Elen photo

Research Assistant
Elen Shute

My research combines two of my long-standing loves – birds and fossils.

I study Australian fossil birds from the recent past (Plio-Pleistocene and Holocene), to illuminate the evolutionary and biogeographical history of the modern Australian avifauna. I also work in conservation, and aim to draw these worlds closer together in the future.

A trip to London’s Natural History Museum when I was five first sparked my interest in fossils. I don’t remember anything about it – but I do remember the books, rubber dinosaurs and enthusiasm I came home with.

It took 27 more years to actually get around to starting a PhD in palaeontology in the Flinders Palaeo Lab, but it was worth the wait and I loved every minute of it (apart from the bit where I had to climb a rope-ladder out of Leaena’s Breath Cave – that bit sucked).

For my PhD I was privileged to study exceptionally well-preserved fossil birds from the Thylacoleo Caves beneath the Nullarbor Plain. As part of this project I described a number of new species of extinct birds from the Pleistocene – including the world’s largest cuckoos and some giant megapodes.

Overall, my PhD research revealed that the Australian avifauna has been more marked by extinctions in the recent past than has previously been realised. The significance of this for the conservation of modern birds is currently unclear – are living species the tough survivors, or are they more vulnerable to extinction than we thought? I hope to try and answer this question through my ongoing research.

Current projects

  • The fossil record of Night Parrots – arguably the world’s most enigmatic birds
  • Identification and analysis of bird fossils from Quaternary-aged cave sites around Australia (Nullarbor, Naracoorte, Wellington)
  • The description of more new species that I discovered during my PhD, which sit on my conscience like a vulture sits on a carcass.