Sunday, January 7, 2024

Review of 2023

Another quiet year for this blog, mostly consisting of conference trip reports, though I also found time to write about Prehistoric Planet Season 2 and a new post on alvarezsaur paleobiology (which is already demanding further followups—such is the nature of science!). Behind the scenes, I've made substantial progress on a variety of research projects, which I hope I'll get to discuss in more detail over the coming year. In addition, I've maintained work on New Dinosaur Alert and Through Time and Clades.

Those who follow me on Tumblr might have noticed that I've started posting a lot about Doraemon on there. It's been refreshing, to be honest, to simply share my thoughts and observations on a media franchise (especially one so extensive yet rarely discussed in English-speaking circles), as opposed to scientific writing where I may feel the need to double-check half a dozen references for every other sentence I write.

I have no intention of halting my scientific communications entirely though, so let's take a look at what 2023 had to offer in maniraptoran research. As always, my coverage of papers about modern birds is necessarily going to be incomplete, so I put more focus on those that have more direct connections to paleontology, such as studies on anatomy, ontogeny, and higher-order phylogeny.

General and non-paravian maniraptorans

Holotype of Jaculinykus yaruui (A–C), life restoration by Seiji Yamamoto (D), and phylogenetic diagram showing the known distribution of a bird-like sleeping posture among maniraptorans (E), from Kubo et al. (2023).

Depiction of an oviraptorid incubating its eggs (A) and schematic showing how the "inverted cone" shape of an oviraptorid nest would have increased surface area available for accommodating a large clutch of eggs (B–C), from Hogan (2023).
 General and non-neornithean paravians

Life restoration of Wulong by Bob Nicholls with coloration informed by analyses of preserved melanosomes, from Croudace et al. (2023).

Specimen of Jeholornis that preserves phytoliths as gut contents, suggesting leaf-eating behavior, from Wu et al. (2023).

General and miscellaneous crown birds

Suitability of modern bird casques as potential analogues for similar skull structures in extinct dinosaurs, from Green and Gignac (2023).

Phylogenetic distribution of foot dexterity in birds, from Gutiérrez-Ibáñez et al. (2023).

Correlations between habitat use and climate with bird coloration, from Delhey et al. (2023).

Depiction of a pelagornithid showing inferred beak structure, from Piro and Acosta Hospitaleche (2023).

Phylogeny of elephant birds based on ancient DNA, from Grealy et al. (2023).

Skull and vertebrae from the holotype of Anachronornis anhimops, from Houde et al. (2023).

Miscellaneous neoavians

Neck vertebrae of perplexicervicids, from Mayr et al. (2023).

Phylogenetic distribution of unorthodox feeding behaviors in hummingbirds, from Colwell et al. (2023).
Gruiforms and charadriiforms

Limb bones from the holotype of Charadriisimilis essexensis, from Mayr and Kitchener (2023).

Holotype of Clymenoptilon novaezealandicum, from Mayr et al. (2023).

Phylogeny of herons, from Hruska et al. (2023).

Foot bones of Dynatoaetus gaffae, from Mather et al. (2023).

Phorusrhacid tracks from the Río Negro Formation, from Melchor et al. (2023).

Holotype of ?Pulchrapollia eximia, from Mayr and Kitchener (2023).

Phylogenetic distribution of next architecture in tyrannidans, from Ocampo et al. (2023).

Phylogeny of larks, from Alström et al. (2023).

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

TetZooCon 2023

TetZooCon keeps growing and growing, and it's fair to say that this year's was the biggest yet in terms of both the number of events and attendees. I would be lying if I said that I didn't have some prior apprehension about how smoothly the convention would go given this dramatic expansion, but I found it to be brilliantly run, and the organizers adapted admirably to some unexpected (though memorable) technical difficulties beyond their control. 

Extinct marine reptiles featured heavily at TetZooCon this year to accompany the publication of Darren Naish's new book Ancient Sea Reptiles, and one of the stars of the show was Flip the robotic plesiosaur, designed for Luke Muscutt's research on plesiosaur swimming biomechanics. Although I was able to view (and briefly operate) Flip while it was being displayed in the exhibition hall at the convention, I had to miss Muscutt's talk (which has fortunately since been posted online), because it was held in parallel with the two presentations on birds at this year's TetZooCon.

The two bird talks—one by Jennifer Campbell-Smith on studying corvid cognition and the other by Todd Green about his research on cassowaries—did not disappoint, being both informative and entertaining in equal measure. These were followed by a panel discussion among Todd, Darren, and their colleagues Kerrie and AJ Dodd about their involvement with an upcoming documentary about cassowaries, which is currently seeking crowdfunding support.

Also a highlight of this year's TetZooCon for me was Darren leading an event centered around Prehistoric Planet. Those of us in attendance were requested not to publicly divulge the details of what was discussed there, but it was very insightful regarding the creative process and production behind the series. Another eagerly anticipated presentation related to natural history filmmaking was the talk by Nigel Marven, who is probably best known in the paleontology community for hosting the mockumentary series Chased by Dinosaurs, Sea Monsters, and Prehistoric Park. He shared numerous humorous anecdotes about his experiences working with wildlife (both live and CGI) as well as with people.

A model of the tyrannosauroid Juratyrant by Dougal Dixon, on display at TetZooCon.

