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.

Monday, November 6, 2023

SVP 2023

Despite those of us on international flights being made to go through security twice, SVP attendees received a warm welcome in Cincinnati, Ohio this year.

The welcome reception was held at the Cincinnati Museum Center, which proved to be an excellent venue, being spacious enough that it generally didn't feel too crowded even with about 1000 paleontologists crammed inside. The Cincinnati Museum Center is composed of several museums and other facilities, but for me going through just the Museum of Natural History and Science took up most of the evening. Here is the skull of Apatosaurus (with some other sauropod parts).

Two large theropods from the Morrison Formation are mounted side by side, the megalosauroid Torvosaurus and the allosauroid... Allosaurus. The Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science apparently has the world's only Torvosaurus mount on display, and it was certainly an impressive sight.

Nearby is the tyrannosaurid Daspletosaurus.

You know you study birds though when one of the theropod mounts you were most excited about was a chicken skeleton...

It wouldn't be a vertebrate paleontology trip to Ohio without saying hi to Dunkleosteus!

I'd had no idea that stem-amniote tracks had been found in Ohio. These ones are Carboniferous in age.

The museum has an excellent Pleistocene exhibit, including this cabinet of North American carnivoran skulls. These species lived alongside each other during the Pleistocene, but only half of them are still extant today.

To drive the point home, part of the gallery consists of a model Pleistocene forest where restorations of extinct and extant North American organisms are exhibited side by side. I noticed that the museum signage was remarkably up to date, for example reflecting the recent reclassification of the dire wolf in the genus Aenocyon, distinct from Canis.

Not every extinct species shown in this gallery died out thousands of years ago, as it also includes models of passenger pigeons, which went extinct in the early 20th Century. Imagery depicting passenger pigeons is not difficult to come by in Cincinnati—the Cincinnati Zoo was where the last one died. Speaking of which, SVP deserves props for organizing free entry to the zoo for conference attendees, an amenity that I made sure to capitalize on. That should probably be the subject of its own post though.

This year's SVP had no fewer than six talk sessions focused on dinosaurs. It would have been possible for one to attend almost nothing but dinosaur sessions and still be present at the conference throughout the entire time that talks were being held. As with last year, my labmates and I represented a large proportion of the speakers in the bird session (to the point where other speakers this year joked about it). 

We were also graced by the presence of a very special attendee. Session moderator Meig Dickson had brought along eir green-cheeked parakeet Ellie, making this the only time in SVP history I'm aware of that a dinosaur has helped moderate a talk session. Ellie was remarkably well behaved throughout the conference, for most part only vocalizing during audience applause. In any case, my own talk went well and received Ellie's blessing.

As others have written about, the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport plays host to several skeletal mounts of Pleistocene megafauna, including a mastodon, the "stag-moose" Cervalces, and the ground sloth Megalonyx. I'd missed these on my way in to Cincinnati, but got to see them during my departure.

All in all, I had a lot of fun at SVP this year, but I know that not everyone came away from it so fortunate. As of the time of writing, the proportion of attendees who have reported contracting COVID-19 during or after the conference has been twice as high this year as it was in 2022. Notably, no masking mandate was in place for this SVP, and I hope the organization reconsiders this policy at future meetings. I managed to avoid the disease this time, but having caught it for the first time myself during SAPE earlier in the year, it's not an experience that I'm eager to repeat again, nor would I wish it on anyone else.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Prehistoric Planet Season 2

To the delight of many, Prehistoric Planet came back this year for a second season. Much of the praise that was lavished on the first season is equally applicable to this one, so I think it's fair to cut to the chase and dive into the specifics of its maniraptoran portrayals. Season 2 follows its predecessor in focusing on life during the Maastrichtian Age of the Late Cretaceous, and with this setting comes a whole cast of both new and returning maniraptoran taxa.

One of these returning maniraptorans is the oviraptorosaur Corythoraptor from the Nanxiong Formation of China, this time shown in a nesting colony. From an aesthetic standpoint, I'm very much a fan of the Corythoraptor model in this series, so it was fantastic to see it get some airtime besides becoming tyrannosaurid chow. This segment was also a great opportunity to showcase the relatively large amount of data we have on oviraptorid reproduction. Sharp-eyed viewers might notice that the Corythoraptor eggs have a rough surface texture composed of numerous tubercles and are arranged in multiple superimposed, partially buried rings with their narrower ends pointing outward and inclined downward, all of which are traits that have been observed in preserved oviraptorid nests. The narration informs us that male Corythoraptor are responsible for tending to the nests, a behavior that has been suggested for oviraptorids based on several lines of evidence. The posture of the nesting Corythoraptor and the presence of a central opening in the nest for them to sit in are also inspired by known oviraptorid specimens.

