Friday, December 22, 2017

PalAss 2017

Capping off this year for me (at least academically speaking) was my first annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association (PalAss). (For those snickering at the abbreviation, I didn't hear a single delegate make a crack about it. I imagine the joke was run into the ground a long time ago.)

This year's PalAss was held at Imperial College in London. I'd only just arrived at the venue when I was recognized by one of the conference organizers, Alessandro Chiarenza. Name-tag given to me before I had a chance to say my name! That's a first for a conference of this scale. There were some interesting items in the goody bag, too, notably these Time Bites chocolate trilobites.

There were many other familiar faces at the conference, especially my peers and former instructors from Bristol. As daunting as it can be to attend a conference where you don't know anyone, knowing a substantial number of other delegates poses its own challenges. There isn't enough time to talk with everyone!

As for the conference presentations, a selection of personal highlights:
  • Michael Pittman's talk on paravian phylogeny and evolution
  • Jacqueline Lungmus's talk on humeral disparity in therapsids
  • The annual address, Mark Purnell's talk on soft tissue taphonomy
  • Emily Rayfield's talk on cranial biomechanics across the evolution of the mammalian ear
  • Four successive talks on phylogenetic methods!
    • Roland Sookias's talk on increasing the accuracy of phylogenetic inference from morphological data
    • Selina Groh's talk on the influence of continuous characters on phylogenetic inference
    • Joseph Keating's talk comparing the accuracy and congruence of different phylogenetic methods
    • Martin Smith's talk on incorporating inapplicable data in phylogenetic analysis

Most personally significant, however, was the fact that I got to give my first oral conference presentation! I talked about the research I did during my Master's, combining molecular and morphological data to infer the phylogeny of pancrustacean arthropods. We do have plans to get some of our findings published, so with luck I'll discuss them on here in the near future. One of my former supervisors, Jesus Lozano Fernandez, gave his own talk (on arachnid phylogeny and evolution) shortly before mine in the same session, so as usual the Bristol contingent was very well-represented.

Yes, I used that title.
Yes, I used this slide.

My talk went well, I think. Several attendees came up to me afterward to tell me that they enjoyed it. I also got to meet arthropod paleontologists Jo Wolfe and Javier Ortega-Hernández, who shared with me their thoughts on the subject of my presentation, giving me some points to chew on while I prepare this study for publication.

All in all, PalAss was fun, packed with content from a wide variety of paleontological topics while being moderate in size and duration. I look forward to attending future meetings.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Dinosaurs of China at Wollaton Hall

Unfortunately for anyone who hasn't visited this exhibit at the time of this posting, it is now closed. As one might expect, I've wanted to visit the Dinosaurs of China ever since I first heard of its existence, but I put my trip off until the very last minute because I'd learned from Google Maps that it would take a grueling series of transfers between different train lines for me to reach the exhibition by public transport. As such, I'd been banking on the possibility of someone driving me there instead. Though some options were discussed, none ultimately panned out, so during the last week that the exhibit was open, I decided to bite the bullet and book the train to Nottingham. It was a fairly exhausting journey, but it hadn't been nearly as convoluted as Google Maps had led me to believe. Lesson learned about being overly trusting of Google, I suppose.

The long trip was more than worth it though. Visitors were first greeted by this giant Mamenchisaurus.

Nearby was a smaller and slightly older sauropodomorph, Lufengosaurus. The pronated hands on the bipedal dinosaur mounts were a recurring problem at this exhibit and just a little cringe-inducing, but hardly enough to tarnish all the greatness on display.

Greatness such as this juvenile Pinacosaurus specimen!

Though there was no sign of the famed feathered dinosaur specimens just yet, a Guanlong was mounted next to an ostrich here for comparison.

This Sinraptor mount was quite impressive, mounted as though it were prowling around.

Perhaps just as notable as the displays themselves was how well the temporary exhibition was integrated into the Wollaton Hall's existing galleries. Visitors were directed through a hall filled with the museum's taxidermied birds, which were magnificent displays in their own right. Given that my research focuses on strisorian birds at the moment, I was particularly drawn to this Eurasian nightjar.

Slotted in between the birds was this mount that's apparently supposed to be Oviraptor (but I wonder whether it was based on any other oviraptorids), posed over a model of its nest.

There was also a very faithful-looking 3D print of the Mei holotype!

The real stars of the show feature in the final hall, starting with this original specimen of Sinosauropteryx!

Sinosauropteryx was both the first non-avian dinosaur found with preserved feathers as well as the first Mesozoic dinosaur to have had its plumage color deciphered. Can you spot the tail stripes?

A mount of the giant oviraptorosaur Gigantoraptor formed the centerpiece of the hall, though the space and lighting made it difficult to capture good photos of it.

Another display that proved challenging to photograph was this cast of Linheraptor, due to barriers that kept visitors a good distance away.

