For the fifth time in as many years, I was obliged to get up early on a Saturday, travel all the way up to London and sit through a day of talks, for TetZooCon was on once again on October 6. And it gets worse – for the first time, the event was spread over two days this year. After a boozy Saturday evening, I had to get a poxy rail replacement bus at six in the ruddy morning. But I was determined. Storm of geen storm, bus of geen bus, kater of geen kater, ik zal varen! Why? Because in spite of my griping, TetZooCon continues to be worth any and all sacrifices; a genuine highlight of my year. Fascinating talks, talented people, and a wonderful time had by all.
I probably don’t need to mention this, but just in case: TetZooCon is an annual informal conference spun off from Darren Naish’s zoological blog primarily concerning tetrapods, Tetrapod Zoology, and the podcast that he co-hosts with Joint Most Influential Palaeoartist in the World™, John Conway. I’ve been to all the TetZooCons and have written a recap every year. I shan’t go over all the talks this year*, partly because I’m still exhausted but mainly because I physically couldn’t attend them all (more on which later), but they were as fabulously eclectic and mixed as ever. So…
Jennifer Jackson was the opening speaker on Saturday morning, and delivered a very strong talk, particularly as she wasn’t scheduled to be up first. Jennifer is a polar geneticist at the British Antarctic Survey, and was there to tell us all about baleen whales; in particular, their “origins, connections and recovery levels in the Southern Hemisphere”. Whales have always seemed like fantastical feats of evolution to me, almost unreal; that they diversified rapidly and evolved to such gigantic sizes relatively recently perhaps shouldn’t be so surprising, but it was all the same. Jennifer also took us through the history of whaling, and how rapid technological advances in the 19th and early 20th centuries had a devastating effect on whale populations. Research into the recovery of said populations is ongoing and has taught us much about baleen while lifestyles and habits, including the incredible migrations of some species.
Jennifer was followed by Fiona Taylor, composer of music for radio, TV and film. Fiona’s was one of the most immediately engaging talks of the lot, offering a look at the history and processes behind music made for wildlife documentaries. Do we need music at all? Does it make the footage seem ‘false’? Fiona pointed out that much of what we see is ‘false’ in that producers will manipulate footage in the edit, corralling hours and hours of footage into invented narratives for our viewing pleasure. Furthermore, music can have an important role to play in engaging an audience in the material and the message; it’s not all about ‘telling people what to feel’. Fiona employed music from film and TV to demonstrate just how much a good soundtrack can do.
Having finally made it to the venue (not his fault, mind), Steven Zhang rounded off the morning with a talk on the straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon. The history of the genus’ naming and classification goes all the way back to the very beginnings of palaeontology, but recent research has revealed that its evolutionary history might be very different to what was long assumed. New evidence suggests that Palaeoloxodon likely emerged from what is, as far as I can tell, a horrifying taxonomic mess consisting of bits of skulls and scientists wailing and gnashing their teeth. As usual, interesting head bulges (a forward infolding and projection of the upper occipital surface) that were previously thought to be indicative of differences between species are probably a case of ontogenic variation instead. Palaeontology, eh?
Lunch couldn’t come too soon. I wanted to eat in a nearby pub with Sam Barnett, but they warned us that in spite of being pretty empty, they’d take an age to serve food. So we went to a sandwich bar instead, where they also took an age. Sam inhaled his omelette-in-a-bap on the way back to the venue.
Now, in previous years, there had always been some kind of hands-on palaeoart event. This year, it was a paid-for extra, and those who went for it (like me) were whisked away into a different room for the better part of the afternoon. This was all well and fine, but I was a bit sad that I had to miss out on what was no doubt a scintillating discussion on bird evolution and a couple of brilliant-sounding talks, including one given by my good friend Katrina van Grouw.
That said, once you’ve squeezed Luis Rey, John Conway, Mark Witton and Bob Nicholls into a room, you can’t go far wrong. Furthermore, attendees included the likes of Joschua Knüppe, Sara Otterstätter, Jed Taylor, Alex Lovegrove, Rebecca Groom, our very own Natee and a huge number of other talented artistes, all of whom can churn out superb palaeoart with their eyes closed. Luis and Mark both gave excellent talks; Luis’ was of a more historical bent, looking at how people’s perceptions of dinosaurs had changed over time and offering a little bit of an autobiography (which was lovely), while Mark’s was more about The Future. Luis turned up pages from the early ’90s Eyewitness Dinosaur book, which I very vaguely remember, pointing to how it was still mired in past thinking. Around that time, Luis experienced fierce resistance to his forward-thinking visions of dinosaurs, only to be completely vindicated in light of the feathery fossils that came pouring out of China. Luis isn’t interested in dinosaurs as monsters; he’s much more concerned with them as real animals that may have looked a bit ridiculous, or done daft things, or been covered in plumes.
