Hello everbody! Here’s a new face at LITC. I’ve been a reader and friend of the blog for a while. This year I came over from the Netherlands to attend my first ever TetZooCon, in the company of Marc and Natee. Between Marc and I, the suggestion came up that I should do the write-up this year, for reasons completely unrelated to Marc’s massive hangover. We figured it might be fun to get a fresh perspective from a wide-eyed newbie. We hope you enjoy it.
Day 1 – 19 October 2019
From the moment I rediscovered my love of dinosaurs a few years ago through blogs such as this one, I was destined to visit TetZooCon. I first met some of the figureheads of the current wave of palaeo-interest back in 2018 at a now infamous debate between a man called Naish and a certain bowtie-wearing scallywag whose ideas are Too Dumb To Fly but whose name has been mentioned quite enough now. I was keen to meet more people in less toe-curling circumstances.
TetZooCon has grown to accommodate just that. The fact that the con is now spread over two days means that a trip is worthwhile even for those who need to come from far away – a lot further away than me in some cases!
So on a rainy Saturday morning, after a day and a half of catching up and some sightseeing, Marc and I took an early train from Brighton to London and arrived at a venue called The Venue. I say The Venue, but we had already heard that some people in charge had double booked and that the conference had been moved to some college classrooms upstairs.
It didn’t matter much in the end. The setup proved more than sufficient for two days of talks, discussions, art exhibitions, book hunting and introductions to lots of like-minded people.
Entering a very crowded room consisting of three joined-together classrooms and filled with makeshift merchandise tables, I quickly found myself slightly overwhelmed. The fact that I recognized a lot of people whose work I’ve admired for years left me slightly starstruck. There’s Rebecca Groom, who makes those awesome and cute plushies! There’s Steve White, who drew the centerfolds of that dinosaur magazine I used to read! There’s Mark Witton, the man who invented pterosaurs! I am not worthy! That feeling didn’t last though; it soon became apparent that everyone was equally approachable and friendly. Of course they were.
As we were all sat down in the upper hall, Darren Naish himself gave a modest welcome talk and a quick rundown of the five editions of TetZooCon that had gone before. Would those be bested by this one? Well, I’m obviously not the one to ask. But let’s get into it anyway.
Ellen Coombs – What can stranded whales tell us?
Like last year, the con opened in a big way with whales. Dead whales, unfortunately. Ellen Coombs’ opening talk had a somewhat sad but important topic: the number of reported whale beachings in the UK and Ireland has increased dramatically over the last few decades. Of course, this is partially because people have started keeping records, but the real question is if human activities such as fishing and noisy boats have anything to do with it.
Ellen has gathered as much data about whale beachings as she could get her hands on. She showed us some pretty neat graphs organizing all the different major species, pointing out some surprising trends. More Research is Needed to get some really definitive answers, but it’s very interesting to see how the effort of citizens can contribute to scientific knowledge, a subject that would return in another talk the next day.
Jack Ashby – Unnatural History Museums
Jack Ashby gave a highly entertaining talk about the unconscious biases present in today’s natural history museums. I was aware on some level of the bias towards mammalian representation as these animals make for the most spectacular exhibits (or, as he put it, “preferry the furry”), but the remarks about bias towards male specimens and the legacy of colonial history were particularly eye-opening. Hilarity ensued when Jack thought us a handy acronym for remembering which animals have a baculum. Jack’s description of walruses adorably using their tusks to anchor themselves to the ice as they take a nap inspired me to produce some fan art.
Dinosaur Palaeobiology Discussion
For a change of pace, the third event on Saturday was a panel discussion about the palaeobiology of dinosaurs and pterosaurs (but mostly dinosaurs) between Darren and four speakers who would each give their own talk on Sunday (like Darren, I will leave my full introductions for my Sunday coverage). The topics concerned social behaviour, such as nesting, sexual selection and herding. The speakers mostly argued against drawing too many far-fetched conclusions out of scant evidence (though that, of course, shouldn’t discourage the palaeoartists from exploring the possibilities). Rebecca Lakin’s zinger that “sexual selection is to palaeontology as religion is to archaeology” became the con’s most-tweeted quote.
Mike Dickison – What Is A Native Bird?
The problem of invasive species, and the pressure they put on native wildlife, is an important topic in biology and probably will be for the foreseeable future. So what IS a native species? The question is not trivial, especially in New Zealand, where “native” birds are protected by law while “invasive” ones are mercilessly persecuted. In a humorous and evocative talk that was well outside my personal area of lay-expertise (and all the more interesting for it), Mike Dickison explained why the distinction is not as binary as it looks, and why not all non-native species are equal. He used the fauna of New Zealand as a case study, but it’s easy to see how this discussion can be applied to other places in the world. Again a surprisingly strong talk in a convention full of strong talks.
I was on the fence for a while about the palaeoart workshop because I’m not an artist and it’s programmed against some other activities, but my mates talked me into it anyway and I have zero regrets (although I was mildly gutted to miss the symposium about nature documentary film-making). The talks were by Joschua Knüppe, who talked about the fruitful (and meme-tastic) #paleostream online art community, and by Rebecca “Palaeoplushies” Groom, Agata “International Woman Of Mystery” Stachowiak and Jed “Dromaeosaur Sanctuary” Taylor, who each talked about how they bring their fabulous palaeoart into the third dimension. Meanwhile, the attendees were encouraged to doodle away using all the provided art supplies. Unfazed by a lack of skill I took a fair stab at it. It was all a great laugh, and it was highly inspiring to see what everyone was cooking up.
Of course, all of this was entered into a competition, judged on Sunday by superstar palaeoartists Luis Rey, Bob Nicholls, Agata Stachowiak and James McKay. It quickly became clear that there was a huge amount of talent and inspired ideas to go around, and the competition winners were certainly worthy.
After the workshop, John Conway and others hurried to set up a palaeoart exhibiton for all those great artists present; for risk of missing some I will refrain from trying to list them all. The exhibition showed again how rich, talented and diverse today’s palaeoart scene is, and a lot of well-known pieces are done much more justice in printed form than on screen. Wine and beer were served and a good time was had by all.
And that was day one! I walked out with some much-desired merchandise, including a brand spanking new signed copy of Dougal Dixon’s After Man, ready for day two. Stay tuned for road pancakes, the true power of maniraptorans, the Big Bad Lynx, exciting news about CGI dinosaurs and more!