My second day of TetZooCon 2018 started with me arriving at Warren Street tube station almost an hour early, lurking in a coffee shop for a while, then traipsing over to the (locked) venue where, happily, I had the wonderful Sean Bell to talk to. Once the organisers arrived and got us in, I drank coffee until I felt slightly sick, mumbled incoherently at people and, finally, settled down for the second round of talks. Good thing the opening act was strong.
In fact, it was Robyn Womack, who asked us to ponder the question – how do birds tell the time? I always imagined them pulling dainty pocketwatches on metal chains from some pouch within their breast feathers, but it turns out that instead they can detect light through their skulls. As can a great many other animals, apparently; as usual, we humans are a bit rubbish, almost as if we weren’t intelligently designed, after all. (To top it off, birds have multiple internal ‘clocks’ versus our single one.) After explaining the different ways animals (including humans) make use of circadian rhythms, Robyn gave us a quick run through the subject of her PhD research – a look at how birds’ inner clocks are affected by artificial light when living in urban environments. Specifically, Robyn’s study looks at nesting populations of the great tit Parus major, both in Glasgow and at the Scottish Centre for Ecology and the Environment, Loch Lomond. As Robyn entertainingly explained, fieldwork in rural Scotland is fantastic, what with the fresh air, glorious views, constant drizzly rain and killer swarms of midges.
As it transpires, birds’ body clocks can indeed be significantly thrown out by artificial light in urban environments, to the extent that it can impact the health of chicks in nestboxes. However, exactly how great a problem this might be, and whether or not some birds can even benefit from light pollution, is a matter of ongoing study. Check out Robyn’s blog if you’re at all interested.
Second up (five coffees in) was Albert Chen, aka Albertonykus or Alberta Claw, a PhD student studying fossil birds at the University of Bath. Albert’s also a TetZoo ‘superfan’ who’s long followed the blog, attended various TetZooCons, and is even behind the now-defunct TetZoo Time web comic. Furthermore, he’s far too good at the TetZooCon quiz, to the point where he perhaps should be given his own set of questions, just to even things out. In any case, Albert’s talk was entitled The Dinosaurs That Survived: Origin, Resilience, and Diversification of Crown-birds. No reader of this blog needs to be told that modern birds (neornithes) represent the sole surviving lineage of dinosaurs, but why them? After all, the enantiornitheans were perhaps the most successful bird lineage in the Cretaceous, but they all perished, along with every other feathered dinosaur group. Why did Our Birds survive?
No one can be quite sure, of course, although their apparent small size, ground-living habits and generalist diet likely had something to do with it. There then arises the question as to how Our Birds managed to diversify so rapidly after the K-Pg extinction. Of course, it would appear that some lineages split off from each other before it. But which ones? Does the Maastrichtian Vegavis indicate that anseriformes were going their own way, like angry men on the internet, even before the mass extinction? Here, a patchy fossil record combines with conflicting genetic studies to frustrate researchers. Even among living lineages, the bird family tree continues to be reshuffled and different clades moved from node to node; it shouldn’t be thought of as settled. Still, as Albert explained, thanks to new tools, techniques and discoveries, we’re getting there.
In what turned out to be an extremely birdy morning, Albert was followed by Caitlin Kight, self-described “academic developer and all-around jack-of-all-trades…employed by the University of Exeter” (and author of a book entitled Flamingo – can you tell?). Caitlin’s talk looked at the impact of noise pollution on birds, and so complimented Robyn’s talk rather nicely. Caitlin put it to us that, although human impact on bird populations is often considered when it comes to obvious things like hunting, trapping, habitat change, feeding and so on, we rarely think about what that bloody racket we generate is doing to them. Sound is hugely important to a great many (even most) birds, to an extent that humans rarely appreciate. As Caitlin explained, slight changes in pitch, tone and volume that seem insignificant to us can greatly change the meaning of a bird’s song. If a bird must adjust its song to compensate for human-generated noise, they may have trouble engaging in important behaviours, including finding a mate. It’s time for us to think about what we can do to help mitigate this problem.
The penultimate avian-themed talk of the morning was given by Hanneke Meijer, Associate Professor and Curator of Osteology at the University of Bergen and bird palaeontologist who has also worked with the Smithsonian, among other institutions. Hanneke’s talk, entitled A Fossil Bird Perspective on Southeast Asian Biogeography, concerned efforts to study the evolutionary history of birds among the islands of Southeast Asia. Although the avian fossil record in the region has historically been poor, recent excavations aimed at increasing our understanding of human evolution (consider the famous Homo floresiensis from Flores, an Indonesian island) have also turned up more and more bird remains. This has given researchers a more complete picture of bird evolution and distribution in the region, and what has emerged has often been surprising. In the Middle Pleistocene, the bird fauna contained animals completely unlike anything seen in the region today, whereas by the Late Pleistocene, the creatures start to look much more familiar. This appears to have been linked to the extinction of various large mammal groups, including elephants and hominins. When they went, the troublingly large storks and vultures went with them.
