Tim Holland

Dinosaur wrangler

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If a stranger asks me what I do, I... typically say I’m a vertebrate palaeontologist. This usually elicits one of two responses: “Oh! Tutankhamun! Can you get me free Tutankhamun tickets?” and then I have to disappoint them and say no. But most of the time people get it correct, they say palaeontology, fossils, dinosaurs, prehistoric animals, that sort of thing.

At Scienceworks they were looking for somebody who could multi-task. There were two jobs that they required: they needed somebody to be able to do research on dinosaurs and they also needed somebody to be able to write. And I was lucky enough with my past doing a PhD, I knew how to write in publishing journal articles, although it is a bit different writing for the public, I have to simplify things, but also I knew how to do research. I knew how to get all the facts together and present it in a nice simple manner.

In my job... it’s really important to think that the audience you’re writing to is incredibly smart. Never underestimate the intelligence of children. They’re going to pick up any wrong facts about dinosaurs, if names are spelled incorrectly. They’re more on-point than sometimes the scientists, so you just have to remember that.

The first thing I do when I get to work is... check my trusty orange notepad to look at all my to-do lists and tick them off. At the moment we’re looking towards opening the Explore-a-saurus exhibition at Scienceworks at the start of June. We’re presenting animatronic dinosaurs which have been at Scienceworks in the past but also many new interactives where we want to present to kids how we know what we know about dinosaurs, sort of like a dinosaur CSI. We’ve got new interactives on how dinosaurs saw things, new interactives on the environments that dinosaurs lived in, things like camouflage they might have used, and also new interactives on what dinosaurs might have looked like, whether they were covered in skin or what colour they were.

In my job I never thought I would... write about dinosaur poo. As somebody who’s published in Nature and Science, the Explore-a-saurus exhibition has allowed me to expand my writing palette. So the label [reads]:


Watch out for the dinosaur poo on the floor! Do you know which dinosaurs they came from?

  • Duck-billed dinosaurs lived in herds and often trampled their poo. They were filled with woody plants like conifers.
  • The poo of long-necked dinosaurs like Apatosaurus were large and rounded.
  • The poo of large meat-eating dinosaurs like Allosaurus were long and large. Some are filled with broken pieces of muscle and bone.

I want to stop [here] and say, alright, fine, it’s not exactly Oscar Wilde or anything like that but poo itself is almost the universal language. Everybody gets a little bit of a giggle out of it, whether it’s young people, old people... yeah.

In my job I would be satisfied... with kids coming to Explore-a-saurus and learning something new and learning about palaeontology and what we do – people doing hundreds of different things and using new techniques to learn about how dinosaurs lived.

When I was a scientist... it wasn’t just dusting dinosaur bones off. I spent a lot of time in the field collecting material. We’d often go out to places like the Simpson Desert or the Kimberley region for two or three weeks at a time, sometimes not bring a lot of things back but sometimes come back with a couple of rare things. In the lab we’d spend a lot of time doing preparation. It wasn’t just like ‘here’s a bone, study it’ - sometimes bone was surrounded in really hard rock matrix and we’d spend hours, days, months, years, to prepare with a mixture of either using drills or acid. Also I spent a lot of time doing research - studying bones, measuring them and also a lot of time writing without a lot of sleep.

Later this week, I will... be submitting my grant proposal to the government for a project I have in mind to go look for early tetrapod fossils in Victoria. Tetrapods are all four-legged vertebrate animals alive today and also some that have lost their limbs, like snakes. You are indeed a tetrapod, and I’m a tetrapod, and horses are tetrapods, and snakes are tetrapods... the ancestors of snakes had legs, they’ve lost them through evolution.

What’s that?

Tim Holland with fossil skullThat’s the skull of a plant-eating dinosaur known as an ornithopod. The skull has literally thousands of teeth inside there which are ground down and worn away as the animal chews, and are constantly replaced as new teeth are pushed up from beneath.


dinosaur leg bone from the OtwaysIn this particular cabinet here we have dinosaur fossils from coastal Victoria. We have specimens form Inverloch and also the Otways. What some people may not realise the collections of Museum Victoria are a lot bigger than what’s on display. You’ve got to think of it like an iceberg: only the tip is showing and a huge base of specimens underlies that.

Outside the office I... like to try to play the guitar and attempt to play the banjo, I’m not very good, but mostly just spending time with my girlfriend and my family and my friends, and not talking about palaeontology a lot of the time. It’s nice to have a life outside of that and just relax.

If I had a magic wand... right now, I’d like to interview you, Andi! Have you been interviewed before? I think your listeners would really appreciate to hear what makes you tick. Next week, if you’ve got the time, I’d love to come back here and interview you... same questions, I think it would be great!

“I never thought I would write about dinosaur poo...”