Dirty jobs

Professor John A. Long researches prehistoric sex and beyond

By Gary Spencer

Photo: Professor and paleontologist John A. Long on location in South Australia

Have you ever wondered how the dinosaurs “did it”? Have you ever wondered what member of the animal kingdom is the best endowed? Have you ever wondered if there are any creatures on this planet that can procreate homosexually? Well, your inquiring minds might find the answers to these questions and more from Australian paleontologist, professor and author John A. Long, whose book, “The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex” explores these topics and many more, which seemingly marry the work of paleontologist Jack Horner with German sex therapist Ruth Westheimer. So, with that in mind, we here at Dayton City Paper thought we’d speak with Long about his research on a topic everybody finds interesting … sex.

Hello! Please introduce yourself:

I’m Professor John Long from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. I work on ancient fossil fishes to try and understand how the human body plan was built from the ground up, mainly by studying how major anatomical systems evolved in these early fishes. – John A. Long

What does paleontology have to do with sex, exactly?

Paleontology shows us what life was like on the planet millions of years before humans appeared. With extremely well preserved fossils, we can determine a lot about the behavior of prehistoric organisms. My 380-million-year-old fossil fishes preserve intact embryos and the oldest known male sexual organs, so all of that allows us to reconstruct their sexual behavior and reproductive strategies. – JL

What was the catalyst for writing the book “The Dawn of the Deed”?

The catalyst for writing “The Dawn of the Deed” was finding the mother fish Materpiscis attenboroughi, and all the ensuing global media coverage it generated once the nature paper of April 2008 came out [“Live Birth in the Devonian period”]. This showed me there was a lot of genuine interest in the topic from the public, so it was worthy of writing a book about. – JL

What topics do you tackle within your 2012 book, “The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex”?

The books covers the entire record of what we know about the evolution of sexual behavior and mating in animals based on the fossil record. I frequently draw upon what is known of mating behavior in living organisms to help reconstruct how prehistoric animals did it and how it has played a major role in their evolutionary success. The book also deals with human sexual evolution and the evolution of homosexuality in nature, so it touches on a number of key issues with political relevance. – JL

How can placoderm fish and dinosaurs teach us about the history of sex?

We can reconstruct sexual behavior in dinosaurs by looking at their closest living relatives – birds and crocodiles. Their nests and eggs give us clues as to how they might have mated and how they brooded their young. With ancient placoderm fishes, it’s much more explicit, as we have discovered the male genital organs, which were formed of bone (claspers). One fossil, named Materpiscis (mother fish) had an embryo preserved with a mineralized umbilical cord attached, so that confirms they copulated and the females were internally fertilized. This suggests these placoderms mated like sharks using claspers to transfer sperm into the females. This also implies early mating behavior was complex, as pre-copulation rituals could have also evolved at this stage. – JL

What are some of the most common questions you get asked about your research, findings and writings on these topics?

People are curious to know why this all matters, why such studies are important. The evolution of the first jawed animals (placoderms) was significant, as they underwent the first major radiations of all vertebrates into many diverse species. Understanding their mating behavior and sexuality is a key area for determining why they were so successful on this planet. One placoderm fish, Bothriolepis, is known from some 200 species, with forms living on every continent: that’s success for you! – JL

What are some common misconceptions people may have about the historic origins of sex and/or what you research and write about?

People are often amazed to learn fishes invented copulation and mastered internal fertilization well before animals began leaving the seas and invading land. The act of copulation evolved many times in different lines of animals, so that is why there are many different kinds of mating behavior. – JL

Since you’ve written “The Dawn of the Deed,” have you been studying, researching or writing about any related subjects that might intrigue our readers?

Yes, we are working on amazing new discoveries of placoderms that will push back the origins of copulation even further down the evolutionary ladder. All will be revealed in the science media later this year when our paper comes out. – JL

What does the future hold for your studies/writings? Are there any particular goals or aspirations you have for your work?

I’m currently a full-time research professor, so I now have the time to keep collecting and studying these ancient fossils. I would like to be able to link the evolution of advanced sexual behavior (copulation and internal fertilization) in the oldest known jawed vertebrates to major species radiations and evolutionary explosions. There is much more work to do yet, though. – JL

John A. Long is currently a Strategic Professor in Paleontology at Flinders university in Adelaide, South Australia. His book, “Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex” is available on Amazon.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Gary Spencer at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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