Tuesday, July 17, 2018

French National Museum of Natural History

The location of IPC 2018 was well chosen, taking place essentially next door to the botanical garden Jardin des plantes. It is here that the main galleries of the French National Museum of Natural History (Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle) are found. (The museum is divided into several sites scattered throughout France, but most of the publicly accessible galleries are at Jardin des plantes, which is also considered to be the museum's original location.)

Our first taste of the museum was at the conference's cocktail dinatoire, hosted at the museum's Gallery of Evolution. This gallery is probably most famous for its parade of African animals. Here I decided to take a shot focusing on the pangolin (with bonus marabou stork).

Though there was a lot to see in the Gallery of Evolution, the halls were dimly lit for most part, making photography difficult. Hidden away in a corner was an exhibit dedicated to recently extinct animals, featuring this skeletal mount of a dodo.

Some frolicking platypuses. I've rarely seen taxidermied monotremes put in such dynamic poses.

One section of the marine-themed exhibits in the gallery was focused on narwhals.

In a separate gallery was a temporary exhibit showcasing the Tyrannosaurus specimen "Trix", the first original Tyrannosaurus specimen to be on display in France.

In the same hall as "Trix" was a statue of the father of vertebrate paleontology himself, Georges Cuvier. For some reason he is depicted using his index finger to carve a rift through Africa on a globe.

The dinatoire had given us a good taster of the museum, but it hadn't yet given us a chance to visit the legendary Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy. So (as I mentioned previously) on the third day of the conference some of us went to check that out. Along the way we passed by this carousel of extinct and endangered animals, featuring an elephant bird, a glyptodont, a Meiolania, and Sivatherium among others.

This was the sight that greeted us when we entered the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy. I guarantee that it is ten thousand times more impressive in person than what this photo suggests. Calling it a literally mind-blowing experience would barely be an exaggeration. I feel like everyone in my party was struck speechless for a few moments.

There was a lot to take in. It would have been impossible to properly examine everything even if we had spent an entire day there (partly due to the quantity of specimens and partly because some of the specimens weren't situated in places conducive to viewing), but we gave it a good shot. Here is a skeleton of a juvenile gorilla.

The marsupial case featured a thylacine skeleton as its centerpiece.

A long-beaked echidna.

The mustelid case, featuring a juvenile ratel.

A giraffe mounted with its nuchal ligament.

Naturally, Daniel and I spent a long time staring at the bird skeletons. Here is a case full of sunbirds.

A pair of kagu.

A screamer. It took us a few moments to figure out what it was (the scientific name on the label was outdated), but the carpometacarpal spurs probably should have clued us in.


A pelican mounted with its throat pouch.

A manatee skull.

An ocean sunfish.

A two-toed sloth turning its head around.

A bowhead whale mounted with baleen.

A balcony halfway up the stairs gave us the chance to look at the comparative anatomy exhibits from above.

The next floor up were the vertebrate paleontology displays. Here are some limb bones of Cetiosaurus.

A Sarcosuchus.

An Arctocyon, one of many Paleocene mammals of uncertain affinities.

I was surprised to see a restoration of a fully feathered dromaeosaurid included on one of the exhibit signs.

The French specimen of Compsognathus. Though Compsognathus was formerly considered the smallest non-avian dinosaur, I can confirm that it's not that small. At about the size of a turkey, it's certainly larger than the likes of Mei and Parvicursor.

A cast of the smaller holotype of Compsognathus.

The type specimen of Mosasaurus!

Another floor up hosted the museum's invertebrate paleontology displays. It was cool to see the holotype of Meganeura, though my photos of it turned out subpar.

After the museum, Daniel and I were interested in going to the small zoo (Ménagerie du Jardin des plantes) nearby, but Antoine (being a palynologist) decided to give us a tour of the botanical attractions in the garden first. Of course, I couldn't resist being distracted by the first sign of animal activity.

A Metasequoia, well known to paleobotanists who work on the Late Cretaceous (and onward).

The greenhouses were impressive. One simulated a tropical forest environment and included a staircase the allowed visitors to experience the "forest canopy". Though it must be said that being in a "tropical forest" without hearing any animal calls whatsoever was mildly eerie.

Another greenhouse arranged its exhibits in a more phylogenetically-based sequence, starting out with mosses and lycopods.

Platycerium, an unusual fern.

Some fossils of bennettitaleans.

By the time we stopped looking at plants, the Ménagerie was on the verge of closing. I did, however, take some time away from the conference to visit it on the following day, and will be covering it in the next post.

Monday, July 16, 2018

IPC 2018

Last week I was away at the 5th International Palaeontological Congress (IPC) in Paris. IPC, which is held only once every four years, is the largest conference I've ever been to up to, attended by paleontologists of all subdisciplines. (In contrast, SVP, my second largest conference so far, is largely attended by vertebrate paleontologists.)

I suspect that if this had been my first paleontology conference, I would have been completely overwhelmed. Fortunately, I was somewhat surprised to find that I already knew a fair number of other attendees and I had a good time catching up with those who I hadn't seen in a while (more than a year in some cases).

I presented a poster on my ongoing research, similar in content to the talk I gave at ProgPal. If there was one downside of the conference, it's that there was no dedicated poster session. Instead, posters were set up at the beginning of the conference and left there for its duration. Though this provided ample time for attendees to check out the posters they were interested in, there were fewer chances for presenters to receive direct discussion and feedback.

