Someone's Gotta Do It - Brian Choo

Research associate

Listen and read

I first got into this area by being a raging geek. Loved dinosaurs since I was a little kid and was drawing dinosaurs and that maintained my interest in palaeontology since I was a small child of six years old.

The fish I work with, they’re from the late Devonian period, about 375–380 million years old.

In my job I never dreamed... I would work on dead fish for a living. Dinosaurs are the sexy thing when you are a little kid when you are interested in palaeontology but once you scratch the surface you find this whole array of weird and wonderful animals I never would have dreamed existed as a little kid and that’s why I am working with dead fish.

First thing I do when I get to work is… spend about ten minutes procrastinating, to work out what the hell I am supposed to be doing and usually have a quick going over on my specimens. Even fossils that I have spent months looking at, just coming in first thing in the morning in a different mood, I’ll sometimes notice new things or see things slot together in a different way. Later this week I’ve been concentrating more looking at their brain cases using CT tomography so fiddling around with this (apparently) supercomputer and getting a decent look at the insides of their heads.

In my job it is important to... be analytical, but at the same time retain a passion for your subject matter. It is good to have both a good imagination and a good analytical mind. Sort of like a fine balance between discipline and artistic flair.

If I had a magic wand… it would be nice to have some of these fish I work with as actual aquarium specimens, so possibly a little bit of resurrection here and there, having a nice little school of placoderms and palaeoniscoids swimming around in my 55 gallon tank.

In a crystal ball I can see my job will… well, the whole thing is kind of swirly at the moment. Honestly I am not really looking too far into the future; I am concentrating on taking things one day at a time. For example I never dreamed I would be here today three years ago when I first came to Melbourne and just a few weeks ago I got an offer for a position in Beijing, China and I never dreamed that more than a few weeks ago, so big things seem to be coming from completely unexpected directions.

Others say I… well, beyond a stark raving loony, they say that I am not exactly conventional. I’m 50 per cent artist and 50 per cent scientist so I do like to spend a lot of time illustrating what I work on and doing rather over-intricate paintings of them. It’s good to have an artist’s eye as well as an analytical eye when working on this material.

Outside the office I like to… —geek alert!— watch Sci Fi, online gaming, literally play with my snake, as in literally, the reptilian sort. You can see some of the shed skins up there and I am an avid aquarist, I keep both marine and fresh water fish. I suppose the only remotely macho thing I do is a bit of bush walking.

What’s this?
Actinopterygian FishThis is a dead fish, a fossil of a dead fish, about 380 billion years old, from the Gogo Formation of Western Australia up in the Kimberlies. It’s a primitive actinopterygian fish - that is a bit of a tongue twister. Actinopterygians are about 95 per cent of all the different fish alive today, so things like swordfish, salmon, tuna, eels. Back then in the Devonian they were the new kids on the block, they were a pretty rare, pretty sparse group of fish and I am trying to work out some of their early evolution. One of the most important groups of backboned animals alive today and I am trying to work out where they came from and how they first evolved.

What’s this?
GogosardiniaWell it’s another dead fish. This is another specimen from the Gogo Formation, it’s called Gogosardina—the sardine from Gogo—and it is particularly a special little specimen because up here it’s got lots and lots of elements stuck in its gills from a little animal called a conodont. Based on the size of these little elements, we guess that the conodont was about the same size as this fish and since they are up among the gills we’ve got a bit of an idea on how this fish died, it probably tried to swallow a conodont animal, it got lodged in its gills and the poor little fish choked to death. Not a nice way to go.

“...this whole array of weird and wonderful animals I never would have dreamed existed...”

Image Gallery

Brian Choo's incredible collection of plastic animal toys Brian Choo with fish fossils Poster by Brian Choo