1984 …2024

Research activity per year

Personal profile

Research Biography

I research the early evolution of vertebrates in order to unravel the early stages of how the modern vertebrate body plan was assembled. Many parts of our human anatomy had their origins back in the Early Palaeozoic (540-350 million years ago). This was when jaws, teeth, paired limbs, ossified brain-cases, intromittent genital organs,chambered hearts and paired lungs all appeared in early fishes. For the past 30 years I have been collecting from the Gogo sites in northern Western Australia, whose perfectly preserved 3-D fish fossils have yielded many significant discoveries, including mineralised soft tissues and the origins of complex sexual reproduction in vertebrates.

Current research projects include describing new Late Devonian Gogo fishes and reconstructing their soft tissue anatomy (with Assoc. Prof. K. Trinajstic, Curtin Univ.), Early Devonian fishes from Taemas, NSW (with Prof Gavin Young, ANU), and investigating the role of trace elements in mass extinction events (with Prof. Ross Large, U.Tas). I completed my 3rd field season in Antarctica over 2016/17 and will be heading down again over 2018/19 with the USAP program working with Prof Neil Shubin from the University of Chicago.

Our latest ARC Discovery Grants will enable us to determine the timing and origins of two key sensory systems in early fossil vertebrates: electroreception and nocturnality, as well as the origin of tetrapods in Gondwana, working with colleagues from the US, UK, China, Sweden and Spain. I am the author of some 26 adult and children's books, including non-fiction and fiction. My most recent book Hung Like an Argentine Duck (Harper Collins 2011, Dawn of the Deed, U.Chicago Press, PB 2014) gives an account of our Gogo discoveries of the world's oldest embryos and early sexual dimorphism in vertebrates, and explores the relevance of fossils to understanding sex in a broad evolutionary context.

Research Interests

I research the early evolution of vertebrates (fishes and early tetrapods) with a particular focus on Devonian age material (359-409 million years ago) as Australia has some exceptional sites of this age with superb 3-D preservation of bones and, in some cases, mineralised soft tissues. My focus has been largely on the exquisitely preserved fishes from the Gogo Formation of Western Australia, studying placoderms, early ray-finned fishes, onychodontids,lungfishes and Gogonasus, a stem tetrapod.

Our recent finds include the origins of copulation in vertebrates (Microbrachius dicki), the  placoderm Materpiscis attenboroughi, the oldest known vertebrate mother with an embryo preserved plus the first sharks, coelacanth and acanthodian fishes from the Gogo Formation (see Long & Trinajstic 2010 for a review of the fauna). I have also worked on early fish faunas from material collected in Antarctica, South-East Asia, China, South Africa, Morocco and Iran, as well as published a scattering of other papers on dinosaurs, ancient marine reptiles and prehistoric mammals.

I'm looking for students interested in tackling problems at the very base of the vertebrate evolutionary tree, like the origin and evoloution of limbs, teeth, jaws, breathing, braincases, electroreception, nocturnality, and complex reproductive strategies - to determine how the higher vertebrate body plan and physiologically advanced behaviours first evolved.

To do this we study remarkably well-preserved fossils of fishes from the Palaeozoic Era (mainly Devonian period, 408-359 million years ago). Our PhD programs typically involve active field work at fossil sites throughout Australia (eg Gogo, Kimberley, central Queensland, the mountains of Victoria, the south coast NSW), and use of cutting edge techniques (micro-CT scanning, synchrotron imaging, isotopic analysis).

Supervised Students Successes

  • Feb 2016 Benedict King - Best student paper award 2016


  • Registered

Research Areas

  • Ecology and conservation
  • Evolutionary biology and palaeontology

Supervisory Interests

  • Vertebrate palaeontology
  • Palaeontology, advanced imaging techniques
  • Evolution of the early vertebrate body plan
  • Early fish and tetrapod evolution


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