Friday, October 26, 2018

SVP 2018

Another year, another SVP! This time, we convened in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Just like in 2016, I was on the authorship of two posters presented at SVP. As before, one of these posters was about scientific outreach using the internet. My co-authors (Meig Dickson, Austin Deans, Henry Thomas, Blaire Voss, and Maya Jade McCallum) and I described our experience in running an informal online course about dinosaur paleontology earlier this year, and evaluated whether our methods of teaching were effective (spoiler alert: for most part, they were!). Meig presented our poster on the first day of the conference and will probably write up her own report about it in due course.

One of the star attractions of this year's SVP was this model of Utahraptor made by TRX Dinosaurs.

The welcome reception this year was held at (where else?) the New Mexico Museum of Nature and Science. My one regret is that I apparently didn't get any photos of the temporary paleoart exhibit Picturing the Past. (Check out this Twitter thread by Brian Engh for a selection of the impressive works on display!)

In the main hall of the museum, conference attendees were welcomed by a cast of the Tyrannosaurus specimen "Stan".

The museum's Triassic gallery was particularly impressive, as might be expected. Here are some fossils (and a partial life restoration) of an erythrosuchid. It's quite a large animal!

A block of Coelophysis specimens!

A wall of phytosaurs.

A Placerias realizes it has come within striking range of a Redondasaurus.

In the Jurassic hall, a Stegosaurus looks out on a confrontation between a Saurophaganax and a Diplodocus ("Seismosaurus").

Moving onward to the Cretaceous, here is a skull of Pentaceratops.

I was pleased to see that museum signage correctly marked dinosaurs as having survived the K-Pg extinction (so much so that I hadn't even noticed they were using the outdated term "Tertiary").

A few live gar were on display, presumably to represent a lineage of animals that supposedly hasn't changed much since the Cretaceous.

A highlight was the fact that the museum had concentrated their most impressive local fossil specimens in a temporary exhibition area. Here is a very complete specimen of the aetosaur Typothorax.

The tyrannosaurid Bistahieversor.

A partial skull of Parasaurolophus.

The early synapsid Sphenacodon.

On the second evening of SVP, many bird paleontologists gathered together for a "bird dinner", an event that had also occurred last year and seems poised to become a new SVP tradition. There were some snags with the logistics of getting everyone to the dining venue, but it appeared that much fun was had by all who attended. I ended up sitting next to Mike Habib, who regaled everyone at the table with facts about soaring animals and tales about his experiences testifying as an expert witness for crime trials.

It was also nice to have a University of Maryland reunion lunch on the third day (Friday) with my former instructors Thomas Holtz and John Merck and fellow alumni Benn Breeden, Susan Drymala, and Eugenia Gold, which hadn't been possible last year as several of us had not been in attendance.

Friday was also the day that I was scheduled to present my other poster, focusing on my own PhD research. I'd already presented this work earlier in the year during ProgPal and IPC, but (as expected) SVP provided me with the most substantial and diverse feedback on it. Thanks to Jordan Bestwick, Michael Hanson, Christian Kammerer, Mike Keesey, Dan Ksepka, David Marjanović, John Merck, Grace Musser, JP Nassif, James Proffitt, and many others for stopping by to chat. I got the impression that I left an overall positive impression, and I'm excited to wrap this project up and ready it for publication. As for those of you who haven't seen me present this research at ProgPal, IPC, or SVP, I'm afraid I'll have to make you wait just a little longer...

This is all I can show of my poster for now, sorry!

Meig had invited several friends (myself included) to her Shabbat dinner for Friday night. This, too, ran into some logistical issues (namely that the dinner was scheduled to start before the poster session ended...), but fortunately enough food was still left by the time I made my way there. Afterward, we were all also able to return to the conference in time for the auction, so it all worked out in the end.

This year's live auction theme was Doctor Who. The auction was entertaining as always, though I feel that I had a bit more fun at last year's auction by a small margin. This may have been partly because I was more familiar with last year's source material (the Guardians of the Galaxy films), but I suspect that the inclusion of a very inappropriate shirt in the preceding silent auction soured things for many attendees. Here's hoping that the discussion sparked by this kerfuffle leads to the implementation of more effective society policies moving forward.