Artwork of fossil birds (and Dr. Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb holding a stem-platypus) gifted to me at TetZooCon by my friend Ilari Pätilä.

With each successive TetZooCon, I assume that my chances of placing top three in the challenging TetZooCon quiz will diminish, but I managed to score well again this year, coming in second place (tied with Kelvin Britton). I ended up selecting a Palaeoplushies rendition of the ankylosaur Polacanthus as my prize.

The day after the main events concluded, I joined the TetZooCon field trip to the London Zoo. I didn't wind up taking many photos (partly because I'd already been to this zoo more than once, and partly because I couldn't be bothered to fish my camera out of my packed bag), but it was an excellent visit. We witnessed some very interesting species and behaviors, including gorillas mating, a juvenile scarlet ibis investigating Darren's shoes with its tactile bill, and a two-toed sloth passing just above our heads to drink from a sprinkler. TetZooCon remains a unique experience that I'd wholeheartedly recommend to all lovers of natural history should they get an opportunity to attend.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Cincinnati Zoo

As mentioned previously, the organizers of this year's SVP had arranged free entry to the Cincinnati Zoo for conference attendees. I ended up going to the zoo twice during the conference period just so I could see (almost) everything. I was quite impressed; the Cincinnati Zoo isn't massive, but it boasts a large diversity of species (many of which I'd rarely or never seen in other zoos) housed in generally well-designed exhibits.

One of the highlights for me was this expansive grassy habitat in the African section of the zoo, which features multiple species of large African birds (as well as lesser kudu). Here are just a few of the inhabitants, starting with a flock of pink-backed pelicans.

A gray crowned crane.

A lappet-faced vulture.

Some Rüppell's vultures.

Some eastern crested guineafowl.

A good look at the two-toed feet of a common ostrich.

Something I noticed about several of the exhibits at the Cincinnati Zoo was that they had mirrors placed within them, presumably as enrichment for the animals.

Another exhibit nearby is home to African wild dogs.

As avian paleontologists, my labmates and I were naturally eager to check out the bird house. Just outside of it is a habitat for Cape Barren goose, an unusual-looking Australian waterfowl.

A salmon-crested cockatoo perched above.

Unfortunately, I did not get many satisfactory photos inside the bird house itself, as wire mesh, wet glass, and the fast movements of the birds themselves made it challenging to do so. However, I very much enjoyed what I saw. Highlights included two walk-in aviaries (one containing Neotropical birds, the other birds of Southeast Asia and Australia), as well as several seabird exhibits with underwater viewing.

It was quite surreal to see these Inca terns perched on a branch and exhibited in a tropical rainforest setup.

A tawny frogmouth. I will always stop for strisoreans.

A helmeted hornbill.

In addition to a nice bird collection, the Cincinnati Zoo also houses a diverse range of primates. Here are some Coquerel's sifakas, also known to North Americans of a certain age as Zoboomafoo.

The zoo has a building dedicated to wildlife from the wetlands of the Southeastern United States with Florida manatees as the centerpiece, one of the few places outside of Florida where America's afrotheres can be seen. The open-mouthed (probably prey-luring) pose of this alligator snapping turtle was quite striking.

Just outdoors are some exhibits for hoofed mammals, such as these Visayan warty pigs.

A pair of bongo antelope.

Several displays near the entrance of the zoo provided homes for large raptors, including this Andean condor.

The reptile (and amphibian) house also had a nice selection of species, including these Titicaca water frogs. They are able to breathe through their baggy skin in the cold water where they live.

A juvenile Komodo dragon, having mostly lost its hatchling coloration but still far from full size.

At the center of the reptile house is an open-topped habitat for this Chinese alligator.

One of my favorite exhibits at the zoo overall was probably the nocturnal house, but photographing the inhabitants in the dark was of course difficult. I had to try and get a picture of this aardwolf though, this being the first time I've seen this species. It is the smallest of all extant hyenas and feeds almost entirely on termites. Hmm, I wonder why that might be of interest to me...

Most of the outdoor exhibits next to the nocturnal house featured wild cats (including mountain lions, tigers, and snow leopards), which we got some excellent views of. However, I was unsurprisingly most taken by this Eurasian eagle owl.

As the site where the last passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet passed away, the Cincinnati Zoo has dedicated a poignant memorial to these species.

The insect house is quite large and contains more than just arthropods. It also displays, for example, these Solomon Island leaf frogs (eyeing a feeder cricket).

A black-breasted leaf turtle. According to exhibit signage, this species can rotate each of its eyes independently, similar to a chameleon.

There is no lack of actual arthropod displays in the insect house though. Here is a Baja whipspider.

Some giant water bugs (including males carrying eggs).

A Peruvian firestick, apparently a poisonous stick insect that has evolved bright colors to warn predators of its toxicity.

Another building nearby is primarily dedicated to exhibiting lizards, such as this quince monitor.

The star of the show here is this adult Komodo dragon. It lives in perhaps one of the most unexpected mixed-species zoo habitats I've seen, sharing its exhibit with zebra finches. Presumably, they are too small and quick to be seen as worthwhile prey. They certainly didn't seem too bothered from what I saw of them, actively fluttering to the exhibit floor to collect nesting material.