Mark, meanwhile, was rather hampered by a failure of technology. Ironic, given that his talk was all about The Future (or perhaps fitting? Wonders, or blunders?). Still, he made a decent fist of it given that his only backdrop was a static projection of his Diplodocus piece. Mark foresees a worrying dystopian future where pop culture and ‘serious’ palaeoart drift further and further apart, with Jurassic Park being a rare, one-off occurrence where the science of the time was conducive to making better monsters. (Various people, including Luis, did point out that the JP dinosaurs were only about as accurate as they needed to be for the movie.) Mark also discussed the advances in technology that have given us a better ‘baseline’ to work from than ever before; we are no longer limited to bones in many areas, as technological advancements and new discoveries give us ever better data on soft tissues and even colour.
Technology was also discussed in the context of producing palaeoart, with John offering us a look into the process behind some of his Photoshop pieces. There are layers. Lots and lots of layers. And sometimes a texture layer slapped on top, to make it less like overly shiny ‘computer art’. Watching him take apart his ‘Troodon under a magnolia’ piece, very familiar to me as a wallpaper on my old work PC, was fascinating.
There was also a minor argument between John and Luis, which is much less fun without a beer.
The attendees were supposed to be producing palaeoart in an unusual artistic style, which would then be pasted up downstairs and judged later. A few people followed the brief; many of us didn’t. Natee drew a hadrosaur at an unusually large scale, and that seemed to go down well anyway. I now wish I’d taken pictures of people’s work…or, you know, anything at all. But I forgot my camera, and my phone camera’s pretty bad. Ah well…
Being stuck upstairs with my fellow dino-nerds, I only caught the tail end of Ian Redmond‘s talk entitled The Reluctant Conservationist, 40 Years On: From Gorilla Parasites and Poachers to Virtual Safaris. A shame, as what I saw was marvelous. Ian’s one hell of a guy, and having him in to speak was a real coup. He’s been working with mountain gorillas for over 40 years and has worked with, advised and chaired an entire directory’s worth of conservation organisations. Seriously, just go and read his page on the CMS site. The part of Ian’s talk that I caught was mostly bringing us up to speed, explaining how not just gorillas, but countless other species are being threatened by our activities in some of the most ecologically vital parts of the world. Indeed, human activity is now threatening the entire biosphere. One of Ian’s latest ventures utilises VR to bring distant rainforests and other locations of ecological importance directly to people who might not otherwise get to experience them, a high-tech tool to increase conservation awareness. I really hope the rest of his talk makes it online.
And finally…we had Mark O’Shea, Professor of Herpetology at the University of Wolverhampton, with his talk entitled simply Erroneous Environs or Aberrant Activities? Using Historical Accounts to Resolve Unexpected Collection Localities for Specimens of New Guinea Worm-eating snakes (Serpentes, Elapidae, Toxicocalamus), based on the eponymous paper published in Herpetological Review. Yes. For those of us not well versed and/or immersed in all things herp, Mark’s was one of the more, let’s say, esoteric talks. Mark and co-author Hinrich Kaiser have embarked on a quest to determine whether or not historical specimens of Toxicocalamus snakes, mostly collected in the early 20th century, really were from the apparently unusual locales that they were found in according to historical record. In summary: they probably weren’t, as contemporary collectors simply didn’t care all that much about reptiles, regarding them as a by-catch, and they were often mis-labelled, if they were labelled at all. The thinking was that museum curators would do the work, but they often simply didn’t know what they were looking at, never mind where it was really from. The determined sleuthing conducted by O’Shea and Kaiser is truly impressive, and the breadth of the work involved was quite mind-boggling.
Following Mark’s talk, we all stuck around at the venue for a while to enjoy their terrible selection of beers, before moving on to either the Official TetZooCon Meal, or the unofficial one (for the lesser people, obviously). Then it was back home to bed. But not for long…I haven’t even got to the terrible memes, spec-bio discussion, [booming voice] ARON RA [/booming voice] or all of the lovely lovely merch on sale yet! Please do stay tuned.
*Of course I’ve found myself pretty much doing this anyway. Can’t help it.