I realize that those of you who have read this far are probably tired of hearing about who I had dinner with each night, and I still haven't listed my favorite talks of the conference yet, so I will do so now:
  • Mickey Mortimer's talk (presented by David Marjanović) on reevaluating Ornithoscelida
  • Viktor Radermacher's talk on the ornithischian respiratory apparatus
  • Emily Lessner's talk on identifying osteological correlates for crocodylian-style facial sensors
  • Tetsuto Miyashita's talk on the ontogeny of Paleozoic stem-lampreys (this year's Romer Prize winner)
  • David Grossnickle's talk on the adaptive radiation of therian mammals
  • Scott Hartman's talk on the origin of avian flight
  • Alida Bailleul's talk on a new enantiornithine preserved with unusual mineralized tissue
  • Greg Erickson's talk on the ontogeny of Ugrunaaluk
  • Eric Snively's talk on turning abilities in tyrannosaurids (which did a good job of keeping the audience attentive considering it was an 8:00 AM talk on the last day!)
  • Pete Makovicky's talk (presented by Eric Gorscak) on a new specimen of Tianyuraptor (yes, it's this specimen that's been circulating on the internet for some time)
  • Adam Pritchard's talk on forelimb function in Drepanosaurus
  • Savannah Olroyd's talk on chameleons as a possible analogue for hearing in non-mammalian therapsids
  • Roger Smith's talk on ecosystem collapse during the Permian mass extinction, which dropped the major bombshell that we now know of Lystrosaurus skin impressions!
Unfortunately, the one talk on alvarezsaurs (apparently reporting on a new species from the Hell Creek Formation) was cancelled, which I was quite disappointed by. However, Boban Filipović's model of a Hell Creek alvarezsaurid won the 3D art category for the Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize competition, so alvarezsaurs made at least one high-profile appearance at the conference.

On the whole, SVP was a rollercoaster ride of fun (for most part) from start to finish, as it typically is. This was the year that I was struck by just how many people in the community I know now, to the point where the entire conference went by without me having run into some of them! There was lamentably little chance to exchange more than a few words even with many of those who I did meet. Perhaps not coincidentally, this year's SVP was the biggest to date, numbering over 1300 attendees. (A bit of fun trivia: as far as I'm aware, Dougal Dixon and myself were the only individuals to have attended both TetZooCon and SVP this year.)

Not only was this the biggest SVP so far, it also hosted the largest gathering of members from my Palaeo-Tumblr friend group. Individuals represented are Tristan Stock (Leaellynasaura), myself (Albertonykus), Meig Dickson (Kulindadromeus), Tyler Young (Cryolophosaurus), Bobby Ebelhar (Triceratops), John D'Angelo (Ornithopsis), Sam Stanton (Deinonychus), Henry Thomas (Zhejiangopterus), Austin Deans (Machairasaurus), and Kevin Sievers ("Diplotomodon").

Several attendees have joked that next year's SVP (which will take place in Brisbane, Australia) is likely going to be the smallest SVP to date. I, for one, would certainly like to go, but I suppose we'll see.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

TetZooCon 2018

This year's TetZooCon was the biggest so far, spanning two days instead of one. I suspect that many attendees would agree with me that it was also the best one so far. It was probably the most fun I've had a zoological gathering, and that's saying something!

Mark Witton was gracious enough to indulge my request for an alvarezsaur sketch when he signed my copy of The Palaeoartist's Handbook, despite admitting that it'd been a while since he'd drawn one. I ended up pulling up Scott Hartman's Mononykus skeletal for him to use as a reference, which felt like the least I could do.

For starters, there were some truly brilliant talks (though this is par for the course for TetZooCon). Some of my favorite presentations from the first day include Jennifer Jackson's talk on mysticete evolution, Lucy Cooke's talk on her book The Truth About Animals (so many laugh-out-loud moments!), and Katrina van Grouw's defense of domestic animals as scientifically important subjects of study. In addition, Fiona Taylor's talk on music in nature documentaries ranks among the most interesting talks I've ever heard at an event of this sort, shedding much insight on a subject that many (myself included) had been subconsciously aware of but rarely think about in detail. (Additional commentary on Taylor's talk, along with some music clips used in the presentation, can be found on SV-POW.)

This year's TetZooCon was the first to have a themed session of presentations. This was the bird session on the second day, including my talk. (Oh, right, I got to give a talk this year!) However, Darren Naish had also invited us bird speakers to partake in a panel discussion on the afternoon of the first day, and so it was such that I found myself answering questions about bird evolution onstage alongside Caitlin Kight, Hanneke Meijer, Robyn Womack, and Glyn Young. As a lowly second-year PhD student, being in such esteemed company made me feel woefully inadequate! I probably fidgeted and tripped over my words a lot, but my quip that hummingbirds are "dinosaurs trying to be butterflies" apparently struck a chord with many people, so everything seemed to work out in the end. It was also nice to see one of the points I tried to make during the panel later reaffirmed by herpetologist Mark O'Shea in his talk. (The point was that advances in molecular biology should not supplant a detailed understanding of morphology in extant taxa.)

Unfortunately, the bird panel coincided with the paleoart workshop (this was also the first TetZooCon with parallel sessions), so I was unable to experience the latter firsthand. From what I saw, the workshop was productive, with attendees being encouraged to create pieces using "unconventional" styles of paleoart (rather than standard photorealism).

Speaking of the paleoart workshop, this year's TetZooCon banner was illustrated with drawings produced by last year's attendees. I drew the Sharovipteryx above "2018" and the small mammaliaform overlapping the bottom of the "C" (camouflaged among crocodyliform osteoderms).

