Science prize for fossil discovery

10 November, 2008

Gogo 2008
Dr John Long at the Gogo site where the fossilised placoderm fish was first discovered.
Image: Peter Long
Source: Museum Victoria

Dr John Long has won the 2008 Australasian Science Prize for his discovery of a 375-million-year-old fossil and embryo.

The find was significant not only because it uncovered the oldest known example of any creature giving birth to live young, but also because the fossilised placoderm fish had an intact umbilical cord. It was found on an expedition to Gogo led by Dr Long in mid-2005.

Dr Long is the Head of Sciences at Museum Victoria. His discovery of the fossil embryo in the Gogo area of north-west Western Australia, published in Nature in May 2008, was also the cover story in the July issue of Australasian Science.

Long describes the fossil as “the Rosetta stone that opened our minds to interpreting other fossils” with less clearly recognisable embryos. The “mother fish” is a major breakthrough in palaeontology, which will help to provide insight into the breeding behaviour of an entire class of extinct species; it constitutes the oldest example of vertebrate sex unearthed to date.

The fossil, a 25-cm long placoderm fish, belongs to the dominant group of vertebrates throughout the Middle Palaeozoic era – sometimes dubbed “dinosaurs of the sea”. It has been named “Materpiscis attenboroughi” after renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

Dr Long published the work with collaborators Dr Kate Trinajstic, Dr Gavin Young, and Dr Tim Senden, and was funded by the Australian Research Council. Dr Long commented that the award constitutes “a shot in the arm for palaeontology” and "a fantastic recognition of the way museums are doing high quality science”

The Australasian Science Prize was established in 2000 and is overseen by leading scientific referees. Dr Long is scheduled to receive the 2008 prize on 10 November and then deliver a public lecture, “Live Birth in the Devonian”.

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