TetZooCon 2019 – Day 2

Conference

DAY 2 – 20 october 2019

Day 2 of TetZooCon meant we needed to rise early again, but not unreasonably so. Did we mention how happy we are that the convention now starts at 10 instead of 9? By this time, it had become clear that Marc’s boiler had broken down, so we had to shower cold. Last time I’d visited, he had a broken car battery; we concluded I must be the one who’s cursed!

Bob and Julian’s hair sell swag.

None of that deterred us from taking that long train trip from Brighton once again to mingle with the other tetrapods and tetrapod enthousiasts. The day promised to be a dinosaur-heavy one, with the first four talks dedicated to dinosaur (and pterosaur) palaeobiology, done by the participants of Staurday’s discussion.

Chris Barker – That’s Gonna Hurt

Chris Barker got to open the prehistoric proceedings. His talk concerned an intriguing hypothesis: that some pathologies in dinosaurs might arise, not directly from violent interactions or accidents, but from the very stress of knowing a predator might be lurking around, ready to get you at any moment. After all, it’s been well established that excessive stress in humans can lead to all sorts of health complications, and many other animals can suffer from stress as well. Do predators use an “ecology of fear” to rule over their prey’s very minds? It’s a fascinating thought, but it became obvious from Chris’ talk that much more research is needed – in animals both extinct and extant – before we can say aything about this subject with any kind of confidence.

Rebecca Lakin – Parental Care Evolution in Dinosaurs and Birds

After yesterday’s dinosaur discussion, I was very much looking forward to Rebecca Lakin’s talk, as she had already shown herself to be a great speaker. Her talk was among the best of the day, a well-organized presentation that broke down all the levels and facets of motherly behaviour in archosaurs and carefully weighed the fossil evidence for and against dinosaur parental care. It turns out that oviraptorans take parenting quite seriously, while sauropods make total deadbeat moms. The possibility that the brooding oviraptor “Big Mama” might have been a dad was met with particular glee; the thought of patriarchy-busting dinosaurs is always popular. However, Rebecca was always careful not to get too far ahead of the evidence. An excellent talk.

Parenting advice from Rebecca Lakin. Photo by Yoan.

David Hone – Defining Dinosaurs – Problems With Terminology

A talk by the great David Hone is always something to look forward to, and he did not disappoint. The man delivered a fiery sermon advocating for clearer definitions in our palaeontological papers. So many widely-used terms are actually a lot more vague than we think, and different people mean different things when using the same word. What, actually, constitutes a “subadult”, especially if the definiton of “adult” itself is all wibbly-wobbly in dinosaurs? What, exactly, do we mean by “social” behaviour and where do we draw the line between it and the simple act of being in the same place at the same time? What does it mean when an animal is “semi-aquatic” if the word’s used to describe both pinnipeds and proboscideans? I suppose sometimes it can be a boon to a palaeontologist to just wave something away with a vaguery; it’s easy to call something “semi-aquatic” if that term can cover so much ground. But David thinks it’s time to come clean about just what we mean when we say these things, and I’m inclined to agree.

David Hone and Spinosaurus, the dinosaur that can be anything you want it to be as long as we are vague enough in our definitions. Photo by Maija Karala.

Jordan Bestwick – Reconstructing the Diets of Pterosaurs

Finally, some pterosaur action! Jordan Bestwick’s talk was about if and how the way pterosaur teeth have been worn down can be used to help predict what it’s been eating. I feared that this talk might be a little on the technical side, but those fears turned out to be largely ungrounded as Jordan gave a very clear, lively and engaging talk that illustrated his methods very well and was loaded with interesting facts I didn’t know – I’ll admit I’ve got some catching up to do when it comes to my pterosaur knowledge. The only downside is that Jordan’s methods don’t work for toothless pterosaurs.

Amy Schwartz – Project Splatter

The jump from the warm, escapist comfort of the distant Mesozoic to the brutal reality of the modern, human-shaped world was a sharp one. Enter Amy Schwartz, who’s made those unfortunate animals who’ve met their grisly demise on the underside of a car the subject of her studies. Like Ellen Coombs the day before, she makes use of data gathered by citizens to keep an eye on what’s lying dead where. These data then help with conservation efforts, and there is obviously work to be done. My jaw hit the floor when I heard that there is this countryside custom of raising pheasants up and releasing them into the wild to be hunted! How irresponsible is that? Of course, it’s mostly the stupid human-raised ones that end up as roadkill. Another interesting aspect of the talk was just how important and efficient the oft-maligned scavenger species are in removing offal from our roads.

It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it. Photo by Maija Karala.

