Research Assistant
Warren Handley

I have always been fascinated with birds, especially extinct ones, and have been fortunate to work on fossil birds throughout my postgraduate studies with Flinders Palaeontology. My Honours research focused on the morphology of the hind-leg bones of the giant, flightless dromornithid birds from the late Miocene (~6 to 8 Million years ago) of central Australia. I then undertook a PhD investigating differences in the brain morphology of several extinct Australasian birds in Galloanseres, a group of birds including landfowl (pheasants and megapodes), waterfowl (ducks and geese), and dromornithids. I used geometric morphometric methods to make comparisons of brain shape using landmarks, much like GPS coordinates, placed on digital models of brains generated from computed tomography (CT) scans of modern and fossil bird skulls.

I have worked with several kinds of CT data, including conventional medical-CT scans, micro-CT scans at much finer detail, even to a few thousandths of a millimetre; and neutron-CT scans, which enabled visualisation of the brain space in fossil skulls completely filled with hard limestone material. These imaging technologies allowed the previously unknown brains of extinct birds to be modelled, measured and compared.

At present I contribute research into the evolutionary morphology of fossil kangaroo inner-ear structures, and work with specimens sourced from sites of Pliocene (~5.3 to 2.5 million years ago) and Pleistocene age (~2.5 million to ~12 000 years ago), covering important periods of kangaroo evolution and extinction. Using CT and morphometric methods, I evaluate differences in the shape and structure of the inner ears, which provides valuable insight into the shifting locomotory ecology of different kinds of kangaroos through geological time. Attempting to better understand how a particular group of animals have evolved the most efficient mode of terrestrial locomotion on the planet is a great challenge, and a privilege, and a most interesting way to spend one’s day.