Jacob van Zoelen
I’ve been volunteering and undertaking research projects in the Flinders University Palaeontology Laboratory since 2013.
My primary interest is analysing morphological changes in organisms for functional interpretation and systematic analyses.
I am particularly interested in observing these changes in megaherbivores because of their great importance in biodiversity, being key ecosystem engineers in the environments that they inhabit.
Another of my interests is in using palaeontology as a way to inform modern conservation practices. By learning about the megaherbivores of the past I hope that this information can be applied to not only understanding Australia’s current biota but to aid in conservation strategies for megaherbivores still alive today.
Currently, I am undertaking a PhD looking at the systematics of the largest marsupial family to ever exist, the Diprotodontidae. These large predominantly quadrupedal marsupial herbivores were distantly related to modern wombats and koalas, which had members such as Diprotodon optatum, estimated to weigh well above two tons. Fossils of this family are found all over Australia and New Guinea from the Late Oligocene (approximately 26 million years ago) to when the last members went extinct towards the end of the Pleistocene (approximately 40 thousand years ago).
In my PhD I have travelled to museums around the world and digitised thousands of specimens belonging to the Diprotodontidae through the use of 3D surface scanning and computed tomography (CT) scanning. With these scans, I am able to compare and analyse more specimens of this group, and in greater detail, that has ever been done before. Subsequently, I can answer fundamental questions about this group including: how many species there are, how are they related to each other, and, where are their fossils found?
With this information better understood, myself and future researchers can gain a better understanding of the ecology and evolution of this iconic Australian fauna.