Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The TetZooCon was on

So, TetZooCon 2014 happened, and you won't hear a bad word said of it among those of us who attended. The event was a spin-off of the incredi-popular Tetrapod Zoology blog, authored by fish-hating mega-brain Darren Naish, and also the similarly named podcast, hosted by Darren and partner in tapir in-joke crime, John Conway. I'm sure neither will need an introduction around these parts; suffice it to say, the event reflected the incredibly diverse range of topics discussed on the blog and podcast, ranging from Dougal Dixon future-bats to false azhdarchid head nubbins, and from mermaids made from papier maché and string to having a seabird land on one's head. And there was a quiz. And it was bonkers. But more on that shortly. (All photos by Niroot.)

Darren Naish

I'm afraid to say that I didn't have my onetime-coulda-been-a-journalist hat on for this one; quite apart from the fact that it doesn't fit very well any more, I'd paids my money and the choice I tooks was to sit back and enjoy the show. Therefore, I'll be taking the lazy option and basing my (brief) report on the schedule we were all given. I'm sorry. Sorta.

The Con was held at the London Wetland Centre, and opened with a talk from Darren himself on speculative zoology - its history and why we should give a flying flish about it. In doing so, he drew upon distinct strands of speculative zoology, including horrifying visions of the future, making (scientifically informed) shit up about the past, and inventing alternative timelines in which sapient iguanas won World War II. A personal highlight was a look at the work of Dougal Dixon, whose speculative zoological works included dinosaurs that (more-or-less) have since been discovered, silly dinosaurs, the aforementioned flightless bats, and Man After Man, which is not discussed in polite society. Darren also pointed out how, in spite of its apparently 'nitch' appeal, speculative zoology has proven to be incredibly popular; this prompted perhaps the most in-jokey slide of the show, which got a hearty chuckle from the audience. Here's looking at you, Raven Amos.

Mark Witton
 Darren's talk was followed by Mark Witton's, and the pair gave each other high-fives as their giant medallions swung about their necks (no, not really). Mark was there to discuss the history of research on azdarchid pterosaurs, they of the huge heads, wing spans and, of late, media presence. In doing so, he illuminated the thinking behind a number of palaeoart memes related to these animals, and Quetzalcoatlus in particular (a topic that has been covered on the Tet Zoo blog). Perhaps most notable for readers of this blog, we saw how a very brief paper on bits-and-pieces of pterosaur resulted in illustrator Giovanni Caselli tasked with drawing an animal that was 'really honkin' big', and otherwise left to his own devices. And so, the pin-headed nightmare monster was born. Later came Sibbick's Quetzalcoatlus, itself (like everything else by Sibbick, ever) copied endlessly in spite of mistakes borne of misinterpreted material.

Paolo Viscardi
The following two talks both concerned cryptozoology - a recurring subject on the blog, and also tying in neatly, of course, with the Cryptozoologicon Volume 1, which Darren and John worked on alongside Memo Kosemen. Paolo Viscardi's hugely entertaining history of 'Feejee' mermaids revealed how meticulous scientific analysis can yield surprising results from even obviously fake specimens. Long thought of as 'monkeys sewn to fish', it only took a cursory examination of the teeth to show that this most certainly wasn't the case - they had fish jaws! In fact, while the lower half (or at least the outside) was indeed a fish, the top half of each 'mermaid' - as revealed by CAT scanning - was composed of whatever odds and ends the manufacturers had to hand, including paper, wood and even balls of string. As revealed by Paolo, gullible Europeans parted with unimaginably huge sums of money for these forgeries, and - thanks to PT Barnum famously getting his hands on one - there are now forgeries of forgeries. Of course, there was also a look at the history of mermaids in folklore throughout the world, which gave the talk an intriguing anthropological bent.

Carole Jahme
 Similarly, Carole Jahme's talk - 'Was Caliban an Orang Pendek?' - was a concise, but thorough, look at the history of legendary 'wild men', supposedly happened upon by European explorers in Southeast Asia. So authoritative were such accounts, Linnaeus saw fit to include the likes of 'Homo sylvestri' in his Systema Naturae, albeit under the 'Paradoxa'. The title alluded to the notion that, given that Shakespeare moved among the circles of explorers, sailors and scientists, and often incorporated the latest scientific ideas into his plays, perhaps it wouldn't be too fanciful to suppose that Caliban was inspired by accounts of 'ape men' cryptids from exotic lands.

Then there was lunch, with fine company and a nice, cool beer. My first of many that day (I'm like that when I get chatty).

Helen Meredith
The beer was a tough act to follow, but Helen Meredith did an admirable job. Her talk posed the question: "What have amphibians ever done for us?" (Yes, there were Monty Python references.) Determined to convince us of the worthiness of the squishy-skinned ones, Helen made the case on several very important grounds. They're an important part of countless ecosystems throughout the globe, of course, and they're far more diverse and crazy than many people realise - ranging from terrifyingly gigantic Japanese giant salamanders to minuscule, limbless caecilians, which excite the herpy types no end (as Helen demonstrated with photos of herself and colleagues in the field). But there's more - we can still learn so much from amphibians that can be applied, in particular, to the field of medicine. Of course, there was also a highly entertaining sojourn into the world of frogs secreting psychotropic substances from their skin. You know, licking toad, man. All in all, brilliant stuff.