Don't worry, I'm the author and am allowed to disrespect my own no-photography icon.

With up to eleven parallel talk sessions at any given time slot, trying to see all the talks one is interested in was next to impossible. Regardless, I was satisfied with the talks I ended up attending and managed to catch all my top-priority sessions (the bird session on the first day and the phylogenetics sessions on the second and fourth days).

A small selection of personal talk highlights:
  • Diego Pol's plenary lecture on sauropodomorph evolution
  • Luis Chiappe's talk on a new enantiornithine bonebed
  • Ross MacPhee's talk on the role of proteomics in paleontology
  • Isaac Casanovas-Vilar's talk on a new Miocene flying squirrel
  • Martin Sander's talk on the evolution of endothermy in plesiosaurs
  • Catherine Musinsky's talk on the origin of the mammalian fauces
  • Allison Hsiang's talk on developing models for morphological evolution in MrBayes
  • Matt Phillips's talk on tip-dating mammalian evolution
  • Dominic Evangelista's talk on cockroach evolution
  • Alessio Capobianco's talk on the phylogenetic affinities of marine osteoglossomorphs
  • Matt Friedman's talk on the internal cranial anatomy of Carboniferous-Permian actinopterygians
  • Leif Tapanila's talk on edestoid dentition
(As you might infer from the diversity of topics, there was a relatively small number of dinosaur talks! Birds were the only dinosaurs to get their own dedicated session.)

As it happens, this trip was also my first time in Paris (as well as in continental Europe, for that matter), and one couldn't very well visit Paris for the first time without doing some sightseeing. Typically, conference events are so packed that there is little opportunity to see much of the city they take place in, but IPC gave attendees a free third day of the conference to satisfy their travel cravings.

In my case, I started my morning by taking the Metro to the Louvre. After snapping a photograph of the iconic pyramid just so I could claim I've seen it, I departed.

The Seine River (well, a small stretch of it).

The Notre-Dame Cathedral.

For lunch I stopped by the café of Shakespeare and Company, an independent English-language bookstore. The bookstore itself is pictured below. Within it I found copies of several popular paleontology books including Tony Martin's The Evolution Underground and Steve Brusatte's The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. (No pictures of them to show though; photography was not permitted inside the store.)

After lunch, I returned to the vicinity of the conference venue to meet up with my supervisor, Daniel Field, who was also accompanied by palynologist Antoine Bercovici, computational evolutionary paleobiologist Allison Hsiang, and paleohistologist Holly Woodward. Our main objective was to visit the galleries of the French National Museum of Natural History (Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle), which will require a separate blog post dedicated to it.

Following that, Antoine (as a local Parisian) generously guided us to some of the more underappreciated highlights of the city. One stop he took us to was an overlook at the National Museum of Modern Art (Musée National d'Art Moderne) that gave us excellent views of the rest of Paris.

For dinner I had this duck confit (recommended by Antoine). I can confirm that it was both filling and absolutely delicious. If I ever return to Paris, it will be for this. This, and ice cream.

The evening of the fourth day played host to our conference dinner, which took place on a cruise along the Seine. While lining up to get on the boat, some of us saw this mother mallard guide her ducklings to a patch of floating vegetation where they could feed.

The cruise was a good way to see many of the major landmarks in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower being our final destination.

By the time the boat dropped us off, the skies were dark, just the right moment to appreciate the tower's lights. From there attendees had to stumble (in some cases likely drunkenly) and navigate by public transport back to where they were staying.

Monday, June 11, 2018

ProgPal 2018

I said last year that I intended to attend ProgPal again, and I did. This year the conference was held in Manchester and the icebreaker took place at the Manchester Museum. Here is their cast of the Tyrannosaurus specimen "Stan".

Though I would have liked to explore the museum more than I did, the fact that my digital camera happened to be under repair made me less inclined to take photos than usual. In addition, I ended up being too caught up in conversation to check out most of the exhibits. Thanks to Callum McLean for ensuring that I didn't miss the museum's maniraptor specimens such as this Confuciusornis!

There were also casts of several bones from Hesperornis.

Being more familiar with the conference logistics and knowing more people this time around, the whole conference honestly feels like a blur. (Given that ProgPal lasts for only three days with the main bulk of events packed into a single day, this may well be the way it's supposed to feel!) I still had lots of fun and got to meet many new faces.

The newly expanded University of Bath paleo-contingent was well represented, with nearly all other paleontology grad students in my year not only attending the conference but also presenting their research. Unlike last year, I gave a talk of my own about my ongoing work. I won't say much about it here until it's published, but responses were, dare I say, overwhelmingly positive.

My title slide.

Institutional loyalties aside, a selection of presentations that I thought were highlights include:
  • Orla Bath Enright's talk on Burgess Shale taphonomy
  • Robert Brocklehurst's talk on convergence between afrosoricidans and lipotyphlans
  • Alessandro Chiarenza's talk on dinosaur diversity prior to the K-Pg
  • Christopher Stockey's talk on an assemblage-level reconstruction of color patterns in fish from the Bolca Lagerstätte
  • Nuria Melisa Morales Garcia's poster on a new approach to studying Triassic mammaliaform jaw biomechanics

ProgPal remains a fantastic opportunity for paleontology students to hone their skills and network with future colleagues.