Oh, and chickens are only recent arrivals. It’s remarkable, as they were long thought to be natives and are now everywhere. I certainly thought so, although perhaps I was inspired by the magnificent carving of a rooster owned by my girlfriend’s Dutch-Indonesian grandmother.
I love ducks, and so the final birdy talk was right up by quacking alley. The hugely entertaining Glyn Young of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust wanted to tell us why “southern hemisphere ducks are so dull”. Except he didn’t really, of course; rather, he was playing up to a popular reception, created by decades of, shall we say, slightly prejudicial research, that southern ducks are brown, drab and behaviourally uninteresting. Who’s to blame for this overly negative image of ducks living below the equator? Could it be…
…Meller’s duck, Anas melleri?! Meller’s duck resembles the northern mallard we’re all familiar with, but it’s nowhere near as sexually dimorphic, more solitary, and males hang around to help care for the young. In fact, it’s a fairly typical southern duck in those respects, but those of us raised in more northerly climbs tend to have preconceptions as to what a duck ‘should’ be like. This was as true of pioneering Austrian ornithologist and ethologist Konrad Lorenz as anyone else. Lorenz had access to extremely rare captive birds, and noted how much they seemed like ‘plain’ mallards in their appearance and behaviour. He also recorded how a captive female eschewed male conspecifics, instead going crazy over male mallards, in spite of the two species never meeting in the wild. His conclusion? That Meller’s duck, and all southern ducks, must be degenerate, inferior descendents of more flashy nothern birds – and automatically less interesting. Given the lack of captive specimens to study, other authors tended to follow in Lorenz’s footsteps – thus leading to the image of the ‘boring’ southern duck.
Of course, as Glyn hinted, Lorenz had certain…ideological reasons to view this African island bird as being inherently inferior. As Wikipedia will more happily tell you, he was a bit of a Nazi at the time.
In reality, Meller’s duck – as Glyn has noted first hand – is a beautiful and fascinating species, superbly adapted to its island home and tropical climate. It’s another wonderful duck among so many. Oh, and the females don’t fancy mallards; it seems that Lorenz’s bird was just a very odd duck. Glyn’s talk was an intriguing insight into how prejudice and credulousness can colour our views of individual species, as well as the natural world as a whole. And I learned a lot about Meller’s duck, too. Now I want to see one in person.
So, I love ducks, and I love lunch, which is what came next. (Better planned this time.) Once the break was over, and attendees had settled back down in their seats, the hall went completely dark. Everyone was silent, expectant. Suddenly, amid an onslaught of choral music and madly swirling spotlights, a tall man, dressed all in black, strode forward to the podium. The music swelled with pipe organ chords and crashing guitars. The spotlights whirled around to focus on this figure, while smoke machines belched forth from the front of the room. Staring solemnly into the far distance, his long hair hanging about his shoulders, the man declared:
All right, none of that happened. Still, the guy looks like he should have a dramatic (and preferably quite metal) entrance wherever he goes. Aron Ra is well known among atheist and sceptic circles online, having devoted countless hours to fighting the scourge of Young Earth Creationism in the USA. But, although he did have his anti-YEC book for sale at TetZooCon, that wasn’t what he was ultimately there for. Aron Ra was looking to explain and promote the Phylogeny Explorer Project, an ambitious scheme to make the entire tree of life available online, in collapsible/expandable tree form, illustrated, and with links to detailed information on individual species. Yes, this includes all fossil lifeforms, as well as those extant. It sounds slightly crazy, and probably is, but there’s no faulting the sheer ambition and righteous motivation behind it. All being well, this is to be a huge online monument to human discovery and the diversity and evolution of life on Earth. But hey, don’t take my word for it: Aron’s talk is up on YouTube.
Now, I must confess that I’ve never been much into speculative biology. In fact, Alex Lovegrove and I had a good laugh over dinner on the first night, envisaging Pigeon World – a parody of a Dixonian hypothetical future in which the perennially successful urban pigeon (and, to a lesser extent, wood pigeon Columba palumbus) has taken over a ravaged Earth, evolving into giant predatory pigeons, panda pigeons, whale pigeons, penguin pigeons and so on. Nevertheless, the spec bio discussion between Gert van Dijk, creator of the fictitious alien world Furaha, and Dougal Dixon (for it was he) was very entertaining indeed, mostly thanks to the personalities involved. Having read so many (so very many…) of his kiddy dinosaur books over the years, I was half expecting Dougal to be a little bit dull, dry and flat, but he was anything but. He positively fizzed with energy as he discussed tropes in spec bio, how interest in it is far wider than people might realise owing to a global fascination with mythical and fantastic beasts (that’ll tell me), and what happened in the wake of his spec bio opus, After Man. It was Big In Japan, to the point where a documentary film, featuring Dougal himself alongside numerous stop-motion future-beasties, was created for Japanese TV.
