Science and Art a 'Marriage Made in Heaven' for Renowned Palaeontologist

Thursday, May 31, 2018

PHOTO: Honours student Patrick Tavasci, centre, is using art to help present his scientific research. (ABC South East SA: Lucy Robinson)

Art and science can seem like they are worlds apart, but in the work of palaeontologist Julian Hume, they are constantly colliding.

The researcher from London's Natural History Museum has spent a lifetime studying extinct species like the dodo, piecing together pictures of animals no living human has ever seen.

"If you're lucky and you have an animal that has a close relation living today, it gives you a good idea of how that animal may have been in the past," Mr Hume said.

"It's when you get animals where there's no living relative that the real fun begins."

Mr Hume, also a UK Channel 4 presenter who has worked with David Attenborough, is teaching South Australian artists and science students to reconstruct and paint animals that once lived in their region.

His first workshop, at the Naracoorte Caves in SA's south east, focused on the thylacoleo — Australia's 'marsupial lion' — and short-nosed kangaroo, which roamed the area about 60,000 years ago.

"We're looking at how they looked, how they lived, how they interacted with the environment," Mr Hume said.

"If you were standing here 60,000 years ago, it wouldn't have been all that different from today.

"The plants would have been the same and there may have been little subtle changes, but actually what you're looking at here is the same as what it was in the past."

Mr Hume said science and a little bit of artistic licence both played a role in deducing what the animals looked like.

"It's one big circle because the science starts the process and then the art comes in and you get another twist," Mr Hume said.

"First off you look at the fossil records … you do measurements and get your ratios right.

"Then once you've got those proportions you need to understand the background — is the environment the same now as it was in the past or has it changed?

"Once you've got everything in place, you can then start putting paint on canvas. That's the real fun.""

"It's quite a hard job but hopefully at the end you end up with something that's artistic but also scientifically accurate — that's the key thing."

A different way to present research

For Honours student Patrick Tavasci, the genre of 'paleoart' represented a new way to convey research findings.

The University of Adelaide palaeontology student wants to be able to draw his own reconstructions of the environment around the Naracoorte Caves for his honours project.

"It's really good to be able to represent it other than just using raw data, because the data is very helpful scientifically but it's also very bland and dry," he said.

"Putting it in the art is still a valid way of communicating it and it makes it so much more appealing."

He said it was often hard to focus on the big picture of the environments he studies in the lab.

"In my case, I'm focusing just on the mammals so I don't get a good idea of how the flora and fauna inter-relate across the landscape," he said.

"Looking at the ecology is really good background information for thinking about how these systems work."

PHOTO: "It's one big circle." Julian Hume says science and art both feed the end result of his paintings. (ABC South East SA: Rhett Burnie)

Dr Liz Reed, who is a vertebrate palaeontologist from the University of Adelaide and Mr Tavasci's project supervisor, said she believed all her students could benefit from picking up a paintbrush.

"What we're about as scientists and artists is telling stories," she said.

"And it seems like a really great thing to combine the two and tell the amazing science stories of Naracoorte Caves using art.

"I think it's really a marriage made in heaven."

Global direction for caves

Dr Reed said the workshop, organised as a collaboration between her university, Country Arts SA and the Australian Landscape Trust, had come at an exciting time for the Naracoorte Caves.

"There has been an injection of enthusiasm into scientific research here in recent years," she said.

Funding granted by the Australian Research Council last year has given the university at least four more years to continue research at the site.

"The aim is to lift the scientific profile of the site which will in turn encourage more scientists — and I'm sure internationals — to work here," Dr Reed said.

"The really wonderful thing about the deposits from Naracoorte is it's a mixture of animals that we know and still have in Australia today and those that became extinct.

"I honestly do think it's one of those Rolls Royce fossil sites — this place really does have it all."

Mr Hume may have spent most of his life looking into the past, but he also has an important message to spread about the future.

"This here was a once-dynamic environment that's now gone forever," he said.

"Let's not repeat what's happened in the past. Let's save what we have because it's precious.

"And what we know now is that once it's gone, it never comes back."