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.

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