Discover Diamantinasaurus, a type of titanosaur or long-necked dinosaur from the age of dinosaurs and outback Queensland! Adele speaks with a true pal in palaeo, Sam Beeston about how she became a palaeontologist, her work on Diamantinasaurus and a juvenile of this species, plus her upcoming PhD in the UK at the University College London.
Adele Pentland (00:00.194)
Today on the show, we are talking to an Age of Dinosaurs museum alumni and good mate of mine, Samantha Beeston, aka Sam Rigby, aka Sassy Sam. This episode, we talk about Diamantinasaurus, the advantages of working in the outback and analysing big old bones with 3D scanners. Pals in Palaeo presents Diamantinasaurus with Sam Beeston.
Adele Pentland (00:33.398)
This is Pals in Paleo, a podcast on the form, function, and family groupings of fossils filled with tangents and pop culture references. I'm your host, palaeontologist, PhD student, and dinosaur digger Adele Pentland. To keep up to date with the show and learn more about fossils, you can follow me on Instagram @palsinpaleo.
Adele Pentland (01:07.874)
Pals and Paleo acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land throughout Australia and their connections to land, sky, water, and community. We recognize that First Nations peoples are the first scientists, technologists, and engineers of this land. We pay our respect to the elders past, present, and emerging and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today. This episode was recorded on Koa Country in Winton, central western Queensland, and specimens of Diamantinasaurus are also found on Koa Country.
Adele Pentland (01:43.406)
In today's episode, we are going back in time and exploring the Cretaceous stomping grounds of Outback, Queensland. Specifically, we're discussing one of the most commonly found fossils from the wind information, dinosaur bones belonging to the sauropod species Diamantinasaurus. So they're about 96 million years old, give or take a couple million years.
In case you missed the episode on Savannasaurus with Dr. Steve Poropat episode 9, a sauropod is a dinosaur with a long neck and a long tail, and they do tend to be pretty big. In fact, this group includes the largest animals to walk the face of the earth. If you're still having trouble picturing what a sauropod looks like, think of Littlefoot from The Land Before Time or Arlo from the Disney Pixar film The Good Dinosaur. He was also a type of sauropod.
And there’s also a sauropod emoji. It's the blue one next to the T rex. Of all the sauropod species I can think of, I'm most familiar with Diamantinasaurus. It was one of the nominees for Queensland's state fossil emblem, but in the end another dinosaur, Muttaburrasaurus, was crowned as the winner. I've seen a lot of fossils of Diamantinasaurus because I've done fieldwork with the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum, which is how I met Sam.
Adele Pentland (03:05.078)
Before we dive into that interview though, and get the facts on the form, function, and family grouping of Diamantinasaurus, it's adventure time. Just kidding. It's actually time for our Random Fossil Fact. If this is your first time listening to Pals and Paleo, this is the part of the show where I go on a tangent on purpose, as opposed to the billion other tangents I tend to go on.
Today's Random Fossil Fact to tie in with our sauropod theme and Sam's love of vertebrae is that dinosaur bones make an appearance in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Not actual dinosaur bones, but replica neck vertebrae or neck bones of Diplodocus, which are probably based on the famous specimen that's nicknamed Dippy. So in the context of the movie, C-3PO is wandering around the deserts of Tatooine, Luke Skywalker's home planet, and there's this big skeleton on one of the sand dunes with a long neck.
In the Star Wars universe, that beast is a Krayt Dragon, but that particular scene which pops up in, I don't know, the first five or so minutes, was actually filmed in Tunisia. And as it turns out, they used replica bones of Diplodocus, but when they were done filming, for whatever reason, they just left them there. Honestly, it's not great for the environment, but these were then later rediscovered by a few folks, including some palaeontologists.
Imagine going out into the field looking for fossils and you find fake bones left over from a movie set. Like, what are the chances? I mentioned before that these replicas are probably based on Diplodocus carnegii. Can't be absolutely certain, but Dippy is the most famous Diplodocus specimen out there, so it makes sense.
I actually remember hearing about this fact a while ago, but I double checked this using a blog post written by Matt Lamanna for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and one written by Matt Wedel, who's the man behind Sauropod vertebrae picture of the week. If you want to read either of those posts, there'll be links to them in the show notes. Speaking of beautiful bones and sauropod vertebrae, let's hear more about some Australian sauropods and the juvenile specimen of Diamantinasaurus with our guest Sam Beeston.
Adele: This is Pals in Paleo, a podcast on paleontology filled with facts on the form, function, and family groupings of insanely cool and underrated fossils. We also get to speak with experts in the field about the extinct plants and animals they work on. And on today's show, I have special guests, Samantha Beeston, formerly known as Samantha Rigby. laughter She's laughing because we just coached me through how to do this. Sam's a really good mate of mine and she's back from the big smoke, stopping through Winton before she moves to the UK and we're here to chat about some sauropod dinosaurs.
So Sam and I first met through the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History in Outback Queensland and through that we've done field work together, helping run dinosaur digs, trying to supervise volunteers as best we can and protect the fossils.
And we were both post-grad students at Swinburne University of Technology, which is in Melbourne. For those of you who are new here, I'm currently doing my PhD, but last year Sam submitted her master's thesis and that project was supervised by Dr. Stephen Poropat, who you might remember from our episode on Savannasaurus. I also have the tendency to call Steve Dino Dad, and it's kind of catching. There's a bunch of us who does that.
But Sam was also supervised by Professor Pat Vickers-Rich, who's on my supervisory team. Her thesis, which is tens of thousands of words long, including heaps of incredibly detailed 3D models of fossils was basically flawless. But we'll get to that a little bit later. And she published her first paper as lead author last year on a juvenile Diamantinasaurus, nicknamed Oliver or Ollie, which is Australia's smallest sauropod dinosaur.
Sam: Thanks for that gas up.
Adele: No, I'm not done yet. Soon, Sam will be starting her PhD at the University College London on a scholarship and will be supervised by sauropod expert, Dr. Philip Mannion and continuing research on long neck dinosaurs. How's that for a summary?
S: As I said, that's a gas up. Make me sound a lot better than I actually am.
A: Here to hype you up.
S: Thank you. We're just here to bring each other up.
A: Welcome to my Mojo Dojo Casa house.
S: Thank you. Love to be here.
A: It's really nice to be talking with you at 10 a.m. in the morning and we're both feeling alive.
S: laughing Not too hungover. You know, we had a few drinks around the fire last night, but we're doing well.
A: Yeah, so we're here to talk about Australian sauropods, which is basically what you work on. So think Littlefoot from The Land Before Time, but instead of America, we're dealing with fossils from the early Cretaceous period of Queensland. But before we get into that and your work on dinosaurs, I want folks to hear a little bit more about you and your path into paleontology.
I know that when you were working at Australian Age of Dinosaurs, for lots of the kids, particularly the girls who would see you working in the lab in action, overseeing the volunteers, prepping dinosaur fossils, it was really inspiring and just, yeah, kind of mind blowing to be like, “Oh, not all palaeontologists are older guys”. Just seems that there's still this idea that most palaeontologists are men, but we're slowly seeing that change over time. When you were younger, did you dream of becoming a palaeontologist and were there folks in your life that encourage you to study science and pursue paleontology?
S: Absolutely. So I was that annoying kid that was like, I'm gonna study dinosaurs.
A: And knew all the names and-
S: No, I wasn't that bad actually. I think I just liked fossils and digging for stuff.
A: You also had a rock collection as well.
S: Well, only a little bit older.
S: Yeah. Not when I was like a kid.
S: Um, but no, I wasn't, I had like all the dinosaur books, but I wasn't necessarily sprouting out all of their ridiculous names, but my mom's favourite story to tell people is that when I might've been about four, have I ever told you this before?
A: I don't think so. I'm keen.
S: My parents must've been doing some sort of excavating in our backyard. Like they were doing some stuff and there was a digger.
A: Like a machine?
S: Like the machine, like a digger. I don't know what their proper name is.
A: I don't know.
S: A caterpillar digger thing. Yeah. It had a scoop-
A: Today's episode sponsored by Caterpillar.
S: Yeah, I wish. And mum says I was just so fascinated by this digger and that it was, you know, digging stuff up out of the ground. And I just wanted to get into the ground and be like, “Oh, what's under there” sort of thing. So I think I always liked rocks. And I used to eat dirt and sand probably when I was a bit younger than four, maybe when I was like a little toddler. But my mom has pictures of me eating dirt. So big vibes.
A: It's been a part of your life.
S: Yeah, I just love eating dirt. I have slowly grown out of that, I think.
A: Yeah, as palaeontologists though, there's running jokes of, except for things that contain uranium of like licking rocks or I know to tell the difference between silt and clay, I think it is, it's like you put it on your back molars.
A: Ah, this is news to you.
A: Okay. Apparently the grain size difference between clay and silt, if you just take a little sample on your finger and put it on the teeth right at the back of your mouth and you kind of grind it up.
A: If you can feel it's kind of gritty, it's silt, but if you can't feel it, it's clay.
S: I feel like there could be so many better ways that you could determine the difference between clay and silt than sticking it in your mouth, right?
A: I think it's like, this is probably wrong, but I think it's 1/256th of a millimetre indifference or something. It's meant to be so minute that you can't detect it with the naked eye.
A: Anyway, I think I've licked-
S: Straight in the mouth.