A Corythoraptor inspects its nest.

There are a few details in this depiction that may be controversial. One scene shows a Corythoraptor moving one of its eggs to a different spot in the nest, but it has been argued that most Mesozoic pennaraptorans likely did not manipulate their eggs after they were laid. In fact, a few studies have disputed the popular idea that oviraptorids incubated their own eggs at all, primarily on the basis of their nest architecture, though recent experimental evidence indicating that such eggs would have still benefited from the body heat of a parent and the absence of any obvious alternative means of incubation currently suggests to me that some level of contact incubation in these dinosaurs is more plausible. I was surprised that the Corythoraptor eggs were not colored blue-green following the inference of such coloration in eggs referred to Heyuannia. This is not a demonstrable inaccuracy (as egg coloration can be highly variable in closely related modern birds), but it seems like the type of scientific detail that Prehistoric Planet has otherwise fallen over itself to include.

Like nest-guarding animals of today, the Corythoraptor in the show have to contend with potential nest raiders. There is an irony to oviraptorids (once interpreted as specialist "egg thieves") being shown suffering from egg predation themselves. In this case, the main threat that appears is the dromaeosaurid Kuru, an unexpected choice given that this dinosaur was named in 2021 (almost certainly well into the production of the series) and is not known to have occurred at the same locality as Corythoraptor, instead having been discovered in the Barun Goyot Formation of Mongolia. I wasn't particularly bothered by this—if these taxa overlapped in time (which is a possibility given that the ages of many Upper Cretaceous fossil-bearing rock units in Asia are far from well constrained), it's entirely plausible that they had geographic ranges larger than their current fossil record would suggest. The Kuru is depicted using the cover of darkness to target the Corythoraptor nests, likely based on evidence from scleral ring anatomy that some dromaeosaurids, including the closely related Velociraptor, may have been primarily nocturnal. 

Speaking of Velociraptor, it is another returning face from the first season. In this season's outing, a family of Velociraptor are portrayed using steep terrain to their advantage while hunting the pachycephalosaur Prenocephale. It's a nice sequence that further showcases the potential diversity of hunting strategies in dromaeosaurids, and includes some cute baby Velociraptor to boot. New to the series (and to paleontology documentaries in general, as far as I'm aware) is the bizarre giant unenlagiine dromaeosaurid Austroraptor from the Allen Formation of Argentina, which is shown preying on fish, as has been hypothesized based on its long snout containing numerous conical teeth.

An Austroraptor dismembers a gar.

The final dromaeosaurid genus to appear in this season is Pyroraptor from southeastern France, with a few juveniles briefly showing up on a shoreline to eat some stranded ammonoid larvae. I'll admit, it did enter my head that Asteriornis* would have been an excellent fit for the geographic location and ecological role demanded by this scene, but I understand that reusing the existing juvenile dromaeosaurid model was undoubtedly much easier for the filmmakers than designing an entirely new animal for such a minor part.

*I'd originally assumed that Asteriornis, having been described in 2020, did not have a chance of being included in either season of Prehistoric Planet. However, the second season does extensively feature the Malagasy mammaliaform Adalatherium, which was described about a month after Asteriornis was.

Moving away from dromaeosaurids (probably), this season also depicts Imperobator from the Snow Hill Island Formation of Antarctica. Imperobator was a large paravian of unclear affinities, and unlike dromaeosaurids, its second toe on each foot was not specialized for being raised off the ground, which Prehistoric Planet portrays correctly. In one scene, several Imperobator are shown as though they were filmed using a thermal imaging camera, and later on, the group attempts to hunt the ornithopod Morrosaurus. Coincidentally, the events in this segment bear some resemblance those of to a fan-made storyboard sequence by Denver Humphries and Ilari Pätilä.

A pair of Imperobator catch their breath on the surface of a frozen lake.

Troodontids are represented in a couple of scenes. Several individuals investigate a fresh Alamosaurus carcass, but, consistent with studies on the structure and wear patterns of troodontid teeth, they are unable to penetrate its thick hide until a Tyrannosaurus opens it up. That troodontids coexisted with these larger dinosaurs is not in doubt, given that their teeth have been found in the Ojo Alamo Formation (or Kirtland Formation, depending on your terminology) of the southwestern United States. Pectinodon from the Lance and Hell Creek Formations further north appears in a separate segment, in which a group visits an alkaline lake to feed on swarms of brine flies, a behavior probably inspired by some extant gulls. The Pectinodon family here consists of a male and its offspring, reflecting the fact that male parental care has been inferred in troodontids for the same reasons that it has in oviraptorids.