Mike Taylor
 You'd be forgiven for thinking that Mike Taylor (of SV-POW!) was tripping on frogs when he was reeling off facts and figures pertaining to the awesomeness of sauropod necks, but then such is the ridiculous massiveness - and neckiness - of those most preposterous of dinosaurs. Mike was there to reveal the secrets of sauropods' success; a combination of a big, sturdy gut-platform, a small head, an efficient, avian-like respiratory system, and highly specialised (and numerous) neck vertebrae. It's something that mammals, limited as they are by their evolutionary inheritance, will never manage - even if Mike conceded that giraffes do a pretty good job given their unfortunate circumstances. Oh, and he apologised again for the whole Giraffatitan thing. He hates the name, you know, but what can ya do...

The workshop - the audience could view the artists' progress on-screen. L-R: MC John Conway, Mark Witton, Bob Nicholls.
Dinosaurs continued to dominate in the palaeoart workshop, during which the audience - along with artists Mark Witton, Bob Nicholls, and John Conway - were asked to fashion a life restoration from a jumbled set of bones. With scientists in the audience chipping in with additional anatomical info, the three palaeoartists were able to conclude that the creature was an archosaur with long, sturdy hind limbs and a fat behind, but nevertheless came up with three very different imagined creatures.

Niroot's creation. ROTTEN CHEATER!
And no wonder - the illustration they were working from was of the Mantell-piece. Of course, quite a number of people in the audience realised this (including me), and consequently handed in any number of variations on an 'old-school Iguanodon'. And yeah, I contributed one of them. I'm a git.

Neil Phillips
 Photographer Neil Phillips was next, and what a treat he had in store - a series of stunning photos and videos of British wildlife, with all the entertaining anecdotes to match. Neil's been climbing around rocky islands, scrambling about in the darkness, freezing his arse off in a hide in the depths of winter, had birds run at him, attack him and land on his head, and smugly beat fellow photographers with expensive kit to the best shot. What a guy.

Then there was the quiz. The first question was easy - Tyrannosaurus rex, duh. Then it got difficult. Then it got stonkingly difficult. Niroot and I bashed our heads together and managed to walk away with third prize. First prize - a domestic pig skull - went to Kelvin Britton, who managed a frankly absurd 23 out of 30, the swine (djageddit?), while Richard Hing took second. The quiz ranged from the generic names of plesiosaurs, to shrews, to crocs, to bats, to whatever the hell the 10,000th comment on the blog was. (I still can't remember.)

Oh boy. (This photo courtesy of Darren.)
And finally - we went on a tour of the wetland centre. Then went to the pub, where I probably had one too many. You can't blame me - they had Fuller's ESB on cask. Fantastic beer.

To conclude; a wonderful time was had by all, and I'd sincerely like to thank Darren, John and everyone involved in organising the day, not to mention everyone who put up with my inebriated ramblings at the pub. It was a rewarding day, I met wonderful people, and I hope to see even more there next year. (Oh yes, there'd better be a next year!)


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the day and every one of the talks, but I do have to note that Carole's Caliban talk made me squeal inwardly with delight for its uniting of literature with natural history. Shakespeare at a zoology convention! These are such stuff as happy geeks are made on...

    1. Er, 'convention'? I meant conference. -_-

  2. Oh, you guys were there? What a shame I missed you (or at least didn't recognise you), I'd have loved to meet you. If this happens again, please introduce yourselves!

    1. We were indeed, Mike. We said goodbye to you at the post-conference pub as you left. :) I'm afraid my general social awkwardness means I'm very bad at introducing myself and striking up conversations first. I think Marc was perhaps slightly inebriated at the time or I'm sure he would have done (I'm kidding). We'll do better next time. :)

    2. Certainly will, Mike. I just didn't want to intrude.

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  4. I'll echo just how much fun it was. Even for those of us who can't draw, and did abysmally in the quiz. But you forgot the most important thing about amphibians - they actually exist, and are still alive!

  5. "a combination of a big, sturdy gut-platform,"

    Can you elaborate on that? Thanks.

    "Oh, and he apologised again for the whole Giraffatitan thing. He hates the name, you know, but what can ya do…"

    Ignore it in favor of Brachiosaurus brancai, duh. ;)

    "Niroot's creation. ROTTEN CHEATER!"

    Is it cheating b/c he recognized the Mantell-piece?

    Still hoping that someone will post videos from TetZooCon online.


    1. Yes, that was precisely the reason. :) Though it was Marc who confirmed it as being so to me. I didn't recognise it at first myself. It was why I didn't hand the drawing in at the end, though I rather regretted it once I saw that many others had done likewise, including Marc, who deliberately restored it with every iguanodontid trope besides. It was hilarious.

  6. Just that if you have a small torso (like a giraffe) or a hefty but bipedal one (like a tyrannosaur) you don't have a platform that you can hang a long neck from.

    Even the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin has now accepted the name Giraffatitan.

    1. Thanks again.

      That's too bad. Don't they know the rule about GSPaul taxonomy (Then again, even I'm starting to give in to Mantellisaurus)?


    2. Mike authored a paper that looked at the differences between B. altithorax and 'B.' brancai, and considered generic separation to be warranted. He had to use Paul's name as Paul first proposed the split, and published a name.

    3. I know. I was mostly being silly (mostly), hence the parentheses in my previous comment.



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