Gert seemed rather more solid and sensible in a very Dutch way, while also possessing a wonderful wry sense of humour. In working on Furaha, he has acknowledged how an environment similar to Earth’s might lead to convergent evolution all over the place, while trying to avoid animals that are basically stand-ins for Earth beasts. Not Avatar, then. Some of his best creations included weirdly geometric, shape- and colour-shifting ‘fish’, and crab-like creatures that possessed radial symmetry and could walk in any direction. He also agonised over bringing humans into Furaha (as interlopers), but decided to do so as a satirical demonstration of how we’re so good at bloody well messing everything up.
I also love that he blogs with the alias ‘Sigmund Nastrazzuro’, or ‘blue ribbon’ in Italian, which happens to be the name of the Peroni lager known in the UK as just plain ‘Peroni’.
And finally…it was time for Darren himself to take the mic. OK, the quiz did come first owing to sadly unresolved technical difficulties, but I don’t want to talk about that owing to how badly I did. Albert Chen came first. Anyway, Darren’s talk concerned the phenomenally good Dinosaurs in the Wild, hopefully familiar to any of our readers (especially as I reviewed it). Darren was heavily involved in the making of Dinosaurs in the Wild, to say the least, providing a huge amount of input into the attraction’s creature designs. What’s more, they actually listened to him. As a result, visitors were treated to some of the finest CG reconstructions of Maastrichtian animals ever seen. Why Maastrichtian North America in the first place, though? Well, as Darren explained, they needed that giant coelurosaur to get people through the door and star on all the posters.
That’s not to say that the creative team rested on their laurels when assembling their Tyrannosaurus, though. Far from it; this enormously well-built (leaning towards the more muscular end of plausible reconstruction), occasionally fluffy-necked (controversy!), lipped (controversy upon controversy!), and distinctly non-roaring vision of the animal was quite far removed from what had been seen in pop culture up to that point. Which, these days, essentially means what was in the JP franchise. The Dinosaurs in the Wild T. rex looked bulky, somewhat stiff, a little alien, and convincingly scary with it.
Tyrannosaurus was just the beginning, of course, and over time a whole Hell Creek world was brought to life around it. Darren explained that he wanted the dinosaurs to be accurate according to what we know, but speculative and flamboyant as much as possible…within reason. As such, Thescelosaurus was given a coat of quills, Ankylosaurus received inflatable nasal balloons, and Triceratops was decked out with a Darth Maul-coloured head (although no nasal balloons, sadly). Inspiration was also taken from existing palaeoart; a (now rather static) sleeping Psittacosaurus animatronic in London’s NHM inspired similar sleeping Leptoceratops in Dinosaurs in the Wild, although the latter were also given UV-reactive markings, as were some of the other creatures. This reflects the likelihood that, as with birds today, dinosaurs could see into the UV spectrum. Oh, and the dromaeosaurs were fully feathered, so that’s nice. Quite apart from the animals themselves, Darren and the team worked hard on creating a believable ‘time base’ for visitors to experience. One of Darren’s personal favourite background details – which he worked on directly – was a poster detailing the correct handling of young dinosaurs.
I could go on about this forever. They built the dromaeosaur nests for real, then inserted CG dromaeosaurs! The actors referred to a document known as ‘the Bible’, stuffed with Hell Creek info that might even see publication some day! (Here’s hoping.) But that’s probably enough for now…
…Because I do need to mention one or two other things. Firstly, Beth Windle’s amazing cake, which resembled a dead gannet that had been killed by plastic pollution. Raising ecological awareness through deliciousness; ingenious.
Perusing artists’ stalls is another huge part of the TetZooCon experience, and it would be all the poorer without them (much as I, and many of the other attendees, are all the poorer with them). I relish the opportunity to speak with great artists like Steve White, Jim Robins, Jed Taylor and many more besides, admire their work, and maybe even buy something. This year, I purchased one of Jed’s superb t-shirts from his superlative ‘birds with snouts’ collection. Nice work, Jed.
To finish – AT LAST – I’d like thank the organisers, the speakers, and the very many attendees I had the pleasure of speaking with over the weekend. You made the early mornings and slow realisation that my contact lens was irrevocably damaging my right eye worth it. Here’s to next year!