With the morning of the second day, it came time for the bird talks themselves to be presented. My fellow speakers all did an excellent job, and between us we covered a diverse and fascinating array of subjects in ornithology. Robyn Womack started the session off by discussing the circadian rhythms of birds, Caitlin Kight talked about the effects of noise pollution on birds, Hanneke Meijer presented on fossil birds of Southeast Asia, and Glyn Young looked at Southern Hemisphere ducks and why they're commonly perceived to be boring. I went second (after Robyn—a tough act to follow!), talking about ongoing controversies surrounding the early evolution of crown-group birds (some of which my PhD research is meant to address). I've received some queries about how I was even able to get a talk slot at TetZooCon to begin with, and honestly all I did was ask Darren if I could.

I've always liked the custom avatars John Conway draws for TetZooCon speakers. I appear to be depicted as a paleognath, or maybe an alvarezsaur whose tail is hidden by perspective.

Luckily, it seems that I had not bitten off more than I could chew. Overall audience response to my talk was (as far as I know) very positive, a recurring compliment being the clarity with which I'd explained the contents of my presentation. Indeed, I got quite flustered at just how high some of the praise I received was. It was a pleasure to see the various sketches Sara Otterstätter had drawn based on my talk (as she had done for most of the presentations). My use of a "this is fine" meme gained some traction, and some also appreciated my Infinity War reference. Here's hoping that this year's talks will be put online so that everyone else can judge for themselves. Apparently, though, at least one attendee had come away with the mistaken impression that I was supportive of the idea that songbirds and parrots had originated in the Cretaceous (whereas I'd meant to imply that I thought such ancient dates resulted from analytical artifacts). I'll need to work on making that clearer next time I present on this subject.

Edit: A recording of my talk can now be viewed online.

People seemed to like this slide. Credit really goes to Luigi Gaskell for coming with the joke in the first place; I simply capitalized on its relevance to my talk.

Yet another one of many personal highlights was that I got to meet skeptic activist and science communicator Aron Ra. I found Aron's Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism and Falsifying Phylogeny video series very informative when I was younger, and I still enjoy his videos on a regular basis. (I particularly recommend his ongoing Systematic Classification of Life series.) What floored me the most, however, was that Aron had been looking forward to meeting me, too! This was because he'd known about me from the intermittent assistance I'd been lending to his Phylogeny Explorer Project (PEP), an ambitious attempt to present the complete tree of life in a digital format. (Truth be told, all I've really done is refine and flesh out the maniraptor parts of the PEP somewhat, but it's good to hear that my minor input is valued regardless.) Aron would later present on the PEP during the afternoon of the second day, concluding his talk by inviting all TetZooCon attendees to contribute to the project. Besides Aron, I also met PEP manager Steve Owen, consultant Renato Santos, and benefactor Charles Buchan. Meeting Renato was particularly memorable, as I've known him through the internet for many years. As Steve has written in his own report about the convention, this has been the greatest number of people involved in the PEP assembled in one room to date.

Aron's talk was followed by another panel discussion, this time with Gert van Dijk and Dougal Dixon talking about speculative biology. Many great quotes were spoken, my favorite being Dixon's proclamation that humanoid aliens are a "great example of evolution". One really got a sense of how much thought and creativity goes into their elaborate spec bio projects. The final talk of the convention was by Darren himself, talking about the making of Dinosaurs in the Wild. It was extremely impressive to hear about the numerous details incorporated into the experience, not all of which I'd noticed on my own visit. Unfortunately, the sound system at the venue broke down by this point for unknown reasons, preventing Darren from using video clips to full effect (though hearing him provide his own sound effects was quite entertaining). Nonetheless, the fact that that was the worst thing to go wrong at the convention (as far as I could tell) meant a job well done to all involved.

At the past two TetZooCons, I'd come in second place on the TetZooCon quiz. With the greater number of people in attendance this time around, I'd assumed that it would be statistically unlikely for me to perform as well again. However, contrary to my expectations, I came in first place! (It was also amusing to discover that listing the membership of a specific neoavian clade was one of the questions on the quiz, as I'd joked about that being the case during my talk.) I was permitted to pick two out of a selection of potential prizes, ultimately walking away with a Fauna Figures bichir figurine and a Dinosaurs in the Wild Dakotaraptor plush (which has inaccurate wings, but the "pick the maniraptor thing!" part of my brain was yelling).

Another of my slides, this time showing the major groups of neoavian birds. I'd joked that though I wouldn't be quizzing the audience on any of these after the talk, Darren might. As it turns out, he did. I'll leave it up to readers to guess which group was the subject of the quiz question (unless Darren or a fellow attendee sees fit to reveal the answer).

Although this was the longest TetZooCon yet, it still felt like it was over far too soon! I'd gained several new contacts and caught up with many old friends, but I can still think of individuals who I would've liked to talk to and didn't get the chance. Even so, from my perspective as an attendee and speaker, the first two-day TetZooCon was an evident success. Watching the Tet Zoo community blossom and grow over the years has been an exciting experience, and it's been a real pleasure and an honor to have been a small part of it all.