A: I think I've licked a mine wall because it was kind of salty. I was doing a geology field trip as well. It's not like I just look at a rock and be like, “mm, give me some of that”.
S: To anyone that loves eating dirt, go into geology.
A: Yeah, you'll do a lot.
S: You will go far.
S: What were you even talking about?
A: The people that encouraged you. I think your grandmother as well was like a big supporter.
S: Yeah, well, my parents obviously both were and I'm very fortunate having parents that still support me to this day. I know that it can be a lot harder for some kids growing up, their parents have a specific idea of the job that they want them to get into.
A: I'm a mechanic, so you will be a mechanic.
S: Yeah, my parents are very much like, if this is what you wanna do, do it. You have to work hard to be able to make it happen.
S: Especially back when I was a kid, paleontology in Australia was nowhere near as big as it is today, simply because no one knew as much about the existence of fossils in Australia. So I think my parents were realistic in saying, “It's gonna be difficult for you”.
A: But they didn't dissuade you or like try and get you onto another path or anything like that.
S: Exactly, Yeah. And every birthday and Christmas, I got at least some sort of dinosaur related present.
S: So my mum was big on the merch for all dino things.
A: Good job, Sharon.
S: Yeah, we love Shaz. And my godmother, she wanted to do marine biology or something when she was younger. As my mum did, I think it was sort of the vibe at that time. Everyone was just big into marine biology, but neither of them ever pursued that. So I think my godmother is quite scientific. So she used to... We always used to go to the museum and with mum as well.
A: And you grew up in Brisbane.
S: In Brisbane, yeah. So Queensland Museum was the place to be. But my godmother took me to a talk that I think Mike Archer and a couple of other paleo's were doing this talk when I would have been in high school.
A: It sounds like something Mike Archer would do because he still gives like a few talks today.
S: Yeah, so that was really cool. And then of course I knew about Australian Age of Dinosaurs as a kid. And for my 16th birthday present, my grandmother surprised me and said, let's go to Winton. And so we came on this crazy trip-
A: Road trip?
S: We flew to Longreach and then we got a hire car and drove to Winton. And then we did the Dinosaur Trail. So we went out to Hughenden and then out to Richmond. And I knew that I wanted to do paleo, cause this was probably about grade 11. And my school was very much like, you need to have a goal and a path.
S: So at my school, they made probably in grade 12, like middle of grade 12. So it was probably too late by then anyway, because you have to apply to uni and all that stuff. But they made every single kid in the grade go and have a meeting with a careers counsellor. And by that stage, I already knew I was gonna go to Macquarie. I was gonna do these subjects like yada yada. I had my whole plan. And I sat down and she said, “Oh hi”, like they didn't know who any of us were.
S: And she said, what's your plan? What do you want to do? I gave her my step-by-step and she said, “Oh, okay, so what's paleontology?”
A: Oh boy.
S: And I was just like, you have dragged me out of my class to come and have this conversation with you and I'm helping you understand what I want to do. Like, isn't it supposed to be the other way? And I mean, that was okay because I think for any science, you have to be so self-driven and you have to be like, this is what I'm going to do. It's not, it's handed to you and this is the pathway that you need to take.
So I don't hold it against her. I'm not holding a grudge because whether or not I had have had that meeting, I would still be in the same place.
S: So I'm unbothered.
A: You knew what you wanted to do.
S: Yeah, yeah. And visiting Age of Dimes was when I was 16 was awesome. I was just like, hell yes. Like this is where it's going on. This is the place to be. And that was like probably 10 years ago now.
A: Yeah, and it still has that energy of growing, expanding.
A: So yeah, Macquarie University. Now that is in?
S: Sydney. Yeah, so at the bright-eyed age of 17, I moved out of home.
A: Oh, that's right. I forget that in Queensland when you finish year 12, you're 17, because in Victoria it's 18.
S: Well they've changed it now.
A: Okay, yeah so I think make them in line with the rest of Australia.
S: So I think that kids in Queensland are now 18, but I was 17.
A: Wild time to start uni.
S: Yeah little baby was honestly really sad. So all of my friends were 18 and I was still 17 and I'm like well guess I won't go to the clubs and I'll just stay home and be sad.
S: But that's okay because my birthday is in April, so it was only a couple of months. But I think that my mother was pretty happy about that. She's like, “Oh no, you can't go out”.
A: Can't get up to mischief.
S: Yes, after she left me on the door in Sydney and was like, “Oh god, what am I doing? Leaving my 17-year-old in Sydney on her own.”
A: My baby.
A: Because you're the youngest as well.
S: Yeah, so. My sister still lived at home at that stage.
A: Oh, wow. That would have been, yeah.
S: So the youngest one moved out first. Yeah, terrifying. But again, my parents were so supportive and were like, you want to move to Sydney? All right, let's make it happen. Because in Queensland, there wasn't any paleo really going on, not for undergrad anyway. So at that time... My options were either UNE in Armidale. I think Flinders was just starting to take off.
A: Oh really? That's wild because Flinders to me now is so...
S: The biggest.
S: But maybe I didn't have enough information because everything that I was finding was my own research. There were no... Like we would go to career days.
A: So it didn't have a little pamphlet.
S: No, there was no pamphlet. Or when you would go to like, you know, and they'd have all the booths around, they had nothing. I would like get the pamphlet for science for like UQ and QUT, which are the universities in Brisbane. And they were like, yeah, you can do biology or geology or wildlife or something. And I'm like, I don't care about live ones. I just want the dead ones.
A: They're a lot easier to fix.
S: Yeah. And so when I was weighing up, I was like, do I want to move to Sydney or do I want to move to Armidale? And 17-year-old me with the world in front of me was like, you know what, I think I'd rather go to Sydney and live it up for a few years. So that's what I did.
A: So the course at Macquarie University, was it? Paleobiology?
S: Yeah, so it was a Bachelor of Science with a major in paleobiology. And I think I was one of maybe 10 kids that were doing paleobiology. So a lot of my subjects had overlap with kids that were doing marine biology, geology, environmental stuff. They were all sort of linked. And I don't think many people only had their major as paleobiology.
I think some of them had minors in geology and... other things, it was very mixed, but the degree doesn't even exist at Macquarie anymore. Post-COVID, they essentially combined like three different faculties. So I'm lucky that I was there when I was, because I wouldn't be able to do the same thing today.
A: Yeah, it's unfortunate that COVID has had such like a detrimental effect on, I guess, the university sector in Australia, particularly because for anyone listening who isn't familiar with what happens at universities in Australia, a lot of the income comes from international students. So when the borders closed-
S: They lost a lot of money.
A: Yeah, and like our supervisor, Steve, was affected by that too. I would like to think that if that hadn't happened, Swinburne might have kept him on.
S: Yeah. A lot of the time when there are cuts like that, unfortunately it is sort of sciences and the arts that get taken away first, but I guess that's just life in the fast lane. Can't really do anything about it. But yeah, at Macquarie, a lot of my subjects weren't necessarily paleontology.
I think that there might've been three, in my three year course, because paleontology really brings in so many different fields. You need to have a base knowledge of biology and geology and all these other things. It's like a triangle where you got to get the base and then sort of move up to be able to specialize.
A: You need to read the rocks to place your fossils in context because without that you might miss some really key major things.
A: And obviously you're studying what was once a living animal, so it pays to know how is it moving and then what big group does it fit into as well.
S: And also anatomy. All that.
S: We definitely did subjects that I thought were quite irrelevant, but that's just because I didn't care about them.
A: We were chatting about this before we hit record. Was that the stats course or?
S: Yeah, well I do invertebrate biology.
S: As well as vertebrate biology. Vertebrate was okay because I'm a big backbone girl, but invertebrate biology was difficult for me because I simply just don't care about bugs and I know that bugs have their place. We love bugs.
A: They outnumber us. We appreciate our ant overlords and all arthropods.
S: I welcome the arthropod overlords, but they're just not my niche. So I found that really difficult because a lot of uni or like sort of the education system is memorizing things.
A: Yeah. It doesn't really teach critical thinking. My thoughts undergrad doesn't really teach a lot of critical thinking. I don't feel like I got a real taste for that and discovered that I loved it until I did honours and my own research project essentially.
S: Totally, yeah, I think so much of that particular class why I struggled is because we had to learn the genus and species of each.
A: Ooh, that's a lot.
S: Like whatever.
A: Quite a lot of detail.
S: Like a beetle is like Coleoptera or something like that. All of those for grasshoppers and any sort of different bugs. And I was like, I just simply don't care. So it's really hard to be able to memorize something that you don't care about.
A: Yeah, I’m very much like that as well so...
S: Yeah. But you have to do that class because in doing that class, I knew that is what I didn't wanna do. So I think it's still really important to do all of these different things because a girl that I was friends with my class, she was doing paleo as well.
And I was so excited to meet her because I hadn't met anyone else that was actually doing the major in paleo because the classes were so broad. But she's now doing research on bees.
A: Oh cool!
S: So she obviously was doing these classes and was like, “Hell yeah!” I think that my niche is going to be bees. So even though you can go into something with one idea, a lot of the time you find out that it is something else that you do like.
A: I cannot wait for the mic to pick up. The chaotic sounds of my husband, potentially your husband as well, and our friend Silky who is coming along for the...
S: Keeping themselves occupied.
A: Yeah. I think they might have moved their cows. Happy for them.
