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Q&A with Dr Erich Fitzgerald: Keynote speaker at Conasta 62.

Erich Fitzgerald is the Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at Museum Victoria. As a palaeontologist, he specializes in the study of marine mammal evolution by uncovering their fossil record and researching aquatic adaptations of living whales, seals, and dugongs. His research has led to the discovery of the 'missing link' in the evolution of baleen whales. Dr Fitzgerald is also a participant in the field excavation and study of dinosaurs that roamed Victoria 100 million years ago.

What sparked off your interest in Earth Science?

For as long as I can remember I have had a passion for nature, especially palaeontology. As a child, palaeontology readily appealed to me because it combined my three favorite things: rocks, animals and evolution! When growing up I was fortunate to have an understanding family and parents that fostered my interests, never dissuading me from my fanatical quest to find out everything I could about the origins of life.

One question has always fired my curiosity and still does today: how did the organisms and environments we see around us now come to be as they are? If I were to name the one thing that sparked my serious interest in earth science it would have to be my copy of an illustrated edition of Darwin's On the Origin of Species that I read multiple times between the ages of seven and thirteen. I would spend hours poring over Darwin's observations on the geology and fossil record of South

America, supplemented with the editor's discussion of the formation of the Isthmus of Panama and its impact on the evolution of the American mammal fauna. I recall how stirring it was to contemplate the immense scale of such tectonic forces and their role in shaping the evolution of life. That copy of the On the Origin of Species still resides on my bookshelf.

Who or what has influenced the direction of your career/research?

When I was eight years old I visited a Museum Victoria open day at the grand old museum building on Russell Street. My imagination was captured by the 'back of house' offices and labs of the palaeontology department. There I met the curator of vertebrate palaeontology, Dr Thomas Rich. I was keen to learn more about the evolution of mammals; not dinosaurs like most other kids. Dr Rich suggested I visit the Monash University sciences library and find journal articles by palaeontologists whose names I no longer remember.

With this advice from a 'real palaeontologist', my parents (patiently) agreed one weekend to take me to the university and track down the articles. Following the visit I returned home with photocopies of several articles from learned journals. I don't recall understanding the text, but having the technical illustrations of fossil bones and tooth anatomy was like being granted access to another world. I was hooked, and decided there and then at the age of eight to become a vertebrate palaeontologist.

Where was your best field trip experience and why?

Without a doubt the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), which I visited as a PhD student while attending the World Summit on Evolution in 2005. To explore the rugged volcanic terrain and see marine iguanas, giant tortoises, Darwin's finches and other marvels of nature - it was like my illustrated Origin of Species come to fife, It was an awe-inspiring experience to stand on the beach where Darwin first made landfall in the Galapagos. I hope to return there one day.

In a few words describe your career/research area.

I am a vertebrate palaeontologist, which means I study the fossil record and evolution of animals with backbones, like us! My primary area of expertise and research interest is the evolution of marine mammals: whales, dolphins, seals and dugongs.

I studied undergraduate earth sciences and zoology at the University of Melbourne, followed by a PhD in earth sciences (palaeontology) at Monash University where my advisors were Professor Patricia Vickers-Rich and Dr Thomas Rich. Immediately after my PhD, I was awarded a prestigious Smithsonian Institution Fellowship to undertake postdoctoral research in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the United States National Museum of Natural History. I returned to Australia in 2009 to take up the Harold Mitchell Fellowship at Museum Victoria in Melbourne.

Where would you like to go with Earth Science in the future? What's your dream job?

am seeking to uncover the evolutionary history of marine vertebrates, especially whales, in Australian seas over the last 65 million years. Until now, no Australian palaeontologist has dedicated themselves to this pursuit. Consequently, we know very little about the details of this aspect of our fossil record. It's a wide open field. Fortunately, southern Australia in particular is endowed with an excellent record of Cenozoic marine sediments so there is no practical limit, in terms of outcrop, to exploration for fossils. In addition, there are thousands of marine vertebrate fossils already in museum collections, so we know that such fossils occur here in abundance.

We're at the bottom of a steep learning curve, so there are many fundamental discoveries to make in the coming years. I hope to contribute to these discoveries through a research curatorial position at a museum where I can also help train the next generation of Australian vertebrate palaeontologists.

This interview was originally written for the Geological Society of Australia magazine 'The Australian Geologist' December 2011 issue and is printed here with permission.
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Publication:Teaching Science
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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