Meet the Author:
Shane Meekin

We interviewed Shane Meekin, a passionate Paleontology researcher and one of the authors from Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand about his article Aureia rerehua, a new platanistoid dolphin from the Oligocene of New Zealand with a unique feeding method.

Published in February 2024, his work discusses the discovery and anatomical features of a new platanistoid dolphin species, Aureia rerehua, found in the Oligocene of New Zealand. The study highlights unique feeding methods of Aureia rerehua, including teeth that may have formed a cage around small fish, suggesting a specialized hunting strategy in shallow waters.

Shane published his article Open Acesss (OA) making it free to read for all. He was able to do this through the CAUL agreement, between Taylor & Francis and Australia & New Zealand institutions, which you can read more about here.

Shane Meekin

    Can you introduce yourself, give us a brief description about who you are, and where you are based in the world. 

    My name is Shane Meekin. I was born in Porirua and raised in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an inexplicable obsession with prehistoric creatures. Almost everything I did revolved around dinosaurs, bone collecting, or fossil hunting as a kid. Palaeontology was the only career I ever aimed for at school.

    For this reason, I travelled down to Dunedin to scout out the University of Otago, the only in New Zealand to offer both geology and zoology. Upon seeing the in-house Geology Museum, complete with a publicly viewable fossil preparation lab, I knew I had to get involved. After plenty of time lingering around the Geology Museum in my first year at university, I was fortunate to meet the team at the Paleo Department, then headed by the late Professor Ewan Fordyce. Under their guidance, I volunteered with cleaning fossils, joined field expeditions, and eventually started my own master’s research on some selected prehistoric dolphins they collected in the 2010’s.

    It was the perfect chance to examine the gorgeous fossils and discuss ancient predators with fascinating traits to unravel. That’s how I eventually came to describing these dolphins and naming Aureia rerehua in my first paper. My career has taken a few twists and turns during and after university. I’ve prepared a variety of fossils from whales to moa, bred mice for medical research, and now I’m in Japan teaching English as I search for future research and study opportunities.

    However, my compass always points towards Paleontology.

    Working with fossils, what are some of the unique challenges and limitations you encounter?

    Ancient bones crushed under tons of sediment and subject to geological pressures are less than pristine. This is doubly true when specimens are exposed to the surface through weathering or accidental machinery strikes. Aureia for instance has these beautifully preserved teeth that glimmer with some intriguing hunting method but the front of her snout was shorn off. This gave us an idea of how she hunted, while leaving a missing piece of the puzzle. Not only is looking at every remaining clue essential, but so is comparison with other fossils. The more related specimens available, the more you can bridge informational gaps in common areas. However, seemingly unrelated creatures can also provide new perspectives on the more bizarre features of unique specimens.

    Aureia’s cousins give us an idea about her general shape and phylogenetic position, yet when it came to the eccentric teeth, we looked at marine reptiles for possible functions. Of course, you only extrapolate so far from what you have. You have to balance keeping as true to the evidence at hand as possible and thinking creatively to fill in the gaps and broken pieces.

    How does your research on Aureia rerehua and its relatives contribute to our understanding of the ancient marine ecosystems of New Zealand? What broader implications does it have for the evolution of odontocete feeding strategies?

    Aureia belongs to a closely related group of dolphins from Canterbury and Otago, which all existed at similar periods, roughly 20 to 25 million years ago, when the vast majority of New Zealand was underwater. They are known for their procumbent incisors that stick forward out of their mouths. Many other dolphins around the world from different clades also have similar teeth and have been referred to together informally as ‘tusked dolphins’.

    Researchers naturally wonder about the function of these teeth and hunting seems to be the most popular hypothesis. The teeth of previously described cetaceans have been speculated to have struck prey in different ways, such as head on ramming in Ankylorhiza or lateral thrashing like a sawfish in Nihohae. Either way, straightforwardly using teeth to attack prey. Aureia is comparatively small and has very delicate teeth which splay sideways and downwards. If it used its teeth like other prehistoric odontocetes, prey would only be slapped with the sides of the teeth instead of the sharp tips and likely damage the teeth. Thus, they look rather ineffective for striking.

    However, they splay out over a wide area, so we think Aureia used its long teeth to extend her reach and surround prey in a cage of teeth. This introduces a new possible feeding strategy which, along with Aureia’s small size, could help explain why we find so many different types of dolphins in this one area of New Zealand at roughly the same geological time.

    We think Aureia scanned side to side trying to catch small, nimble prey in the shallows and increasing its chance of success by snapping its jaws over an area around prey instead of needing pinpoint accuracy against tiny, darting fish. By employing different strategies to hunt different prey in areas other dolphins can’t reach, each species of dolphin would occupy their own niche, coexisting without competing with each other.

    Shane helping to set up an array of skull casts among fossil cabinets for demonstrations on cetacean evolution in the University of Otago Geology
    Shane preparing a whale from a block of Otekaike Limestone in the Paleontology Lab at the University of Otago Geology Museum
    Exploring the Mifune Dinosaur Museum in Kumamoto, just one of many dinosaur decorated locations in Japan

    Beyond this specific paper, what other paleontological projects are you currently involved in or excited about?

    At the moment, I’m not directly involved in any fossil digs or laboratories. My current job is teaching English across different schools, yet I find nearly every class has a dinosaur enthusiast eager to discuss dinosaurs. To satisfy my need for fossils in the meantime, I am working on turning more dolphins from my master’s research into publications and exploring as many museums as I can in Asia. Aureia has other relatives that require more investigation into their anatomy and behaviour and I’m always looking for the next step along my fossil paved road!

    How do you see Open Access impacting the accessibility and potential impact of your research? 

    Only positively. Open Access has been an awesome opportunity to promote our research. You can easily share your research and people can read it as soon as they find it online across any number of platforms. Both in academic circles and with the general public too. I was surprised by a lot of familiar Otago names and specimens on Wikipedia and YouTube popping up very quickly!

    Hosting visiting researchers at the Geology Museum in Otago is fantastic, and so is public outreach to schools and prospective students. It’s made it easy for people to connect with our research and then ask questions if there is more, they want to know. Ultimately that only helps further research.

    What would you say to a researcher considering publishing Open Access in an agreement such as this one with CAUL? How has this agreement supported you?

    If possible, I would definitely recommend publishing with Open Access. The only real consideration would be cost, I think. In all other respects Open Access publishing is an advantage.

    I think this has been very important for this special issue on the fossil vertebrates of Southern Zealandia especially. A lot of hard work has been done in the New Zealand paleo scene by a few generations of great staff and students, and I’m grateful that I was able to publish my article at no cost through the University of Otago’s Open Access agreement with CAUL. Being able to showcase everyone’s efforts with Open Access is amazing. There’s a lot more fossil treasure down in storage so hopefully shining a spotlight visible to as many people as possible on completed research brings in even more interest towards future research.

    Aside from academia, it’s also nice to show what I’ve been working on to family and friends who are curious about what I’ve been working on while I’ve been away from home these past couple years. I was very fortunate to be invited to publish in the special issue, and personally I feel this is one of the biggest reasons why.

     

    Prospecting in Canterbury for whale and turtle fossils

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