S: We had to send the kids out to play while the mums have the important chat.
A: So you finished up at Macquarie. Did you do a post-grad there? No, you just did your undergrad there.
S: No, just undergrad. We skipped stats. We didn't talk about the trauma.
A: Oh, we can go back and get into-
S: The trauma of biostat. I've just been talking about the subjects that I didn't like. Sounds really negative. I did like lots of subjects.
A: Knowing what I know about you, another big part of being at Macquarie is you also got to see a 3D handheld scanner in action. And that planted a seed for your masters.
S: Yes, so that must have been towards the end of my last year there. And I think that they were trying to teach us a bit more sort of about concepts for like future research or techniques that can be used for future research.
And we had one prac, and it must have been an afternoon prac and they whipped out this scanner and they were scanning. I think it was like a little trilobite in a concretion.
A: So the trilobite was, you could see it on the outer surface though. It wasn't X-raying it.
S: No, no.
A: It was a surface scan.
S: Yeah, it's a surface scan. And I was watching, I was like, “Oh yeah, that's pretty cool”, but we had a ball or something that night.
S: Yeah, no, there was some sort of party going on that night. It must've been a Friday or something. And so I was just really checking the time and I was like, “Oh yeah, scanner. Like, oh yeah, that's pretty cool. I really need to go home and get ready and have a shower.”
And so my priorities were elsewhere, but I took, I think two photos on my phone. And lo and behold, a year later, I would go back to those photos and be like, hey, remember that? half an hour thing that happened in my life. I really think that this could be a major part of my life for the next few years.
A: Spoiler alert, you spent what, over a hundred hours using something like that?
S: It was like six months. Yeah, a hundred hours would be nothing.
A: Yeah, okay, great.
S: It was like six months of my life.
A: We can get into that trauma later.
A: But yeah, we were also bonding before, even though I did not go to Macquarie University, I think it's also very common for universities to get their science students to do some form of maths. And it always just seems to be stats.
A: Which is ironic to me now as a palaeontologist, because I often work with a sample size of N equals one.
A: And it's like stats, out the window.
S: Well, I mean, statistics are so important in everything.
A: Yes. And I can see how they underpin the importance of is this difference worth noticing or is it not? What's my p-value telling me?
S: Exactly and you know the quantitative qualitative data and all of that.
S: But unfortunately with science you can never fully escape maths. It's always just living rent-free in the area. As much as you try to avoid it, it really does just come back. But I had to do statistics and then I had to do biostatistics which was more related to actual samples related to biological issues.
A: I would guess that it actually has examples rather than just made up nonsense.
S: Pure mathematical statistics. The good thing about stats is for the final exam, they let us have one A4 page that was like your cheat sheet.
A: Oh, excellent. I love when they do this.
S: So I think I spent my entire time fitting. I can have really small handwriting if I want, cause they're like, you can put anything on it, you can highlight it, underline it, do whatever you want. And I managed to fit examples of like everything. And so I walked in, you couldn't even see paper on this cheat sheet. It was just full words, but then other people just walked in, they just didn't care or they had like one or two things written on it.
S: What makes me most sad is that these people are probably going to get better grades than I do.
A: Oh, I hate those people.
S: They're naturally smart people.
A: And sometimes they're really nice too. And it's like, I just really want to hate you. It's very hard to hate you. You're making it very difficult right now.
S: Yeah. But Tom, my husband, is very mathematical and he'll just do the maths in his head. And I'm just like, “Oh, I hate you”. I'm just I'm so jealous that my brain doesn't work that way.
A: Your brain works in other fantastic ways.
S: Beautiful ways. Yes, exactly.
A: And then biostats, was that when you had to use, is it called R?
S: Yeah, the program is R and it's basically coding. You would literally have to write a code and then it would pop out a graph. So it was like full regression and statistical analysis and stuff. And I can't code. I classify myself as a millennial. So the Gen Z are probably a bit better with-
A: Based on your choice in pants at the moment, I think it's safe to say you're definitely more millennial.
S: My pyjama pants. Corduroy.
A: We were arguing about jorts last night, which are jean shorts. Anyway, we're not here to talk about jorts. We're here to talk about dinosaurs. And at the moment we're talking about R.
S: Yeah, that was a really traumatic time.
A: I know you have sent many praises to the folks who have posted like YouTube videos.
S: Yeah. And I think I had to do an assignment. It might've been a group assignment with me and this other girl. And I remember we were in the library at the uni.
A: Is it Tiff?
A: Oh, okay.
S: No, my friend, her name was Mel. And we-
A: Shout out Mel.
S: Yeah, we were in the library and I think everyone else was gone. It was probably like 1 a.m. And this assignment was due that next day. And we were both on YouTube having full mental breakdowns because we're trying to do this coding on R and it's not giving us a graph. It's not coming out right. And we're both literally just like, well, I guess we're failing, but we somehow managed to get through it and we passed.
A: Sometimes that's all you need is like a passing grade for some things. Obviously, you can try and do that for everything, but I personally wouldn't recommend it. But yeah, sometimes you just need to get your pass in a subject that doesn't really gel with how your brain works and move on.
S: And you can still gain that understanding and appreciation for that side of it. And my thought process was always, well, if I really need a statistician, is that the word, then I'll pay someone to do my statistics. Someone that's a lot more qualified and smarter than I am.
A: Or just collab with them.
S: Oh yeah, you can always outsource.
A: You can be a co-author.
A: Do all this work, I'll put you as a co-author on this paper.
S: Yeah, exactly. And that's probably a good thing about science is you are allowed to work together and it doesn't all have to be entirely your work. If you're really bad at one thing, you can go and talk to your friend and be like, hey, want to work with me on this? And you can do this little Easter egg part.
A: Yeah. And the real world is open book as well. You don't have to just memorize it.
A: I do not memorize the geologic time scale. Why would I? And then it changes.
A: I was about to do my presentation in Perth and I did a practice run through with Jake and he's like, this has changed now. You need to go back and fix it.
S: Oh, no.
A: But I… thank gosh he told me.
A: I don't know.
S: No, I have the geological time scale as my, what is it? The picture on-
A: Your background.
S: The background of my laptop, because I would always have to be referencing it and, my God. I just couldn't be bothered getting this photo up all the time. So I think since undergrad, it has been the background of every laptop I've ever had. As soon as I like buying a laptop, I straight on to whatever the latest geological time scale is, because, as you say, they update it like every year.
A: So after you finished at Macquarie University, is that when you then moved to Winton?
S: So I graduated the end of 2018 and then I moved back home. And because I knew that Age of Dinosaur was always an intake of tour guides towards the start of the year for obviously their season. So since I was 16, I was kind of keeping tabs on what they were up to.
S: So literally my plan when I was in high school that I would have told my guidance counsellor, was that I was going to go to Macquarie, do my three year degree, and then go to Winton, work as a tour guide, and then figure out life from there. But also, I'm such a little nerd. I think I probably haven't ever told you this. For one of my subjects at uni, we had to do a cover letter for a job.
A: Oh, that's very practical that they got you to do that. I appreciate that.
S: Yeah. And we had to do, I think it's called an elevator pitch or something.
S: And so. We had to do a talk in front of the class and talk about how wonderful we were and whatever, why we're so right for this job. And I actually emailed the age of dinosaurs HR who it was actually Kat Fleming we love. And I said, Hey, I'm doing this uni course and I need to apply for a job. Can I have the employment packet or whatever it is? Yeah. And so I did that at uni.
S: And Kat's response to me was like, best of luck. I hope to see your cover letter in next year's round of applications sort of thing. So that was really cute. And then I did actually apply for the job and obviously I got it. And so by April, because I had to go back down to Sydney to have my graduation.
A: Oh that's right.
S: Yeah. So I was supposed to start in Winton a bit earlier, but I was like, got to go to grad. Got to get that grad picture, you know.
A: I've worked for this.
A: This is my moment in the sun.
S: Yeah, exactly. Cause at Macquarie, they have this big lake. And so all of the graduation photos in front of the lake. So it's a big thing. At like the MQ grad lake photo. It's like the iconic photo that you had to get. So I was like, you know, I've paid a lot of money to-
A: You're not going to get a lake photo in Winton. I'll say that much.
S: Just Long Waterhole in the background. Brown muddy dam. Beautiful. It's not the same aesthetic.
A: Hits different and the flies I'm guessing would have been out in force in Winton.
S: But in non-existent Sydney. So yeah, I actually moved to Winton. My mum and I went on a road trip on my 21st birthday. We left Brisbane on my 21st birthday.
A: All your big milestones like circle around Aged Dinosaurs.
S: I know. It's the centre of the world, really.
A: Can't wait to have you come back for your 30th. Oh, I probably would be back by then, hey, I feel so old.
A: Yeah, who would want to have turned 30?
S: In two weeks.
A: It's not two weeks time. Anyway, it's not about me. This is your episode.
S: So yeah, I moved to Winton and was immediately enthralled. I was so excited to be involved in anything and the dig would have been sort of the end of May. So I might've been there for like a month or two months at most. And I went out on the dig.
The first dig was the Anne site and Anne has most recently been described as a Diamantinasaurus by Steve Poropat, our supervisor. Dino Dad, we love him. So that is super special that I'm involved in that project now.
A: Yeah, you were a co-author on that paper describing Anne as a Diamantinasaurus. And you also got to be part of the dig.
