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ARC Research Associate
Alessandro Palci

My research interests centre on the origin and evolution of squamate reptiles, with a special focus on snakes and mosasaurs (extinct giant marine lizards). In my research I integrate data from fossils, osteological specimens, high-resolution computed tomographies (including diceCT), and histology.

Analysis of these data is complemented with phylogenetic and geometric morphometrics methods, in order to draw inferences about evolutionary patterns and processes, palaeoecology, and development.

My current research projects involve several aspects of snake anatomy and evolution, and the investigation of both extant and fossil species.

Snakes originated sometime in the Mesozoic (over 167 million years ago), but very little is known about which group of lizards they descended from, or if their long limbless bodies and highly flexible skulls are the result of special adaptations to a particular habitat and lifestyle (e.g. marine vs fossorial).

Snakes are very well represented in Australia, and their great diversity on this continent (including fossorial, terrestrial, and aquatic species) is a source of endless exciting discoveries. Importantly, Australia was also home to the last representatives of a very old lineage of ancient snakes, madtsoiids, the last species of which, Wonambi naracoortensis, went extinct only 50,000 years ago. These important fossils may hold clues about the mysterious origins of snakes.

Snakes are also interesting because they independently evolved a venom delivery apparatus multiple times, which greatly contributed to their evolutionary success. I am currently studying the evolution of fangs, their morphological disparity, and correlations between fang shape and factors such as diet and habitat.

Mosasaurs are another group of reptiles that I find very interesting, because, as the result of a very successful secondary marine invasion and niche partitioning, they produced an intriguing array of different skull anatomies. Mosasaurs also include some of the largest reptiles that ever existed, and their remains are found on all continents including Antarctica, which is further testament to their incredible evolutionary success. They went extinct with the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period, after ruling the oceans as the top predators for about 25 million years.