Not content with only the flies as a food source, the adult Pectinodon is shown preying on some other paravians that have gathered at the lake, a flock of presbyornithids. An unusual decision was made here to refer to the presbyornithids by a name that has yet to be formally published, originally used for some undescribed pectoral girdle bones from the Hell Creek Formation. Regardless, the anatomy of the presbyornithids, like that of essentially all the other prehistoric animals in the show, is depicted very solidly. Details such as the webbed feet and the flattened, hook-tipped bill lined with keratinous plates for filter feeding were evidently referenced from more completely known Cenozoic presbyornithid fossils. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that conversations I've had with Darren Naish, the main scientific consultant on the series, were used to inform these presbyornithid restorations. So that's my informal and infinitesimally minuscule contribution to Prehistoric Planet, and I'm relieved that I no longer have to keep the existence of Season 2 a secret!

The flamingo-duck's smile.

Having said that, my most severe criticism of this season concerns this segment. After the presbyornithids are introduced, the narration follows up with, "Dinosaurs, are here, too" as an segue to the arrival of the Pectinodon, thus implying that the presbyornithids are not also dinosaurs! This is not only flat-out inaccurate, but not mentioning that birds are themselves a group of dinosaurs seems like a major missed educational opportunity, especially considering that Prehistoric Planet has not shied away from showing non-avialan dinosaurs with bird-like appearances and behaviors (including in this very same segment). Darren has hinted that wording more explicitly recognizing the dinosaurian nature of birds was met with pushback from other forces during show production, which I think is incredibly unfortunate given that Walking with Dinosaurs had no issue with referring to avialans as "flying dinosaurs" in 1999.

That's not to end on a dour note, however. There is one more maniraptoran featured in the series left to discuss: the flightless marine euornithean Hesperornis, probably one of the most aquatically-adapted dinosaurs ever to have lived. The best known fossils of Hesperornis are between Coniacian–Campanian in age, but undescribed specimens from the Hell Creek Formation have been mentioned in scientific literature. Having been named in 1872, Hesperornis is no stranger to science, nor to appearances in popular media. However, I feel reasonably secure in saying that the Hesperornis in this series is the most scientifically rigorous depiction of this taxon ever animated in a work of this genre. In Prehistoric Planet, Hesperornis has a beak occupying distinct parts of its jaws from its teeth (despite the narration incorrectly stating that it had a "beak full of [...] teeth"), sprawling hindlimbs with the shins held close to the body, and a rudder-like tail fan (suggested by its broad, flat tail vertebrae), all features that are commonly overlooked in artistic restorations.

A Hesperornis terrorizes a school of fish.

Last but not least, it should be said that Prehistoric Planet Season 2 goes a long way towards addressing both of my main concerns about the first season: the near-absence of tetrapods that weren't non-avialan dinosaurs, pterosaurs, or large marine reptiles, and the limited disclosure about the science behind creative decisions made for the show. This season not only includes two avialan species (the presbyornithids and Hesperornis), but also the crocodylomorphs Simosuchus and Shamosuchus, the snake Madtsoia, the mammaliaform Adalatherium, and (returning from the previous season) the large frog Beelzebufo in prominent roles. On a related note, though ammonoids were not tetrapods, Prehistoric Planet must also be commended again for highlighting the diversity and life history of these key players in Mesozoic marine ecosystems, in a way that no other paleontology documentary has done before.

As for scientific content, twice as many "Uncovered" videos explaining the scientific backing behind the series were produced for this season compared to the last. Half of these segments are also directly attached to the main series episodes (instead of only being available as separate videos), likely allowing them to reach a wider audience. Furthermore, a Prehistoric Planet podcast was released, explaining additional details about the show's creative process. These are welcome additions to the lineup of official Prehistoric Planet media, but they probably still just barely unveil the curtain on the substantial effort and decision-making that assuredly went into the series. I for one would be eager to see even more behind-the-scenes material.

Whether there's more in store from Prehistoric Planet, only time will tell. However, for now I wouldn't be too upset if this were all we ever got. The two seasons of this show have been a veritable triumph, representing by far the most scientifically grounded and up to date portrayal of life in the latest Cretaceous that's currently available as a documentary series.