S: Which is such a lovely little full circle moment. But I remember I was dealing with Milton.
A: For anyone who doesn't know Milton, Milton is basically a grandfather to all. He is fantastic. You know how older gentlemen have sort of like they're jumpers, but they're kind of like faded. They've had them for ages. That's Milton. He wears New Balance shoes and-
S: High-waisted jeans.
A: Not quite going up to his armpits.
S: But pretty high up.
A: Yeah. And he's very sassy.
S: He is, he's quiet, but he has some good zingers.
A: Oh, his zingers will floor you sometimes too. And then when he volunteers at the museum, I think you told me this, sometimes he'll get up early in the morning and go around and pick up rubbish that people have left carelessly. He's just happy to…
S: Yeah, he's an angel. But I think that he was happy to show me, show me the ropes on the dig. And I was finding these awful bits of bone, but at the time I was so excited because it was like the first bit of bone that I had ever found. And I was-
A: It's your bit of bone.
S: Exactly, I was so excited. And honestly, someone probably just threw it over their shoulder.
A: It was probably Milton. Yeah.
S: But I was so excited just to be involved.
A: Milton also knows his stuff. He prepped a dinosaur tooth that I found a sauropod tooth… he’s really good on the tools and he's done at least. probably 11 or 12 now digs with Australian-aged dinosaurs.
S: Well his first dig was the Ollie dig.
A: Oh, geez. We'll talk about Ollie later.
S: Yeah, how cute's that? So when I was working, basically I was stoked to be in the lab, obviously, because that's where all of the new findings are happening. And I think I was getting little Easter eggs into the containers, the collection containers.
A: It's very exciting when you're a tour guide and someone says, do you want to go into the one of the containers where we have all the stuff that isn't on display and there's just trays and trays and trays.
S: So many fossils and so many fossils that I didn't know existed. And so when I was going through and being shown, I'm pretty sure Steve might've been taking some people through further digs. Yeah, that sounds about right. And so I just tagged along and was like, “Oh, what's going on in here?” And so much of what Steve has shown to people of these sauropods, because mostly what we're finding in Winton are sauropods because they are chunky boys.
A: Big. Noticeable. Robust. Yeah. Can survive the black soil, which is a whole thing.
S: Yeah. And he was naming all of these different sauropods. And in my head, I was like, why aren't these published? I was like, why can't we talk about these to anyone? And I think the ideas were sort of bubbling away.
A: It’s all coming together.
S: And I was just kind of thinking then around now and then I'd have a little flashback to that little half an hour prac I had with that scanner. And I think I just eventually came up with the idea for my masters or that I could do some sort of project and get all of this stuff published because I thought it was so important. And we could potentially be missing out on so much information.
And so I pitched that to Tricky Trish Sloan, we love her too, the collections manager at the time. And she was basically like, “Hell yeah, let's do this”. Go and talk to David, the founder. And he was like, “Oh yeah, righto, sounds good.”
A: Oh yeah, whatever you wanna do.
S: And I pitched the idea that the museum would buy this $30,000 scanner and... a laptop to go with it and they're like, yeah, right. How do we make this happen?
S: And so the support in that regard was amazing as well. They could see the value in it.
S: And I think that that's really important as well, that you can pitch these ideas and at any stage they could have been like, oh, probably not. And I would have been like, “right”. But then I probably would have just come up with some other idea.
A: Yeah, you would have adapted and you wouldn't have been discouraged. And you would have just been like, I'm going to make this happen.
S: Yeah. So if I can't do it this way, I'm going to find some other way to do it. I probably would have tried to work out doing photogrammetry or something like that. But that just takes so much longer.
S: Then the actual scanning process.
A: Yeah. And Australian Aged Dinosaurs is also very fortunate in that we don't only have Milton, like we have a bunch of hardcore supporters and Denise O'Boyle.
S: Yeah, she's really interested in the technology side of it all. And so I think we were talking with her and Tricky must have been talking with her. And she was like, wow, that sounds like a really good idea. So she contributed to the purchase of it. And it was really good the day that Tricky and I were in Brisbane, we were learning how to use it.
A: SVP, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Conference was also going on that same week.
S: Yeah, so this was towards the end of 2019.
A: Yeah, October 2019.
S: Yeah, so Tricky and I did our day of learning and after we did that day, we actually called Denise on the drive home and were like telling her all about it.
A: Oh, she would have loved that.
S: Yeah, so that was really nice, just keeping everyone involved. And again, that's why science is really great is that you can contribute in so many different ways and be a part of it. And you don't necessarily have to be a classically trained in inverted commas palaeontologist to be involved in paleontology.
A: You can have done year 10 at school, done at college, find dinosaur bones on your property and start a dinosaur museum.
A: Good on you David Elliot.
S: I didn't actually do science in senior high school.
A: I didn't know this.
S: So I probably should have told you this when we were thinking about high school.
A: Yeah, let's go back. This is wild to me because I did two maths, two science, English and LOTE.
S: No, I did ancient and modern. I was big on history. I did dance. That was an OP subject.
S: So good. And then English maths. And I did like maths B, which is advanced maths, because I knew that that's what you needed for uni. And then everything that I had read was like, you just needed one science. But that was when I was sort of more looking at maybe staying like around Brisbane.
When I found Macquarie, I might've been in grade 11. So like you'd already chosen your subjects by then. And to do a science degree at Macquarie, you didn't really need anything.
A: That's awesome because yeah, I know some people.
S: They taught us everything that they wanted us to know.
A: Awesome. It's really frustrating when people find out later on that they didn't do the right prerequisites. And they really beat themselves up over it.
S: Well, I was really annoyed.
A: I don't think it has to be like that.
S: I was annoyed because I made myself do Maths B. As we've heard, I'm not very good at maths. So I struggled through the difficult maths when I could have been learning just normal maths. And the people in normal maths were learning how to do their taxes and stuff. And I was like, wow, that seems like it would have helped me so much more than the Maths B that didn't. But anyways, the trauma makes us stronger.
A: You don't know what you don't know. You're exactly right. It's just like what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
S: Yeah. So we had three sciences, biology, chemistry, physics. There was absolutely no way I was doing physics. I didn't like the biology that we got taught in grade eight, nine, 10. I was just really bored by it because I think it was just learning the different parts of a cell, you know, the nucleus and mitochondria, the powerhouse. And that was more of just the memorizing things. And I just really didn't like it.
A: It's very abstract because it's so small and you can't see it, you can't touch it.
S: Yeah, so I think I landed on chemistry and I did chemistry for a semester and I think I probably only got maybe like low B, high C, which I was happy with because it was really difficult and I was like, yeah, I'm happy with his grade. But because I got into my school on academic merit, they, they in the middle of grade 11...
S: Every kid that was on an academic merit that had any C on their report card, we all had to go and have a meeting with one of the deputy principals. Cause I think my school had like six or some.
A: Wow. That's a lot.
S: Yeah. Some ridiculous number of deputy principals. And we had to have a meeting with one of the deputy principals just about, you know, what's going on and you know, these grades and you know, you're supposed to be smarter than this.
A: Basically pseudo parent, I'm disappointed dad and you.
S: And so the takeaway that I got, I mean, this is so long ago now that I'm probably misinterpreting it, I don't really know. But they basically said either your grades have to get better or you need to change subject. And I was like, my grades are not going to get better. This is as high as I'm going. And I was happy with that. So anyway, I dropped out of chemistry and I did legal studies.
A: Oh, okay.
S: And had a great time in legal studies. So yeah, I'm... Now a scientist with a master's degree and I didn't do science in high school. But I love telling kids doing work experience at Age of Dinosaurs because their parent, you know, these kids are 15 and their parents come in and they're like, you've done this, what did you do in high school? Because a lot of schools have that similar mindset of you need to have this direct path. And so when I tell the parents that I didn't do science, they're all like, what?
A: We should have had a talk before. We should have planned this out.
S: Yeah. And like you can see their mind just blowing because it just seems so absurd.
A: Well, I'm kind of surprised.
A: Because again, I know that's, yeah, some unis, if you didn't do any science. You can't do it.
S: Yeah, exactly. So I'm not telling any kids out there, don't do science in high school.
A: Don't drop out of chemistry.
S: But I knew that my uni didn't need it. So I was all good to get in. What were you talking about?
A: I don't know. I love that tangent though. And I'm glad that we went back through that because I genuinely didn't know that you didn't do science in year 11, year 12. But I also feel like your high school maybe, was-.
A: Maybe they could have gotten kids to pick what subjects they needed for uni if they wanted to go to uni before they had enrolled.
A: That's just my thoughts.
A: But yeah, we also touched on, yeah, going into the containers, looking at the dinosaur bones and just, yeah, you just identified that something needed to happen with them. And no one was really stepping up to the plate either.
S: There's so many fossils that no one was working on. And Steve was working on a lot of other things at that time. He would have been working on Savannasaurus.
A: Yes, oh my gosh.
S: He would have been getting that done and Alex described as a Diamantinasaurus. And so there were all of these other things and obviously Anne had been found that year. So there are all these newer specimens coming through.
A: Yeah. And they were earmarked as priorities.
S: Yeah. And I was sort of like, what about these specimens that have been sitting here for the past 10 years? I think for don't they deserve a turn?
