Dr Aaron Camens never grew out of his childhood love for ancient animals and now he’s living the dream, exploring extinct animals through fossils and coordinating topics for Flinders University’s unique palaeontology degree.
What is your role and what does your current research focus on?
I’ve been a Lecturer in Palaeontology here at Flinders since 2014. I coordinate the palaeontology topics in our BSc(Palaeontology) released in 2019. My research has three main focuses: through sites such as Lake Callabonna (in the Lake Frome Basin) and Cooper Creek and the Warburton River (up near Lake Eyre) I’ve been investigating the functional morphology and palaeoecology of the giant extinct animals that were around when humans first arrived in Australia; also in the Lake Frome Basin, we’ve been working on some exciting new finds from 25 million year old sediments. These fossils are providing key insights into the evolution of modern groups of marsupials; the third part of my research involves fossil footprints and what they can teach us about the behaviour, locomotion and distribution of various Australian megafaunal species.
What inspired you towards this field?
I was one of those kids who started playing with dinosaurs and never grew out of it!
A key turning point for me was participating in a megafaunal dig on Kangaroo Island during my undergrad, run by Flinders University’s Emeritus Professor Rod Wells. That excavation gave me my first glimpse into the animals that roamed Australia only a geological blink of an eye ago. Rod’s passion for teaching and his generosity in providing students with opportunities are key philosophies that have helped shape my career.
Can you describe the journey that took you to this point in your career?
My palaeontology journey has been a series of serendipitous events revolving around seizing every fieldwork opportunity I could and expanding into research areas that weren’t previously being studied. I first worked on fossil footprints during a field trip to the Warburton River in 2006 and the publication arising from that led to investigations of how extinct animals move, spanning the whole continent.
Can you describe a challenge in your life and how you dealt with it?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my career is actually having a career in palaeontology in the first place. Like all research-based careers, there are far more people qualified than there are positions available. The key to my success has been to embrace whatever opportunities have been offered, to travel and work with a wide range of people, to find a niche within palaeontology to establish expertise in, and to hold on to my passion for such an exciting and dynamic field of science.
What is something you are most proud of?
I am proud of the vibrant palaeontology group that I have helped build here at Flinders and of the opportunities we are able to offer to students at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels through Australia’s first full palaeontology degree.
What does a normal day look like for you?
One of the great things about being a palaeontologist is the diversity of activities that fall under the broad umbrella of palaeontology. It means that there’s always something interesting happening in our lab here at Flinders and further abroad.
Through fieldwork, we get to visit some spectacular, remote areas and find fossils that have never been seen before. Back at the lab my job is a mixture of preparing and identifying fossils, helping undergraduate students to learn more about the fossil heritage of our country, sharing the research journeys of postgraduate students and bouncing between computer and lab in pursuit of my own research interests.
How do you like to relax or spend your spare time?
Haha spare time…. as soon as I find some I’ll let you know! When I get the chance I love to get outside and experience the Australian flora and fauna, we’re lucky to live in such an amazing country with animals that don’t exist anywhere else in the world and I want to see them all!