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Stephen

Stephen Poropat

Year of Award: 2017 Award State: Victoria
To explore the impact of continental drift and climate change on Southern Hemisphere dinosaur faunas - Argentina
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To the ends outlined above, I would like to see more collaboration between Argentinian and Australian palaeontologists. My Churchill Fellowship has definitely opened the door to such collaborations for me personally, and I fully intend to strengthen those relationships. Many Australian–Argentinian collaborations have occurred in the last few decades, and I would hope that many will in future.

I had hoped that many of my hosts, and other palaeontologists that I met throughout my Fellowship, would be attending the 79th Annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Conference (the biggest conference in vertebrate palaeontology), which is being held later this year in Brisbane. This will be the first time the meeting has been held in the Southern Hemisphere, it will provide many attendees with the opportunity to visit Australian vertebrate palaeontology collections, and it would seem to be the perfect gateway to collaborations between Argentinian and Australian palaeontologists. However, when I asked the Argentinian palaeontologists hosting me in each institution whether or not they would be attending, almost all said no. The reason? A lack of funding. Given that Argentina’s economy had collapsed shortly before my arrival, I must admit that I did not find this that surprising. However, even had the economy been in better shape, I would still not have found it surprising, since Australian palaeontologists often find it difficult to attend overseas conferences themselves for the same reason.

Perhaps a solution would be to have virtual scientific meetings that enable South American and Australian researchers — and those from other continents or countries that were formerly part of the Gondwanan supercontinent, like Africa, Madagascar and India — to overcome the tyranny of distance between these now widely-separated landmasses? My experience with internet connectivity throughout Argentina gave me the sense that researchers there would have no trouble participating in a video conference. The language of science is English, which is great for Australian palaeontologists but not so for some of our Argentinian colleagues; many of my hosts’ English was exemplary, whereas others relished in the opportunity to practise. Virtual conferences would give Argentinian palaeontologists the chance to speak English in a congenial setting, to find like-minded colleagues who could read over manuscripts and improve the quality of their English, and to discuss the current state-of-play in Argentinian palaeontology while learning the same of Australian palaeontology.

The study of past life helps us understand how our planet has changed through time and places modern floras and faunas (and humanity) in an appropriate context. Critically, palaeontology is often the spark that ignites an interest in science in children. I saw this in every Argentinian museum I visited: schoolchildren of all ages gazed in wonder at skeletons of dinosaurs and fossil mammals, chatting excitedly with their classmates about our planet’s past denizens. Those Argentinian schoolchildren — and the children of Australia — include among their number the majority of the Southern Hemisphere’s future scientists. By instilling an appreciation for nature, for humanity’s place within the natural world, for the scale and mechanics of past environmental and evolutionary changes, and for the real risk of extinction for all species (including us), we will give them a chance to better look after their home than did previous generations. The quality of the Earth these children inherit, and their capacity to stabilise or improve it, will be impacted by scientific understanding and technology. Therefore, it is essential that as much scientific interest as possible is sparked and nurtured in children and adults alike.

To this end, palaeontology has a huge part to play. However, in order to recognise this potential, palaeontology will need more financial support. The employment of more palaeontologists in museums and universities across Australia would go some way to achieving this.

Keywords: Dinosaur, ornithopod, sauropod, theropod, Gondwana, Argentina, Antarctica, Australia