A: They do deserve a turn. But I think it's a bit of a too hard basket situation when it's… OK. This one dig site from 10 years ago, what was found there? A leg bone, maybe a lower leg bone, and then these ribs, and maybe a couple of vertebrae. And then to try and then compare that with maybe a front leg.
S: It's impossible.
A: Exactly, it's impossible, sort of too hard basket situation.
S: Should we get into specifics of Winton and why things are the way they are? Or did you sort of do that with Savannasaurus?
A: You mean the geology stuff?
S: Sort of just explaining more of the purpose of my masters.
A: Yeah, so with your masters, there's two different routes, I guess. You can either be handed a project and just be happy to have funding and a supervisor who hopefully knows what they're talking about and can guide you through the process.
A: Or you can...take a project to them and work on something that you're truly passionate about, which is what you did. So yeah, whilst you were working at Age of Dinosaurs, you could see that there were heaps of massive bones, quite difficult to move around. Some of them are about as big as a person. And yeah, it was difficult to compare them.
S: Exactly. And when I was looking at all of these fossils that hadn't been described, I was looking at it not as well, “Steve's been lazy. God, he's really got to get a wriggle on and do all of this.” I could see it wasn't for a lack of trying.
A: Yeah, he's been putting out like a paper pretty much a year.
S: But he'd gone through and all of the people that worked at the museum and in the lab, they'd looked at these fossils and because they were incomplete or the skeletons were incomplete, then... it was just too hard and it's too hard to compare bones that weigh 200 kilos and are in different places you can't move them they're so fragile.
A: We don't really have the space to lay them all outside by side either and the time as well.
S: Exactly and so they were like “We'll sort this out in the future we've got other more pressing things that need to be worked on”. So when bright-eyed me came through and said, why don't we just scan them? They're like, “Oh yeah, right, yeah, sure.”
A: Because I think before that it might have been the OG holotype specimen of Diamantinasaurus. Correct me if I'm wrong, I think maybe some of the bones were scanned, but they were basically put in the car and then taken to a hospital to be CT scanned. And obviously... can't be doing that for 50 sauropod specimens.
A: Ideally, we're doing it in house so that the specimens are being moved as little as possible and-
S: Well, Ada Klinkhamer did her PhD on sauropod biomechanics and she used Diamantinasaurus and compared that with like a Brachiosaurus or Giraffatitan or some other sort of specimens. And she did the biomechanics of the front and the back leg.
S: So she had done photogrammetry on some of Matilda's fossils, which is the holotype for Diamantinasaurus, but they were not super detailed because I think with photogrammetry, you can only get, am I pronouncing that right?
A: I think it's photogrammetry.
S: Photogrammetry, don't come for me.
A: Just it's either that or just say photogrammetry a bunch of times and then I'll just stack it back in.
S: Just say it really fast and no one actually knows what I'm saying.
A: Just write in really loopy handwriting.
S: But so it wasn't super detailed.
A: Yeah. It's as detailed as you put in, because I think we tried to do some photogrammetry with the Snake Creek truck site.
A: And I think the computer had a heart attack.
A: We put in thousands of photos, tried to get it to do it overnight. And then at the end of it, it was just like, no, out of RAM. Yeah, no. No, please.
S: Too much, sis. Yeah. Slow down. Yeah. So I knew that this scanner would be able to do what we needed to.
A: Yeah. It's built for this. Well, it's built for different applications. It's not a specific paleontology tool, but it's great.
S: It's being used widely around the world for this sort of thing. Because basically you scan a specimen and then in theory, you never have to touch the real one again. So it's not going to get damaged from being moved around because every time a researcher comes to the museum and says, “I want to look at this fossil”, it gets moved, they want to be able to see all of the characteristics of it. There's the potential for it to get damaged.
A: We're not very coordinated folks.
S: Scientists are clumsy.
A: Scientists don't have great hand-eye coordination. Says the girl who dropped her phone charger on a holotype. Good job, Del.
A: I'll just glue that. It's fine.
S: So yeah, once you scan something, it's safe. And then you can have this digital database of all of these different specimens. You can potentially share them with other museums around the world and other researchers. And you don't necessarily have to visit.
A: You don't have to spend thousands of dollars.
S: The museum in Winton in the middle of nowhere of Australia. You can get the scans and it's a lot better for scientific communication in that way. And research is being able to work together.
A: It'll fast track research, yeah.
S: Yeah, absolutely.
S: And even for education, for schools, you know, you can show them those scans and the school might not be able to come and visit in real life. So it's sort of like a mixture.
A: It's a win-win situation.
A: The scans are also really helpful because to me, the specific scanner that we've used before, it looks like an iron to me, but then I guess it has three cameras. And then they just take multiple photos really quickly. And then the program puts all the photos together where they should be as well. But then once you have the 3D model, you can have it so that it's just the 3D object in grey, or you can have the colour on.
A: And then you can change the position of the artificial sun, the angle of the light coming in at it. You can get the shadow to bring out all these different features too.
A: And I think that is super useful too, because you don't realize how much bias you might have towards something, but when you can sort of see the same thing from these different angles and stuff, you learn so much more about it.
S: Yeah, so you can rotate it to whatever position you want, but you might not necessarily be able to stand a femur up on one corner because the whole thing would break.
A: Yeah. It's also a bit heavy.
S: Yes, exactly. And the other really important thing that you can do is you can rescale the models. So you can have the 3D model and you can line up four different femurs. So your femur is your thigh bone. You can line up four of them from four different specimens and you can change the size so that they're all exactly the same size and then you're able to describe characteristics at the same scale.
A: You're truly comparing apples with apples.
S: Exactly, rather than you might have a femur that is only half a meter long and you have a femur that's two meters long. So you're looking at this characteristic on these crazy different scales.
A: Of course that bulge is gonna be a different size on the small bubby one.
A: Because that's how big it is in real life.
S: But you can have bias and say, oh, well, the bulges be on the two meter one. And you can then describe those characteristics differently. So it sort of lessens the margin of error.
A: Yeah, I think it just levels the playing field in a way that you just cannot do in real life.
S: Yeah. So I basically spent six months scanning the entire Sauropod collection at the museum.
A: And you were told that... It was impossible at one point. We won’t named names, but someone wasn't super supportive. They're not on your team. They weren’t want to use supervisors or anything like that.
S: Yeah, when I came up with the idea, I was very excited, obviously. And at the conference at SVP, I was talking to a few people and telling them that I was going to do this project. And one particular palaeontologist was like, you're not going to be able to do that in that time frame.
A: And you were working still at the museum too, five days a week?
S: No, I was working part time, so four. Yeah. But initially I started my master's full time, but then I realized that it got bigger than Ben-Hur and I needed more time. So I went to part time.
A: Yeah I was very happy when you went to part time because I've been doing my PhD part time.
S: It's a better way to be. The time was getting really stressful.
S: Because the master's full time is two years. But then by the time I switched to it, it ended up being about three, three and a bit years, which was a lot better. And I was able to produce much higher quality work and more.
S: So much more. I think there was like tens of thousands of words in my supplementary. Because I was just too big.
A: Um, and then for anyone who's not familiar with the system, so you write your thesis and then that goes to experts in the field who don't know you. I can't remember if it's marked blindly and they don't know who produced it. I think they did know.
S: At Swinburne, Steve had to pick two people that he hadn't been on a paper with a certain amount of time. And they couldn't-
S: No conflict of interest, no buddy-buddy situation. I don't think they were allowed to be in Australia. I think they had to be elsewhere.
A: Yeah, I think I'm gonna have to have that with my PhD too, outside of Australia.
S: And they could choose, the two people assessing it could choose whether or not they wanted their name. So they could have-
A: Oh, they could be anonymous.
S: They could have remained anonymous, but both of them said who they were. And they both gave very high praise, which was quite nice.
A: Yeah, a lot of the time it's, you know, you've got the right idea, fix this, fix that, but no, yours was tick, send it. chef’s kiss
S: They approved it straight away, which I thought was just the norm.
A: And then was it Steve?
S: No, Enzo, I think he's the head of faculty at Swinburne. And he sent an email saying, congrats, this never gets.
A: This never happens. This is unheard of, practically.
S: Yeah, master's thesis never get just approved there’s almost always they're like, oh, fix this, fix this. And I was like, oh, cool, no worries.
A: To be fair though, part of your thesis included a paper that you'd already published. Yeah, so. The fact that it had gone through peer review…
S: Exactly, having half of it already published helps because they can't really say, “mm, don't know about that” if it's already gone through the peer review process then.
S: Someone else has accepted it. So they have to sort of more or less.
A: Yeah. We can talk about what that publication was.
S: Well, yeah, we should probably talk about actually a Diamantinasaurus.
S: That's the subject.
A: Yeah. Let's talk about your baby.
S: Yeah. How long have we been talking?
A: An hour.
S: We haven't talked about Diamantinasaurus yet. Yeah. So when I was scanning everything, I think it ended up being over 500 fossils from 20-ish different specimens.
Obviously some of those specimens are more complete than others. Some are only a couple bones, but the specimen that I was most enthralled by was a specimen named Ollie and his bones were really little, little for a sauropod anyway, still probably like 10 times the size of anything that you've ever worked on.
A: Hey! Are we talking wingspan or what?
S: Bone density.
A: Bone density, mass.
S: Yeah, the weight of it. So Ollie was found in 2012. That was Milton's first dig. And Ollie is a juvenile sauropod. Essentially Littlefoot from Land Before Time for my millennials out there that grew up on Land Before Time.
