Welcome to TetZooMCon! It’s like TetZooCon, but with more Zoom. For six years, between 2014 and 2019, there has been a TetZooCon gathering in London every year, and for six years, your LITC team was there to report on it. But 2020 is not a normal year, and it was obvious that an in-person gathering wasn’t going to happen. However, thanks to the tireless efforts of Darren Naish, John Conway and Sharon Hill, on december 12 we could all attend the online, Zoom-only 2020 edition of TetZooCon from the comfort of our own homes. Although this wasn’t the multi-day extravaganza with over a dozen talks, a marketplace and a palaeoart exhibition that it was the years before, it was still a great lineup of tetrapod-related talks and workshops in a number probably ideal for this setting.
As for me: this was only my second TetZooCon experience (a fact that Darren himself was surprised to learn, he must be tired of seeing my mug already). It was great seeing and talking to all these people, some of whom I met last year and some of whom I only knew from Twitter.
After Darren Naish – with a fashionable quarantine ponytail and matching full beard – welcomed us all and made us feel at home (because we were), it was the honour of Becky Wragg Skyes to open the first set of tetrapod talks.
Rebecca Wragg Skyes – Re-imagining Neanderthals: From Archaeology to Palaeoart
The first talk of the day was immediately excellent. Archaeologist Becky Wragg Skyes has made it her mission to bust stereotypes and prejudices about Neanderthals and spread a more nuanced and complete view of what they were actually like. She gave a quick overview of how Neanderthals have been viewed through the ages – first as fundamentally “other”, then increasingly as wild and primitive, until modern times give the Neanderthal an increasingly nuanced and respectful treatment. She also didn’t shy away from mentioning the suspect racial coding that is frequently present in historic Neanderthal depictions. She then went on to show how many archaeological finds shed a tantalizing light on the complex and intricate lives these people must have led, their respect for death, their eye for beauty and their fascinating culture. So what were Neanderthals really like? Quite sexy, obviously.
Natalia Jagielska – The Rise and Demise of Non-Pterodactyloid Pterosaurs
How fast can you say “Non-Pterodactyloid Pterosaurs”? Remember, the “P” is NOT silent! Natalia Jagielska admirably brought the term down to three syllables – don’t you love paraphyletic groups? Natalia researches those pterosaurs not in the “pterodactyloid” category, which includes most of the well-known ones. It’s great to have someone give the lesser-known pterosaurs some love, especially as these include some fascinating and beautiful creatures that rarely find their way into the spotlight. Natalia gave a handy overview of the main groups of “noptactloids”, their evolutionary history and possible explanations for their decline. All this was peppered up by her own wonderfully charming cartoony artwork.
RJ Palmer – Paleoart as creature design
RJ Palmer’s talk was probably the most anticipated one of the bunch. Making his name redesigning Pokémon as realistic creatures, RJ went on to become a concept artist for such popular media as the Detective Pikachu movie (in my opinion, probably the best video game movie adaptation to date) and the esteemed Saurian video game. RJ had a novel style of presenting his work, using a giant Photoshop file rather than any traditional presentation media, allowing him to easily zoom in and out and showing all the exquisite details in his drawings. It worked really well, and the talk was both enlightening and inspirational, a highlight being the presentation of his famous T. rex design for Saurian, nicknamed “Goathrob” (which Darren humorously mistook for the name of a Pokémon). His remarks on dinosaur colour schemes – don’t rely on extant animals too much – are sure to make ripples in the community for some time. Maybe it is time to stop giving every other dinosaur cassowary colours.
Anjali Goswami — Digitising vertebrates: or how a mammalogist stopped being impressed by birds and learned to love salamanders
Anjali Goswami’s talk was probably the most technical of the day, but also the most scientifically fascinating. If I got this right, she and her team have digitized a high number of vertebrate skulls, and, by tracking several points on their skulls and tracking how they differ and evolve over time, they have devised a way to quantify morphologial diversity and rates of evolution. That sounds pretty amazing, and will without a doubt have many interesting uses in the future. Anjali was suprised to find that birds, on the whole, don’t really differ all that much from one another. She called them “terrible dinosaurs”, which I guess makes them terrible terrible lizards. Salamanders, on the other hand, were found to be surprisingly diverse! The talk went at lightning speed and was full of information but I just about kept up.
David Lindo — Missing: Without Action (on recently extinct birds)
In sharp contrast to the previous talk, David Lindo calmly took his listeners by the hand in a presentation that was less about science and more about passion and emotion. Lindo, known as the Urban Birder, guided us past a number of recently extinct birds, such as the pink-headed duck and the eskimo curlew, and wondered, with a touch of wishful thinking, if some of these birds might still be alive somewhere. “Extinct” animals being rediscovered, alive and well, certainly aren’t unheard of, so we can all share his hope. David called on the birders of the world to not just rely on a list of species they might expect to find, but to also be on the lookout for unexpected and, dare we dream, presumed extinct species, so that his dream of once seeing an eskimo curlew in the flesh might one day come true.
British Big Cats Workshop
Out of all TetZoo-related subjects, it is the cryptozoology stuff I’m personally the least interested in, though the popularity of Darren’s writings on the subject would suggest I’m in the minority here. I admit I find the case for Great Britain being stalked by a population of black panthers not particularly convincing (beyond the occasional rich idiot’s pet escaping) and, despite his best efforts, Rick Minter’s long talk making the case did little to change my mind. Wonky, blurry photographs of what might easily be a big dog were trated with the same amount of seriousness as more intriguing signs – including carcasses of deer that seem to be killed by something rather bigger and stronger than what you might expect roaming the British countryside. My mind kept wandering back to that famous case in 2005 where an alleged puma stalking the Netherlands’ biggest national park (which is not very big at all) kept the nation in its grip for all of a hot second, before reavealing itself to be probably just a regular ol’ cat. Keep them inside, people.
For the palaeoart workshop, which you could join at a small upcharge, we were separated into multiple zoom rooms, each led by a different artist. It was randomized who you’d end up with; I was pleased to find myself in a room with the esteemed Steve White, official Friend Of The Blog, who shared some of his artistic secrets and demonstrated how he draws T. rex, taking the fine details of its anatomy into account. I fumbled around with an unsharpened pencil, pretending to be an artist, but I’m sure the other participants in my group did a fine job. Marc and Natee were with Luis Rey and Gabriel Ugueto respectively and have nothing but good things to say about their experiences, so this, too, was a great succes.
After this, we could freely mingle with the other guests in separate rooms. I regretted not having been able to spend more time chatting with everybody – I had to get in for what would turn out to be my last day of work of 2020 – but I heard some crazy kids kept the party going until lunchtime the next day! I did get the opportuinity to plug our new podcast. Darren’s response: “Oh no, not you too!”
With over 350 attendees, TetZooMCon 2020 was by far the most well-attended edition of TetZooCon in history – though probably not for the reason anyone would want. It being online meant it had a much lower barrier of entry, which meant a great number of people from overseas could tune in for whom a trip to London (or, heaven forbid, Loch Ness) wouldn’t be in the cards. I wonder what lesson the TetZoo team will learn from this experience. I for one can’t wait for there to be in-person gatherings again, but even when those belong to the realm of possibility once more I think we haven’t seen the last of these online conferences.
TetZooMCon, if nothing else, was an amazing technical feat: for an online Zoom meeting with that many attendees, it went off with very few technical snags. Once again, my full felicitations to Darren, John, Sharon and everyone else involved with getting this massive project off the ground. Whatever shape TetZooCon might take in 2021, we will once again be there.