exactly (Laughs).
Rose – Is there something that you can think of that you wish people knew about your area of research, even more broadly about palaeontology? Whether it be, you know, that there are different types or something that people seem to get wrong? Is there something you wish people just knew?
Liam – That’s a very, very good question Rose. So it’s really difficult to try and understand, or even to just think about, what a dinosaur might have looked like or just any organism that’s been fossilised right. So the thing is when we fossilise something, mostly we preserve hard materials, so bone. Whereas soft material like hair, skin doesn’t usually preserve. So if we think about it, and we take a skeleton of a, what’s a big…., here we go, an elephant! If we take the skeleton of an elephant, and preserved it, just the skeleton – so not permafrost like mammoths – just the skeleton, we wouldn’t have the trunk preserved!
Rose – Awww.
Liam – No trunk! It would probably be a lot skinnier, because it’s a lot fatter right? Elephants carry a lot of weight on them, so that they don’t have to drink as often, eating things like that and so that’s the thing, there’s a lot of things, like we wouldn’t know they have hair on them.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – And that’s the thing you know to try and understand what past creatures looked like. However, we do get some insight. So we have found preserved feathers on Archaeopteryx as well as a couple of other raptor species as well, so that tells us that maybe most of the raptors might have been feathered and this might have led to that development of feathers for flight. Right so, using feathers first off as insulation so if we think of maybe a baby chicken and they’ve got like lots of little bottom fluff – I like to call it like bottom fluff- and you know as they get older that falls out and they get nice big feathers. That’s kind of the same concept they start off with this very loose feathery assemblage and they evolve into these better feathers that they start adapting for gliding and then now they are starting to use them for flight, they beat their wings now. So it’s very difficult, we usually can’t get colours either.
Rose – Yeah.
Liam – We have found one colour: red. Preserved, yup, but that was in arboreal creatures – so organisms living in trees, which, you know, you think about in America you’ve got the red raccoon, in Australia we’ve got a lot of things that are red as well because of the dirt, so you know, it’s that organism that’s adapting how it looks to better fit in with its environment.
Rose – Interesting, so we need to almost understand more about the environment to make inferences about what they might have looked like?
Liam – Not really, the environment is more about the colour.
Rose – Okay.
Liam – Yeah so, the environment will tell us about colour, patterns things like that, right?
Rose – Yeah
Liam – So if we think about cheetahs- they’re a really good one right, so its yellow with black dots. It would stand out a lot if it was in the snow.
Rose – Yeah.
Liam – Yeah. If it was in the snow it would be white. So we can use environments to infer colours. In terms of how the animal actually looked, we have to rely a lot on the actual fossil itself. If there’s any living relatives of it, you know, trying to figure out a good example is Ammonoids. So they are kind of like Nautiluses that we see today.
Rose – Yep.
Liam – They have the same shell shape and that, so we think the organisms, because we don’t really have any soft material preserved with that, so we think that it’s probably the same, you know, acted the same way, things like that, so you know, yeah, it’s trying to draw as many links as possible. It’s once again this jigsaw puzzle. You have different parts and we’ve got to try and fit as many as we can before we can get a picture, sometimes it’s really hard to get a picture, but we still have to get a picture, so this is the whole science is wrong. Well when we are doing things, we’ll publish a paper and be like, ‘well this is what we think it looked like, and then, ah, oh, no’.
Rose – You’re quite passionate about science communication.
Liam – Yeah (laughs).
Rose – Tell me a little bit about your love of expressing yourself through even clothing and stuff to show how much you love palaeontology, because obviously, podcast we can’t see you.
Liam – So I have a lot of custom bow ties, that I wear, that are all palaeontology inspired. I also have plushies of mammoths, trilobites, I got Archaeopteryx which is the first confirmed bird that discovered feathers, triceratops which were the first species to identify juvenile forms in, Anklosaurs which had the bone clubbed tail and we have an Australia version which was the first complete dinosaur we ever found. You know.
Rose – Wow
Liam – So I wear them a lot with me when I do talks and that and I have a very long list of planning to get dinosaur and palaeontology tattoos as well (laughs)
Rose – Great.
Liam – So the list is endless.
Rose – I think that’s quite a common thing for scientists to want to express their love for what they’ve studied through their appearance or through accessorising. Do you think that helps you engage people in palaeontology?