A: Yeah. So clearly different just because it was younger.
S: Yeah. And so much smaller than any other sauropod in the collection.
A: What bones do we have from Ollie?
S: So we have his femur, humerus, which is your big upper arm bone, three-ish vertebrae or two and a half vertebrae. We have a neck rib and a claw and a scapula, a shoulder bone.
A: And the claws? Yeah. Kind of weird on a sauropod because it looks like a claw. It's like long, whereas the other like little toe bones are nubs. Yeah, more like what you'd expect from an elephant, I guess. But yeah, Ollie was something Steve had been working on beforehand.
S: Yeah, so Steve had half described some of the bones. And when Steve had been describing Ollie, he kept going back and forth between what he thought it was.
A: What species is it?
S: Yeah. So it couldn't align to either Savannasaurus or Diamantinasaurus. And part of the difficulty in that is both of those holotypes are adults. They're so much bigger. And also they live in a holotype room at the museum, whereas Ollie was in the container and these buildings are 500 meters apart. The holotype room is a public touring area. So there's tourists that go through and tours.
A: Like every half hour, every hour.
S: Yeah, all the time. So you can't just hang out in there, essentially. So Steve got to a point where he was like, I can't figure out what species it is. It got put in the sort of too hard basket. And Steve had a million other incredible things to be working on. So I think it was always in the back of his head. But he knew that sometime in the future, he would be able to come back to it.
S: And so once I finished doing all of my scanning, he was like, “What do you want to do?” He was like, “You've got all these scans. What do you want to do with them?” And I was like, “Can I publish the baby? Can I work on Ollie?” He was like, “Yeah, sure. Go for it.” Like-
A: He's really great.
S: Yeah. He wasn't going to gatekeep a project that he couldn't foresee himself finishing anytime soon. So he graciously handed me that project. And because I lived in Winton over the summer, when it's a lot quieter, I was able to scan the holotypes in the collection room when they only have like two or three tours for the day. So I was able to do all of that while it was really quiet. And then I had the scan, so I didn't really need to go back in there again. So I was able to then compare all of Ollie’s bones with the holotypes.
S: And we were able to see the characteristics a lot better as Del was saying earlier, being able to get rid of the colour and you just have them greyscale, you're literally just looking, it's like a topographic map sort of thing. And the characteristics are so much clearer. And then we were able to shrink the bones or scale them all to the same size. I think Ollie's femur is probably half the size of Matildas, which is the holotype for Diamantinasaurus.
A: And Matildas femur is probably what, like a meter and a half long
S: Yeah, something like that.
A: I'm trying to think how much that would be in feet. I'm going to say five feet.
S: True. I don't know.
A: I honestly have no idea.
S: It's about the size of a smallish adult. I should have touched on this before as well though. It's kind of good to have an adult specimen as a holotype.
A: Yes. Because often with juveniles.
S: It's problematic.
A: I was going to say they're cute babies and like their skeletons change a little bit too.
A: And adults are kind of more common in the fossil record.
S: Juveniles are really rare. Yeah. Which is why getting Ollie published was really important because anything that we can learn about juveniles increases our understanding so much because you can't understand how something grew if you only have adult specimens.
A: True that.
S: Yeah. You need the babies. And if you think about...
S: Baby human versus an adult human, our skeleton as we grow changes quite a lot.
A: For the better, I would argue. Have you seen mockups of like a baby scaled up to a human size? The size of the head's terrifying. It's nightmare fuel.
S: Their little bread legs.
A: Oh yeah, nah, not about that life.
S: That's so funny.
A: So what's the difference between an adult Diamantinasaurus and a juvenile. Or have we actually touched on how big Ollie is? I think we've talked about the femur length, but not the length of-
S: This is so chaotic.
A: Good content.
S: Yeah, so going off of the size estimates and comparing Ollie's bones to sort of the general estimates of sauropod length, we determined he was about 10 and a half, 11 meters long. And he weighed about two tons.
A: So it's 36 feet long.
S: Sure. And I think two ton, which is about the weight of a grown elephant. An adult elephant. Yeah, right. So even though he was a baby, he was still a big boy.
A: Oh yeah. Don't let him stand on your foot.
S: No, but not quite the 20 meter length of an adult Diamantinasaurus.
A: And then 20 meters would be 65 and about a half foot long. Quite a lot of that is tail though, right?
S: Yeah, neck and tail.
A: Neck and tail, yeah.
S: And if you don't have neck and tail bones, that's when ranges come in. You're like, oh, 16 to 20 meters sort of thing.
A: That's how much difference that tail and neck is getting you.
S: Yeah, because depending on what species, they all have a different amount of vertebrae in their neck and tails just to make our lives more difficult as palaeontologists.
A: No, can't be consistent.
S: So we were able from the scans to be able to figure out that Ollie is a juvenile Diamantinasaurus because we were able to find characteristics in Ollie that are in Matilda, the holotype, even though they're on a smaller scale, still has like the defining characteristics of that species. And then from that point, you're able to look at the proportions of the bones and work out whether or not Ollie, the baby is an exact copy of Matilda, the holotype.
A: Like a one-to-one shrunk down.
S: Yeah, exactly different or there were some changes going on in the skeleton. So if it's an exact copy, that's called isometric growth where something just gets bigger, but stays exactly the same. Or if it changes, that is allometric growth and humans are allometric.
S: Depending on what sauropod species, where they've been able to figure out that growth rate, it depends, which is again, super helpful. They couldn't just pick one and stick with it. So some Titanosaurus, so Diamantinasaurus is a species of Titanosaur, which is sort of like saying it's a kangaroo or it's a bird.
A: A kangaroo is a type of macropod.
S: Yeah, but there's different species of-
A: Like the red kangaroo or a wallaroo or a wallaby.
S: And they're all sort of the same thing, but they're sort of different. So depending on the species of titanosaur, some of them have the isometric growth and some of them have the allometric growth, which is super fun. But again, that's why the more that we find, it adds to our understanding of why it is this way.
A: It clears up assumptions as well.
S: Yeah, if it's an evolution thing. If they're like super far apart in the fossil record or they're on completely different parts of the world at different times, then they're not gonna be growing the exact same way because they have evolved differently.
A: Got different environmental pressures as well.
A: Maybe it's linked to food availability. Maybe it's linked to-
S: the environment.
A: Temperature, I don't know. Eggs are temperature dependent sometimes with sex. Like male females hatching out and I know that's the case with some reptiles. So is Ollie a perfect little one-to-one scale mini?
S: No, no. So he's, so Diamantinasaurus has allometric growth.
A: Oh yeah, you mentioned this before. Look at me, already forgetting.
S: Yeah, so I was reading some paper. It must've been about like juvenile specimens. And it said, because it was about their growth and the allometric, isometric growth. And there was this one little line that said something about how sauropods with allometric when they're little, they probably had oversized limbs, kind of like a puppy dog, and they grew into their limbs
S: So it was quite likely that baby sauropods were bounding around. And just that picture in my head of all of these little sauropods.
A: Sauropod zoomies!
S: Kind of like elephants, when their little babies are running around and they can't control their trunk and they're just kind of like all over the place. I was imagining like all of these little baby sauropods doing that. And I'm like-
A: that's just so cute.
S: Yeah, it just really warms my ice-cold heart.
A: That's awesome. So at the Ollie site, it was just this one sauropod. There were no adults or anything like that. So it's kind of hard to know like if juvenile sauropods were hanging out with adults or were they off doing their own thing?
S: Well, we know from footprints around the world that there is some evidence of baby sauropods being with adults.
A: Like teenagers or like hatchlings?
S: I don't know like specifics, but there is...
A: I assume the bigger ones.
S: Yeah, there is some evidence for gregarious behaviour, which means that the families are all sort of hanging out, but you can't know that purely from bones. Even if Ollie had have been found with an adult, the bones could have been washed down the same river, but they died at a different time. So figuring out behaviours like that purely from fossils is quite difficult and that's one of the fun jobs of being a palaeontologist.
A: Yeah, every time you find something out, you just have 10 more questions and you feel like you knew less than before. That's great.
S: That's science. Yeah. That's how we build. You start with one question, you might not even answer that one question, but then you come up with 10 more.
S: But then some other people would be like, Hey, I'll work on this one. That's how we learn. Beautiful.
A: Every conclusion is need more fossils.
S: Or: “Well, beyond the scope of this research”.
A: Oh, that is a good go to line. I do love reaching for that. I don't even try anymore to say “this will be addressed in a future paper because honestly, I'm pretty chaotic”. And I'm like, I don't know what my priority is going to be in a couple of years’ time.
S: Yeah. What's time? Don't know her.
A: So Diamantinasaurus you mentioned before, it fits within this big group called Titanosaurs. Titanosaurs are most famous from South America, yeah?
S: Yeah. So the big 40-meter-long giants,
S: Argentinosaurus, all of those big boys.
A: The big ones.
S: Yeah, they're all Titanosaurs. So the sauropods in Australia are most closely related to those. Because during the Cretaceous period, Australia and South America were connected or just sort of starting to break apart.
A: There was other stuff in the mix too.
S: Yeah, so Gondwana was having its time. So obviously those sauropods were able to-
A: come up through Antarctica.
