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Gifford Miller and Robert Cashner

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Barks, Birds & Billabongs: Exploring the Legacy of the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. 16-20 November 2009.

Gifford Miller

Gifford H Miller


INSTAAR and Geological Sciences

University of Colorado, Boulder

Robert Cashner

Robert C Cashner

Emeritus Research Professor of Biological Sciences and Vice

Chancellor for Research and Dean of the Graduate School

University of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA


Beneath the Billabongs: The scientific legacy of Robert Rush Miller

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This paper provides insight into the life and work of Robert Rush Miller, one of the youngest members of the Expedition, by his son and son-in-law.

Gifford Miller engaged in field work in Australia

Gifford Miller engaged in field work in Australia. Photo: courtesy Gifford Miller.

In 1948 Miller was only four years out of his PhD and working for the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Using derris root, or rotenone, to collect fish by poisoning small water bodies, he quickly became popular with the local Aboriginal communities because unwanted fish could be eaten.

Arnhem Land exposed him to a more mesic environment than he had encountered in his earlier study of the deserts of the American southwest. He was impressed by the diversity of the rainforest fishes, which were a stark contrast to the more depauperate desert ichthyofauna. The Australian experience may well have motivated him to study the freshwater fishes of Mexico on which he became the leading international expert. He wrote Freshwater fishes of México (2005), the definitive book on that large faunal region and also completed intricate studies on fishes in the arid regions of the US.

The influence of the Arnhem Land Expedition was not limited to his professional life. It also rippled through his family, especially his two oldest children, Frances and Gifford, both of whom became scientists. Tokens of Australia were conspicuously displayed in the Miller household until Robert's death in 2003, and stories of the Expedition were common fare around the dinner table. As a result, both Frances and Gifford travelled extensively throughout Australia. Miller's granddaughter, Mollie Cashner, after accompanying her grandfather to the 50th Arnhem Land Reunion, was inspired to study ichthyology and is now finishing her PhD.

Gifford has visited Australia most years since the late 1980s. Although a geologist by training, he developed an ambitious research program that sought to unravel the footprints of human colonisation on the Australian continent, in particular to explain the demise of the Australian megafauna, a topic that bridges his father's biological background and close association with Aboriginal groups during the Arnhem Land Expedition, with the classical methods of geological investigation. In this research he continues the core thread of the scientific questions that motivated the original Arnhem Land Expedition: how did Aboriginal groups extract a living from the Australian landscape, and in the process how did the landscape respond to that activity. These questions remain alive in the contemporary world as we ponder how humans everywhere fit into their landscape and how we can manage a sustainable future.

Gifford Miller engaged in field work in Australia
Gifford Miller engaged in field work in Australia. Photo: courtesy Gifford Miller.


Gifford Miller is a professor of geological sciences and a fellow of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He uses the record of the recent geological past to gain a better understanding of Earth's climate system. His early research was dominantly in the cold deserts of the Polar Regions, with a focus on the Eastern Canadian Arctic, and later the European Arctic (Svalbard), Russian Arctic (Franz Josef Land), and Greenland. He currently has active polar research programs in Iceland and Baffin Island, Arctic Canada. Recognising the need for improved tools to date events of the recent past, Miller established a laboratory for amino acid racemization dating, and it was through this tool that he was caught up in the climate and human histories of the world's hot deserts, beginning with the Sahara Desert. Involvement in the history of climate and human colonization of the Australian deserts was a natural extension of this work, as his late father, Robert Rush Miller, was a member of the 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition.

Miller's involvement in Australia began in the late 1980s, with an active research campaign since the early 1990s, focusing on the pacing of the Australian Summer Monsoon, causes of megafaunal extinction, and the footprints of human colonisation. This research is connected with the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University, Canberra. Recently, Miller's research group, building on the Australia experience, expanded their fieldwork to Madagascar, where they are evaluating causes for the extinction of the Elephant Bird.

He has published more than 200 scientific papers and is a fellow of the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union. In 2006 he was granted the Geological Society of America's Easterbrook Distinguished Scientist Award and in 2008 was elected to the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters as a foreign member. He also chaired the Department of Geological Sciences from 1993 to 1998, and was featured in two recent made-for-television documentaries about Australia, "The Bone Diggers" (2007) and "Death of the Megabeasts" (2009).

Robert Cashner, son-in-law of Robert Rush Miller, is an emeritus research professor of biological sciences at the University of New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. He received his doctoral degree from Tulane University and joined the faculty at the Louisiana State University in New Orleans (now the University of New Orleans) in 1973. Over the next 35 years, he advanced in the faculty ranks to professor and was selected for the honour of research professor in 1993. He served as chair of the Department of Biological Sciences from 1993-1996 before moving into the central administration. He was dean of the graduate school from 1996-2008 and vice chancellor for research from 2001-2008. He was awarded the Mackin Medallion in 2008 for Outstanding Service to the University.

His research area is ichthyology with primary interests in freshwater fishes in the species rich southeastern United States and the stability of estuarine fish assemblages along the U.S. Gulf Coast. He has conducted ichthyofaunal studies throughout most of the continental U.S., Mexico and Australia. He was appointed as a visiting scientist to Northern Rivers University (now Southern Cross University) in 1991 and 2001 and conducted a study of fish assemblages of the Nymboida River. He has served as major advisor for more than 30 MSc and PhD students and he has published over 70 research articles and book chapters on fish diversity, ecology and assemblage stability.

He is an associate of the Sam Noble Natural History Museum at the University of Oklahoma and has current research projects with several colleagues. He has garnered over $2 million in extra-mural funding. In 1997 he was elected president of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists; he continues to serve ASIH as a permanent member of the Board of Governors. He has also been very involved in Darwin Day events at the University of New Orleans and the New Orleans community. In 2007 he received a "Friend of Darwin Award" from the National Center for Science Education. The Barks, Birds & Billabongs Symposium in November will mark his 16th visit to Australia.

Note: The views expressed in speakers' abstracts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Museum of Australia.