A nice cast of the scansoriopterygid Epidexipteryx, known for its four very elongate tail feathers.

The original holotype of Caudipteryx dongi! Note the wing feathers and gastroliths.

What might this be? This is the infamous "Archaeoraptor" hoax, a chimera created by combining specimens of several different feathered dinosaurs into one.

"Archaeoraptor" was exhibited alongside more complete specimens of its component taxa. Pictured here is possibly the highlight of the entire exhibition: an original specimen of the flying dromaeosaurid Microraptor. Though iconic, this specimen is not, in fact, the holotype of the genus Microraptor (which is far less impressive), but it is the holotype of the species Microraptor gui (which may or may not end up being the same as the type species M. zhaoianus). Microraptor contributed the tail of the "Archaeoraptor" hoax.

"Archaeoraptor"'s better half is the Cretaceous euornithine Yanornis, which contributed its head and upper body.

Yanornis had a foldable tail fan like modern birds, a feature not present in non-euornithine theropods (contrary to many popular depictions).

A cast of the holotype of Sinornithosaurus, a close relative of Microraptor.

A cast of the holotype of the feathered tyrannosauroid Dilong. (This specimen did not preserve feathers.)

A cast of the holotype of the enantiornithine Protopteryx.

An original specimen of Confuciusornis.

The final section of the fossil exhibit drew attention to other Mesozoic archosaurs that independently evolved flight from birds and their close kin. Representing pterosaurs is this cast of Wukongopterus.

This 3D print of the membrane-winged theropod Yi was somewhat subpar, preserving little of the original detail. However, as with the pronated hands on the mounts, this was but a minor imperfection compared to the quality of the exhibit as a whole.

Back in the museum's permanent exhibitions, visitors were reminded that the taxidermied birds represented extant dinosaurs. What was more striking to me though was the bleak narrative that accompanies one diorama.

Wollaton Hall is situated within a surprisingly large park in which wild deer roam. This red deer stag appeared to be content sitting out in the grass all day. Not pictured is the astonishingly large number of people who were getting stupidly close to it.

The abundant greenery and large lake at the park provided some decent birding opportunities after visiting the once-in-a-lifetime exhibit!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

TetZooCon 2017

I had an amazing time at TetZooCon last year, and at the time I hadn't been sure whether I'd be able to attend another one in the foreseeable future. I'm happy to report that I will (at least for the next few years), and I did!

TetZooCon has grown in size over the years, forcing it to move away from the lovely London Wetland Centre (where it had taken place in the past) this year to the student union of the University of London. A small price to pay, but I'm certainly happy for its success! I hear that it may switch venues again next year to accommodate yet more growth.

One of the "advertisement slides" that was projected on the screen during coffee breaks featured TetZoo Time. (This was also the case last year, but I'd neglected to take a picture.)

Like last year, all the speakers were excellent and covered a fascinating diversity of topics. No doubt Darren plans to prepare his own summary of the proceedings, so I will abstain from a comprehensive overview. Dani Rabaiotti's talk on animal farts (yes, really) was particularly memorable, and Beth Windle's talk on thylacines (rightly) elicited emotional responses from many attendees. Also a shout out to Aubrey Roberts (fellow member of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath), who did a talk on excavating and researching marine reptiles from Svalbard.

Beth Windle also made an incredible thylacine cake, which was tragically dismembered and consumed during the convention.

This year's paleoart workshop featured an attempt at creating two murals through the combined effort of the attendees. Each person was assigned a different Mesozoic animal (all tetrapods, as far as I'm aware) and then directed to draw their animal on one of two gigantic sheets of paper in the correct time period (which were labeled on the sheets). We were meant to draw everything to scale, but that didn't exactly happen, probably due to ambiguity regarding the size of the provided scale bars. In addition, the fact that there were separate scale bars for the background and foreground quickly got lost as the event went on. Loss of consistency is probably inevitable for any impromptu creative project involving so many people, but, most importantly, I think everyone had fun.

I was assigned the traversodontid cynodont Exaeretodon. My rendition turned out to be less than impressive, but I did include a couple of fluffy babies for extra cuteness. (Despite my simplistic art style, speed-sketching is not one of my strong suits, especially when dealing with a body plan I'm relatively unfamiliar with.) Steve White added a Morganucodon standing brazenly near the much larger synapsid, evidently considering it too cartoonish to be afraid of. Natee Puttapipat drew a Plateosaurus in the background, which deservedly went on to win one of the workshop prizes. I didn't catch the name of the person who drew the Coelophysis, apologies! I added a few small critters to the remaining white space (more on that later).

My friend Jack Wood (who I first met on Tumblr) is a much better paleoartist than I and accordingly put his skills to much better use. He also deservedly walked away with a prize for his work.