S: Yeah, I think there was like a land bridge. So even though the biggest sauropod in Australia, Cooper, it's like 30 meters maybe, maybe not that long, 20 point.
A: If it was 30, it would be like 98 feet long.
S: Right. I don't think it's quite 30, but it's what we have in Australia is nowhere near as big as the big mamas in South America, for sure.
A: Not yet.
S: Yeah, they're probably out there. They just haven't yet been found. But the titanosaurs were basically the last group of sauropods, and they were basically-
A: around until the end, the mass extinction.
S: And they look like the most successful group because they were around for so long. Whereas some other types had started to die out by them. But the grouping of Diamantinasaurus does change. As we find more specimens that are referred to Diamantinasaurus, we are able to learn new information. So as you add more characters then where it gets pulled into the family tree does change. Yeah. Because taxonomy is fake.
A: We were, you've been planning that, um we were talking before we hit record as well a little bit about Anne. So that first dinosaur dig that you got to be a part of, there were other bones in the mix too but the really exciting ones were the skull bones because we didn't have skull bones before and you were explaining to me that in... the skull, there's a hundred characters, but in total, sauropods
S: It’s 550.
A: Is this when I tell you that pterosaurs have max 240, it could be, could be worse. You could work on Crocs. I think Crocs have like 600 or something.
S: Wow, true.
A: And then people just keep adding onto it. So it's like-
S: it's not in order!?
A: No, it's like head vertebrae, limbs, whatever. Yeah. But then someone else adds to it. So then it starts again, head, spine, limbs and then again and again it's a mess.
S: Do we need to explain taxonomy and character making?
A: Maybe we should imagine if someone made an Excel spreadsheet and they're trying to summarize the shapes of bones.
S: Whether there's a little ridge or a little hole in one point.
A: Whether a bone is completely absent in the body or whether it has it or not.
S: The width or like the proportions.
A: Yeah proportions probably. Like is this one third the length of another bone? Because again, you don't want to have absolute numeric values. You don't want to say, is this bone over two meters? Well, that's not helpful. But the relative proportions, that's where it's at. And then to answer those questions as shorthand, it's like a zero, one or two.
S: It's like a binary code.
A: Yeah, yeah. And then you get the computer to run that and try and make it make sense essentially.
A: And it will hopefully if you've done it right and you have enough RAM on your computer, give you a family tree.
S: Yeah, so that's how they come up with family trees. Yeah. If you ever see one and you're like, how does one do that? Yeah. And it's done by scoring characters. So when Anne was discovered and had that full skull, then we were able to add all of these new characters to Diamantinasaurus that we couldn't have before we had the skull. So then I think that pulled Diamantinasaurus a little bit more back up in the family tree. So it's a little bit more primitive than derived.
A: Yeah, a little bit more basal.
A: So showing sort of more ancestral rather than specialized traits.
A: And then was it still sort of grouping with Savannasaurus?
S: Yeah, so there's a clade of Diamantinasauria now, which basically has... most of the Australian sauropods in it together with one from South America, which is Sarmientosaurus. Yeah, so that shows the link.
A: Yeah, and I think I remember helping Steve with the Anne Skull stuff and I actually got my big contribution to that paper, because I don't know a lot about sauropods was taking the photos and putting the figures together. I know early on when we were trying to figure out where all the bones sat in three-dimensional space, because the skull was not found in articulation. It was a bunch of different bones kind of strewn out around like the...
S: All over the place.
birds squawking and clucking
A: I'm sorry about my children. If you hear weird things in this recording, those were guinea fowl and you might also hear the dulcet tones of an Alexandrine parrot named Squawk and a little blue corella called Snot. Hopefully there's no snakes hanging outside the window. Hey Sam. Oh my gosh, what was I saying? Oh yeah, the one thing I helped do with the Anne paper was take photos of bones and then we use Sarmientosaurus as a rough guide to sort of figure out how elongate or how gracile is the head or how boxy is it?
A: And to, I guess, try and figure out the width, which was a bit of a wild time, but we got there in the end.
S: Cause you can make it really skinny and then it just looks so wild or you can make it as wide as you want. Cause I scanned the skull and then Steve was able to stick that all together in a digital space. And you can obviously mirror digital models. So then you have both the left and the right because for Anne we had most of the left side of the skull maybe a couple bits of the right, but it's not a complete left and right. But because we had the brain case that helps.
A: Yeah, so the brain case is like right at the back. And then as the name would suggest, it completely covers and wraps around the brain. So then you can study the brain endocast to then, I guess, figure out the max size of the brain theoretically. And I guess see like the different proportions of this and that and work out what's its eyesight like. What's its sense of smell like and all these really cool things. Well, what's its sense of balance like too? So that probably sums up family grouping really nicely.
This is going to be like a really hard question, but just spitballing and throwing some ideas around because we don't have any teeth or skulls from juvenile Diamantinasaurus or Ollie. Do you reckon they would have been eating the same plants as the adults or like just no idea?
S: Well, I think that it could be different. Yeah. It would depend on the species for sure. Because.
A: The next would probably just be at different heights.
S: Yeah. So depending on how the adults held their neck, they would have been eating different parts of the plant.
A: They would have been browsing higher up maybe.
S: Yeah. So Ollie would probably just been eating shrubs or ferns on the ground. Whereas the adults probably wouldn't have wasted their time with that. And we're up getting the good stuff on the top.
A: Oh, so we talked about the proportions of the body. You mentioned before, Ollie has a pretty distinct thumb claw. Any ideas on what it was used for?
S: Well, Diamantinasaurus has a thumb claw, but Savannasaurus doesn't, and they're found in Winton. So we think that the difference might be in the environment that they were living in. Perhaps Diamantinasaurus needed that claw for a bit better stability.
A: Gripping? Or?
S: Yeah. Maybe if it was walking in like a muddy substrate and it needed to hold its balance a little bit better. In a little bit more of a wilder theory, perhaps they were putting their little claw up on a tree.
A: Rearing up.
S: Yeah, maybe. It's not really anything that you could prove, but for the time being, it is a way that we're able to distinguish between the species. But we find a Savannasaurus specimen that has a thumb claw, we go back to the drawing board and you always have to sort of be aware of the thing science changes as you find more things.
A: Yeah, science is self-correcting.
A: And it's not a definitive answer. It's not absolute.
S: Yeah. In paleontology anyway, in some science it is absolute.
A: Yeah, I don't think physics changes as much as paleontology.
S: Laws. Laws are absolute, I believe.
A: Yeah. Um, I don't think I've actually asked you this before. Like I know you're going off to UCL, University College London, other than working on sauropods, I don't know much about your project for your PhD.
S: Yeah. So Phil Mannion will be my new supervisor and he is Steve's associate. And Phil also is a co-author on the Ollie paper.
A: They work together really well.
A: Phil's just generally really nice to work with as is Steve.
S: So Phil asked if I wanted to come over and do a PhD and I was like, sure.
A: Your master's thesis hadn't even been marked yet, I think at that point.
S: Steve sent Phil my thesis.
A: Yeah, I don't think you had your reviewers come back to you yet.
S: No, I don't think, like it probably hadn't have been.
A: You got headhunted effectively.
S: Well, Phil said that he just skimmed my thesis too. When I sent him the second part of my thesis that we're still working on to get published and I sent him that paper, “I was like, oh, don't actually know if you've read through this. It was part of my thesis”. And he was like, oh yeah, I skimmed it.
A: He’s a busy guy.
S: Yeah, well he is and it's like 270 pages long. So I can understand that, you know, it's a bit of a slog to get through. But I was like, you asked me to come do a PhD with you based on a skim.
S: Like, I love that.
A: He has that much faith in you. You’re gonna do amazing stuff over there.
S: Too good to me. But anyway, I sort of told Phil, like, you know, I'm interested in continuing sauropods and sort of delving more into specifics of their characteristics as opposed to the traditional describing of specimens. Because I'm a bit sceptical on taxonomy. I think I would prefer...
A: It's quite frustrating sometimes.
S: Yeah, I think I would prefer... I think I'm a bit of a lumper as well.
A: For anyone who's sort of confused by that term, sometimes people can either be labelled as splitters or lumpers.
S: So when you're categorizing things.
A: Yeah. Are you more likely to say, we have 20 different specimens of Diamantinasaurus? Or are you more likely to split them? And say we have 20 different species of sauropod based on very subtle changes in the skull that might actually just be variation in individuals.
S: That's paleontology, you know, we'll never know the full story and everyone interprets things differently.
S: So I think I'm more of like the lumper. So anyways, I didn't want to specifically just... continue doing that in my PhD.
S: I wanted to refine my skills a little bit more. So Phil had the idea that he said he wanted to understand pneumaticity in sauropod vertebrae.
A: Now Pneumaticity is-
S: Holes. So basically sauropods are so big that to try and lighten their weight a little bit more, they evolved holes in their vertebrae or air sacs. So birds, have air sacs to help them fly. It's better for their oxygen inhaling as well, like their lung capacity.
A: Oh yeah, the avian respiratory system is nuts. It's a whole lot of thing.
S: Yes, and in doing preliminary research for my PhD now, I have learned far more than I ever thought I would on bird respiratory system. And basically humans breathe terribly. We are so inefficient when compared with birds.
A: They are also our overlords.
S: Cassowaries, I welcome. You're not better than a cassowary.
A: Absolutely not.