Liam – Oh 100%, 100%. You know with the little plush toys I have on me, sometimes I put a little one on my back like it’s crawling up my back and I’ll be doing a talk or something, or doing some things with kids and they’ll go, “oh my god! You’ve got something on your back!” and you’re like, “Where?! Where?!”.
Rose – (laughs)
Liam – And so you know, it’s a way to get them drawn into the science is kind of that fun factor.
Rose – To finish up, this is probably the question I’ve been looking forward to asking the most. I would like, and I’m sure everyone would like, a fun fact about palaeontology that you could take to a party, or maybe you’ve just changed the workplace and you need to impress your colleagues or maybe you need to, I don’t know – I work with kids as well – impress a child with a good fun fact about palaeontology. What is your ‘go to’ fun act?
Liam – ‘Go to’ fun fact? Okay I’ve got two. I’ll give you two.
Rose – Ooo two for the price of one!
Liam – Yeah bonus fun fact! So a really cool one is that dinosaurs still exist today.
Rose – Oooo
Liam – Yep, just leave that. So birds are technically still dinosaurs.
Rose – Ahhhh!
Liam – Yeah so dinosaurs did not go extinct. But a major branch of them went extinct, but also a branch continued on to become birds today. So that’s that Archaeopteryx I was talking about the discovery of feathers in dinosaurs, and then we continue on. And if we actually have a look at the skeleton of a chicken; it is very similar to a lot of raptor and that.
Rose – What? Wow! That is a good one, I like that one!
Liam – Yeah! The second one is an Australia specific one, drop bears were real.
Rose – What? Okay!
Liam – (laughs) Knew I’d get that reaction!
Rose – (laughs) Okay I’m really glad you gave us two! What’s the – please explain!
Liam – Yeah! It was not called a drop bear, it was called Thylacoleo carnifex.
Rose – Pphft
Liam – Pphft, it’s a big name, it’s a big name.
Rose – Yeah.
Liam – But basically what it means is; Thylaco is Thylacine – it’s an Australian version of
mammal. Leo means ‘lion like’ and I can’t remember what carnifex means (laughs) and that’s okay!
Rose – That’s okay.
Liam – But basically we have a lion-like mammal and so this is very closely related, believe it or not, to wombats.
Rose – Ahh wow.
Liam – Yep (laughs)
Rose – What did it look like? And where did it live?
Liam – Lived in trees. (laughs) So what we’re looking at is kind of, it would have been up to, probably higher than our chairs tall, it would have been standing.
Rose – Okay, so like a meter tall?
Liam – Yeah.. yeah maybe? Maybe a little lower, it has opposable thumbs like us.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – But massive claws on the opposable thumbs.
Rose – Huh.
Liam – So kind of you know how we think of raptors with the big slicing claws? But it would use these claws and ones on its feet to climb trees.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – So, what it would do, yeah, it would climb trees and it had a big, heavy tail like a kangaroo for stabilisation.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – It would basically, what we think, is that it jumps out the trees and would attack its prey.
Rose – That’s a drop bear!
Liam – THAT’S A DROP BEAR! Right! (laughs)
Rose – Wow! That’s fantastic!
Liam – Yeah!
Rose – What was the evidence for that animal?
Liam – So we found complete skeletons in South Australia, in caves, which is awesome. The really cool thing about it is, so if we think of lions, cats, dogs, they have big canines, correct?
Even us as humans we still have canines. Because Thylacoleo carnifex evolved from herbivores – so only ate veggies – so it had no canines whatsoever, it didn’t have canines. What it did have, was incisors like ours, M3s, which are just before your molars.
Rose – Yeah
Liam – And molars! And so basically what happened was, much like a rat it got very, very big incisors and its M3s basically so that’s their premolar, became like big bolt cutters and so that would sheer through bone.
Rose – Wow, that’s terrifying! (laughs)
Liam – Terrifying but cool! But yeah so that would take out organisms like wombats the size of
big four-wheel drives.
Rose – Wow.
Liam – Diprotodon, yeah! And kangaroos the size of trees, and probably the size of this roof is how big some kangaroos were and this thing. Even though it was a lot smaller than them, it was nice, big, strong-shouldered, and yeah, drop, dropped out the tree! (laughs).
Rose – Secret attack! Well, thank you for joining us today, Liam.
Liam – Thank you so much for having me Rose.
**Cue music – close out.
Rose – Thank you for listening to the Particle Podcast. You can check out more of our content on all of the socials as well as at particle.scitech.org.au. This episode was recorded as always in the beautiful science hub that is Western Australia. Particle is powered by Scitech.