Another Tumblr friend, Northwyrm, drew some laughs with her "Hipsterlophodon".

Having finished drawing our assigned taxa and seeing the large amounts of blank space remaining in the Triassic sections, Northwyrm and I set about adding more Triassic animals, particularly pseudosuchians. We also (reluctantly, at least on my part) tried to draw some plants after some prompting by Mark Witton. Upon noticing that someone had drawn in an anachronistic flower in the Triassic, we felt obligated to come up with an explanation for it...

I gave a better performance at the TetZooCon quiz than at the workshop, miraculously managing to scrape second place in high scores again! I picked out from a selection of prizes the dinosaur book by Johan Egerkrans (which he later generously offered to sign), who is an inspiration to practitioners of stylized palaeoart everywhere.

In addition to reuniting with friends I met at the last TetZooCon, I also met Joschua Knüppe, Michael Lesniowski ("Xane"), and Rebecca Groom (of Palaeoplushies fame and occasional comic inker for TetZoo Time) offline for the first time. Will the entire TetZoo Time production crew ever convene in the same room? Stay tuned...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Slimbridge Wetland Centre

This trip happened back in early August, but I haven't had time to do the write-up until now. I've been quite impressed by the London Wetland Centre, which I've now been to several times. Upon hearing that the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) had another wetland centre set up in closer proximity to the Bristol/Bath region (where I am currently based), I naturally had to make the time to visit.

This other wetland centre is the Slimbridge Wetland Centre, the oldest of these WWT nature reserves. The London Wetland Centre had set a high bar for quality, but wow. Slimbridge exceeded my expectations and blew me away.

My Slimbridge trip started off with a series of amphibian exhibits near the main entrance. Here are some red-eyed tree frogs in their signature daytime posture.

A yellow-banded poison-dart frog.

A blue poison-dart frog.

I previously commented that the London Wetland Centre likely houses more species of captive waterfowl than anywhere else I've been to. Slimbridge easily broke that record. Here are a pair of Bewick's swans.

Some greater white-fronted geese.

I'll come back to the waterfowl in a moment, but it's also worth mentioning that Slimbridge additionally houses every species of extant flamingo. Here are some Andean flamingos. They share their exhibit with James's flamingos, though I failed to spot any.

Back to the waterfowl, here's a ruddy shelduck.

There are even some nice mammal exhibits here. One pond is set aside for Eurasian beavers, though they rarely emerge from their lodge during the day.

I found the displays for small rodents particularly impressive. All too often, zoo enclosures for small rodents resemble glorified hamster cages, but Slimbridge's water vole and harvest mouse exhibits did a great job of simulating their natural environments. Though I didn't spot the voles on this trip, the harvest mice put on a good show, and I was eventually able to get a decent picture of one.

Like its London counterpart, the Slimbridge Wetland Centre is more than a zoo. It also serves as valuable habitat for wildlife. Wild common shelducks were, well, a common sight. (To avoid confusion, I will specify whenever wild individuals are pictured in this post.)

A common crane, a species that is not common in the wild in the UK. This is one of the wetland centre's captive individuals, but wild ones are sighted somewhat regularly at Slimbridge. (I was not so fortunate on this trip, however.)

A pair of ashy-headed geese, a species of strange-looking South American waterfowl.

A Cape Barren goose, a species from southern Australia and one of the rarest waterfowl in the world.

A freckled duck, another Australian species.

Most of the wild birds I saw were too far away to take good photos of using my digital camera, but here's a small taste of what the wetland centre has to offer. The majority of species pictured here are black-tailed godwits. There are also a good number of northern lapwings and black-headed gulls.

Some snow geese, with both the white and blue color morphs represented.

A bar-headed goose. This species is well known for migrating over the Himalayas at high altitudes. They have been recorded flying at heights of over 7.2 km.

A pair of Australian wood ducks. They are not closely related to the North American wood duck, but they do also nest in tree hollows.

A southern pochard, looking rather devilish with its red eyes.

A comb duck. The males of this South American species have an unusual display feature.

A flock of greater flamingos, the third of the wetland centre's flamingo species. Note also the Cape teal in the foreground.

Across from them are the lesser flamingos.

An Argentine ruddy duck. The males of this species are infamous for having a phallus that can equal their own body length when erect.

Some black-necked swans and a photobombing (wild) common wood pigeon.

A coscoroba swan, actually more closely related to the Cape Barren goose than to true swans.

A wild rook and Eurasian jackdaws. Common species here, but unfamiliar to a North American like me.

An Orinoco goose, a very terrestrial waterfowl species that rarely swims or flies.

A pair of red shovelers.

A flock of the fifth flamingo species here, the Chilean flamingo.

A crested screamer. Despite appearances, this is yet another waterfowl.

This immature common shelduck vexed me to no end until I finally figured out what it was.

American flamingos. That's all six flamingo species covered!