S: So back when CT scanning first became a thing, maybe in like the nineties, they started scanning some sauropod vertebrae and a lot of work has been done on scanning sauropod vertebrae. And when you CT scan something, obviously you can see inside of it.
A: It's like an X-ray.
S: Exactly. Yeah. So you don't have to get a sauropod vertebrae and cut it into 10 different pieces and be like, those holes are nice. Guess that's it for the vertebrae. Chuck it in the bin. We can now use technology to see inside of them without actually destroying them, which is super helpful. Yeah.
A: Because we all get to a point where there are no more new fossils.
S: Yeah. Chucked them all in the bin. So when you've got a CT scanner, you can then see inside and see where all of these little air pockets in the vertebrae are. And from all of the work that has already been done on this topic, it is different in different species. Some species have more air pockets, some have less. And so what we-
A: Does it also vary between like the neck versus the torso versus the tail?
S: Yeah, so depending on the serial number the holes can-
A: vertebrae number one, vertebrae number two,
S: Or neck one, neck two sort of thing. Yeah. So we are just going to try and understand the evolution and the difference between the family groups a little bit more. And Phil has lots of connections. So he was like, yeah, we'll get a CT scanner. Like he's got access to CT scanners and to museum collections where we'll be able to work with people and get-
A: I think you said before, he's seen like sauropods on every continent twice, but that was years ago now.
S: He's seen like almost every sauropod in the world.
A: That's why it's really great when he collaborates on papers where Steve is because he's seen it.
S: Yeah, and Steve's seen so much as well.
S: A lot of the stuff in his big South America tour.
A: His Churchill Fellowship.
S: Yeah, and saw so much there. Anyways. So yeah, that'll be me for three years over in the UK hanging out with CT scanners, I guess. Yeah, cool. Trying to understand holes in bones.
A: And before people had seen how pneumatic the bones were, is that when they thought sauropods lived in water? Because they just could not wrap their heads around something that big.
S: So pneumatic structures in vertebrae were actually described by the classics in the 1800s. But they were describing the outer characteristics.
A: Oh, hadn't cut through the bone yet.
A: That’s where they went wrong,
S: So sauropod vertebrae, are so… they're beautiful. They're so intricate. Nice looking bones but they’ve got a lot of…
A: There’s bits that stick out, called zygapophyses.
S: Yeah, I was like, what's the normal words?
A: And then there's struts that connect one to another.
S: And they'll have like deep holes. And it's kind of like you think about your brain is all folded and folded and that makes the surface area bigger and that's sort of the sauropod vert like the structure will go in and out and so it's not heavier because the gaps are like almost to the middle of the bone.
A: Oh yeah okay.
S: But so the blokes in the 1800s were describing the outer pneumatic features and sort of trying to understand that a little bit more but obviously it's only with CT scanning that we can see the inner pneumatic structures as well.
S: But they definitely were saying that the pneumatic structures were to help them wade in water, which we now don't believe.
S: It's not like big Loch Ness monster vibes. They're more gracile than first described.
S: Not like these big monster things.
A: Yeah, I think they were still very much looking at them thinking they were slow in lumbering and big reptiles and couldn't imagine something, living life in the fast lane.
S: Totally. I mean, I don't think sauropods were in the fast lane. I think they were in the slow lane. Well, the other part of the PhD that we sort of want to understand is did the pneumatic features change as they got bigger?
A: Oh gosh, that would be such a nightmare!
S: I know. But we want to see if there's a link to gigantism.
A: Oh, yeah, true.
S: Yeah, the giant 40-meter sauropods, did they have more pneumatic features as opposed to like the little pygmy ones? Like did they evolve the air sacs to make them lighter or was there a possible other reason for it?
A: Cause yeah, there were some sauropods that were smaller than I guess the average size.
A: But a lot of the time when that occurs, it's because they're on an island and they have something called island dwarfism when there's not that much food available, don't grow big and eat all the food, essentially.
S: Yeah. And they worked that out with bone histology where they like cut into the bone and it's kind of like tree rings. You can count the rings. And cause otherwise they would have looked at this sauropod and been like-
A: It's a baby!
S: But then they counted the rings and were like, “Oh damn, it's fully grown”.
A: It's just little.
A: You didn't do that with Ollie at all.
S: No, we didn't do any bone histology. One day.
A: Museums generally don't like it when you ask to drill, to drill, saw through.
S: Yeah. It's also very time consuming and I didn't have time in my masters to be able to fulfill that.
A: Beyond the scope of this project.
S: Totally. Yeah add that to a future project
A: Someone else can work on it. Awesome. Thank you so much.
S: Thanks for having me.
A: It's so good to see you and-
S: See you in four years.
A: Don’t! Makes me so sad. But yeah, so happy for you and stoked that you're going to continue to work on sauropods, even though I really think you are one of those people that could work on anything and just make it work. You're very driven, very passionate, but you've accumulated so much knowledge about sauropods, so it's nice to see that you're going to continue to put that to use and Phil’s hopefully going to be a great mentor on. If not, I'm going to knock on his door and be like, “Excuse me, sir, what have you done?”
S: No, his anxiety message in an email to me and he was like, “Hopefully you won't come over and realize that you've made a huge mistake”.
A: I mean, yeah, it's a big commitment to move from your home country to the other side of the world, but in saying that he's sweetened in the deal, he's going to pay for your flights and stuff.
S: Totally. So I think it's not super scary because like, I moved to Sydney, I moved to Winton, moving to the UK, like I've always had in my head that I knew I was going to have to like move around. And my husband's like, “Hell yeah, let's go to the UK.”
A: Yeah, very supportive as well.
S: Exactly. We love that. Can't wait to have a second Dino dad. Have a UK Dino dad. That's Phil. Yeah.
A: Thank you again.
S: Thanks for having me.
Adele: I love her. Thank you so much, Sam, for being on the show, spending time and having my back. Even though I am really lucky in that I have great supervisors, it's easy to feel lost and isolated when doing a PhD or a master's, but the thing that helps the most is connecting with students who are in the same boat.
So having Sam in my corner means a lot of the time we've been able to bounce ideas off each other and help each other out. We've collaborated together, and as you probably picked up from this episode, Sam is a no-nonsense person and just gets things done. And I love the energy she brings to a project. By the way, if you would like to see the baby sauropod, Oliver and a bunch of other specimens of Diamantinasaurus, highly recommend you visit the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum in Winton.
This is not sponsored, they did not pay me to say this, although I have worked for the museum in the past, but the museum has a lot of real dinosaur bones on display. You can even touch real dinosaur bone. So if you're looking for an excuse to head out west and road trip through central Western Queensland, come on out and visit the area.
I mentioned this before in episode 3 on Ferrodraco as well, but you can volunteer in the fossil prep lab at Age of Dinosaurs and be part of the digs too, so if you really want to get up and close and personal with Diamantinasaurus, I'll put links up in the show notes so you can find out more. Last thing I want to mention about Age of Dinosaurs, they also started selling their own Oliver Sauropod plushies. They're even green, which is perfect since that's Sam's favourite colour.
If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple podcasts or rating it in your podcast app. That stuff helps a lot and makes it easier for other folks to connect with the show and inspire the next generation of palaeontologists. Otherwise you can support the show and spread the word by buying stickers in our online shop. Just go to palsinpaleo.com and you can also find full episode transcripts there too.
Today's show was edited by long-term collaborator and all-round good dude, Francy, who's the lead singer of Hello Kelly. Francy also came up with our theme music and brought the lyrics I'd written down to life and cannot recommend Hello Kelly enough. If you're stuck in a car with me for over an hour and I have control over the music, you're going to end up listening to a couple of tracks of Hello Kelly.
To get a taste of what it's like to road trip with me, you can listen to their latest album Sweet Nostalgia for yourself. It's up on Apple Music, Spotify, and heaps of other platforms. Big shout out to Jenny Zhao from Crumpet Clubhouse and Amy Franks. Jenny created the podcast cover art and drew the sauropod featured on today's episode art. They also came up with the Pales in Palaeo social media branding, so if you like that and are looking to work with some very cool freelance creatives, highly recommend them.
Thank you to my buddy, César Puechmarin for content assistance. He has his own podcast called Death by Birding, which he produces and edits himself, and while we're not copying each other's homework or anything like that, he is a springboard for ideas. If you like living things, particularly the aves, and don't mind the occasional swear word, go and check out Death by Birding. That brings us to the end of the episode. Thanks heaps for listening. Hope you're enjoying the wild ride that is season two in these interviews.
Thank you so much for listening and spending time with a couple of dinosaur-obsessed friends hanging out and chatting away. We'll be back in two weeks' time with another episode, but until then, dig deep, stay hydrated and I'll talk to you soon. Just keep digging, just keep digging, just keep digging, what do we do we dig?
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The sauropods of Star Wars
A juvenile Diamantinasaurus matildae (Dinosauria: Titanosauria) from the Upper Cretaceous Winton Formation of Queensland, Australia, with implications for sauropod ontogeny
Australia's smallest sauropod dinosaur confirmed from fossils found in outback Queensland
Australian Age of Dinosaurs - Diamantinasaurus
Australian Age of Dinosaurs - Join a Dinosaur Dig
Australian Age of Dinosaurs - Volunteer in the Lab
Queensland State Fossil Emblem: Diamantinasaurus matildae
Australian Museum - Diamantinasaurus
Diamantinasaurus (Oliver) plush