If you see roadkill somewhere in Britain and want to help Amy out, check out Project Splatter.

Lauren McGough – Golden and Crowned Eagle Predation

Darren Naish mentioned he’d been wanting to bring Lauren McGough to TetZooCon for years, and it’s easy to see why. Lauren is a total badass. Her talk was one of the highlights of the convention, an utterly fascinating relay of her adventures traveling to the remotest regions of Mongolia to learn the ways of the berkutchi of the Altai mountans. They hunt for foxes with golden eagles. It’s a form of falconry hardly practiced by falconers in the West, but these people have been doing this for generations. Lauren then went on to show how those experiences help her rehabilitate injured wild eagles today. The way she demonstrated the awesome power of the African crowned eagle was particularly memorable, and certainly shook up some of my assumptions about what predatory maniraptorans are capable of. Hers was a well-deserved ovation.

Lauren McGough: The Real Life Lara Croft. Photo by Yoan.

Ross Barnett – The Missing Lynx

Ross Barnett’s talk gave me feelings. It was about the recently extinct animals of Britain and what might be done to “rewild” the country. While we probably won’t see woolly mammoths make a return any time soon, Ross has high hopes for reintroducing the lynx to the island, as lynxes don’t evoke the same emotional reactions in the public that wolves and bears do; they are cute, they have a most agreeable tendency to not kill people, and there are no folktales of a Big Bad Lynx. It’s sad that it’s come to this: in this day and age, which animals we get to keep around mostly comes down to good PR.

How human bias about which animals we do and do not happen to like invades every aspect of zoology and conservation was a recurring theme throughout the whole of TetZooCon, from what we put in our natural history museums, to what birds we choose to protect, to which killed animals are most likely to appear on the record. There’s something to ponder as we resume our normal lives.

Tim Haines – Walking With Dinosaurs to Dinosaurs in the Wild

Tim Haines got a rockstar’s welcome to the TetZooCon stage. After all, who in attendance hadn’t seen – and been blown away by – Walking With Dinosaurs when it debuted in 1999? For context: I broadly agree with Marc’s retrospective of the series he wrote earlier this month. Even if both science and technology have long marched on, the series holds up remarkably well. This is especially true considering none of its many, many imitators have quite lived up to its level (so, too, thinks Tim Haines). With an overcrowded market and decreasing quality came decreasing vierwership, and the CGI dinosaur boom has quitetly died down.

It’s exciting, therefore, that Tim Haines announced that a new generation of WWD-style CGI dinosaur documentaries is on the way. Haines knew of at least four independent series being in production, which is certainly something to look forward to (if nothing else, it will give us lots to talk about on this blog!).

Pictured: Rockstar. Photo by Yoan.

Of course, this had all the palaeonerds in attendance dreaming of exciting, up-to-date reconstructions of dinosaurs in high definition, but Haines was quick to remind everybody that just getting the science right for once isn’t going to be enough to win over a general audience. Using a scene from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life as an example, Haines pointed out that the new shows will have to use drama and emotional engagement to get and keep the attention of today’s fickle, spoiled public. He even seemed to use this as an almost-justification for the extremely ill-advised voice-overs of the 2013 Walking With Dinosaurs movie… he showed a scene of it, leaving the audience recoiling in horror!

Oddly, despite the title of the talk, Haines never once mentioned Dinosaurs In The Wild, the interactive CGI-assisted show he worked on with that Naish guy.

The infamously difficult TetZoo quiz at the end proved an excellent way to get the crowd working (at 14 points, I didn’t do too badly, though credit must be given to Marc for working out what a narluga is, and to Natee for being able to decipher my handwriting), and at the conclusion of the con, everyone was in excellent spirits (if not a little parched, as the venue had made the odd decision to remove the coffee before the last break). Marc was well chuffed after getting his hands on an original Steve White drawing he had been eyeing for a while. I am told the party continued until the wee hours and some people got slightly tipsy, though I’m sure I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Some people having dinner.

All in all, my first TetZooCon experience has been a resounding success. Thanks a bunch to Darren and John for organizing this fantastic event for the sixth time! I also want to thank all the speakers, all the artists who were speaking or selling, and all the wonderful and wacky attendees whether they be scientists, artists or just nerds like me. Also a big thank you to everyone who allowed us to use the photos they made, because your LITC crew slightly dropped the ball in that regard. Most of all I want to thank your friend and mine, Marc Vincent, and his wonderful partner Nicole, for putting up with me for a long weekend and providing me with a (broken boiler notwithstanding) warm place to stay. Despite Easyjet’s best efforts, I have made it home safely to enjoy my massive bag o’ swag. I will certainly return.

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