Wednesday, November 18, 2015

TetZooCon 2015

There can't be many conventions that have spun off from a popular zoology-themed blog and equally popular podcast about new tapirs and charging for rambling answers to questions about bipedal combat in deer, so it was very heartening that the first TetZooCon was such a success. Successful enough, in fact, to spawn a successor event, once again host to an impressive array of speakers covering an eclectic range of topics. Only at TetZooCon will you be so well informed about legendary pygmy elephants, bizarre ichthyosaurs, condom-inflated pigeon carcasses and the right circumstances to ask to use your very wealthy friend's Rolls for promotional purposes. It was, once again, a resounding success. (All photos by Niroot unless otherwise stated.)

Darren Naish once again kicked things off, this time with a brief history of the cryptozoology of sea monsters and, in particular, how it evolved during the 20th century. While the 'prehistoric survivor' paradigm was popular earlier in the century, as time and science progressed, so such creatures were ditched in favour of more imaginative beasties, often with their own highly elaborate (and quite bonkers) phylogeny. The Belgian-French author Bernard Heuvelmans, prone to all sorts of flights of fancy regarding poorly documented sightings, is regarded as the 'father' of modern cryptozoology, and rightly occupied a sizeable section of Darren's talk. All very entertaining stuff.

Next up was author and waistcoat wearer Matt Salusbury and the tiny elephants which, it transpires, probably don't exist. One might detect something of a theme, but, quite unlike the likes of Cadborosaurus, the Yellow-Belly and Bighoot, it's quite plausible that a tribe of tiny elephants could exist, and the idea has captured the imagination of explorers, scientists and circus charlatans for centuries. In fact, there are many people who still maintain that there are dwarf heffalumps out there, and when one such individual contacted Matt it spurred him on to an envy-inducing journey to exotic locales and - ultimately - to write his latest book. Matt's was a fascinating tale of the endless, slightly puzzling quest to find miniature proboscideans (non-fossilised), of specimens submitted to museums, dubious sightings rebuffed comprehensively by experienced field guides and mahouts, and PT Barnum's filthy, filthy lies.

Jessica Lawrence Wujek's favourite animals certainly did exist, but definitely aren't alive today - the ichthyosaurs. This was a very entertaining talk, taking a look not only at the bizarre anatomy of the marine reptiles in question, but also the lengths that researchers go to in attempting to collect, study and even categorise them. (Marine reptile phylogeny is quite up in the air, it would seem.) Those of us who are more into dinosaurs and, at a push, if you insist, plesiosaurs, had our 'you know, those daft dolphin ones' perception completely dashed. Who ever knew just how utterly crazy ichthyosaurs' flippers were? (Well, apart from Jessica and the three other ichthyosaur researches in the world, of course.) A pavement of tiny bones, sure - but how about 10 digits, often forking into extra digits, or even digits splitting then being subsumed into other digits? Not to mention the giant eyes and sheer variety in shape, size and dentition, from serpentine early forms to later ones with shell-crushing flattened teeth. Brilliant.

Last year, Darren discussed speculative zoology, and just had to mention the 2002 TV series The Future is Wild, a program chock full of hypothetical futuro-beasts. This year, series writer Victoria Coules was on hand to inform us in entertaining detail just how the program was made. Unsurprisingly, this involved dealing with a fair number of irritating TV network middle-management types, and attempting to make a fun family show for the Americans and a more, you know, serious programme for Europeans at the same time (as the networks demanded). An especially amusing anecdote concerned Animal Planet's demand to know exactly where all the humans had gone, something the programme makers thought didn't really matter. (In the end, Animal Planet decided quite of their own accord that they had all left for planets new on some sort of Space Ark.) The show's CGI hasn't aged especially well, but the scientific thinking behind some of the future creatures was certainly intriguing. If you haven't seen the show, in 100 million years mammals will be reduced to being farmed by spiders, and in 200 million years they'll be entirely extinct, while gigantic squid roam the forests. Of course. I hope PZ Myers hasn't seen it.

David Lindo was up next - birder, broadcaster, writer, naturalist and all-around Superb Bloke. David was full of memorable stories, from his childhood love of birding, his alarming flirting with the twitcher side, his rather poor flirting with women (who didn't much agree to being taken to bleak, windswept islands), and much more besides. Best of all, David was behind the campaign to vote for a national British bird, and had plenty of very funny tales to tell about the campaign - promoting it and people's reactions to it. And to him. Because there are a fair number of racist morons in Britain (thus also explaining the Daily Mail's sales figures). Not that that mattered - with the backing of cor-blimey celeb chef Jamie Oliver and well-meaning friends in PR with a penchant for semi-naked women in masquerade masks, not to mention the birdy NGOs, the campaign was a huge success. David's aim was to increase awareness of the wonderful birds that surround us even in what would appear to be our otherwise quite mundane, grey surroundings in urban and suburban Britain, and he succeeded with aplomb. But which bird won the contest?

This is why democracy is a bad idea.

Palaeontologist David Unwin was due to speak next, but unfortunately had fallen ill. Thus, we moved straight to the palaeoart workshop. This time, the audience were split into 4 teams, guided by Johnway, Mark Witton, Bob Nicholls and Darren. The task was to restore Pterodactylus (represented by John's quite terrible fossil casts), but each table had to do it with a particular preconception in mind; namely, that it was a mammal, lizard-like reptile, or bird. The final table could just draw whatever the hell they wanted.

Photo by Darren Naish.
Niroot and I were on the 'bird' table, which mainly produced a variety of alarming gannets and cormorants with mutant wing-supporting fourth digits (as per Niroot's artsy drawing below). Elsewhere, the mammal table largely produced bat-like creatures, while the lizard table produced sprawling, scaly monstrosities. From the freestyle table, one of the submissions appeared to simply satirise mid-20th century views of pterosaurs; in fact, as I only discovered later in the pub, it was Katrina van Grouw's quite honest attempt at guessing what the animal must have been like. You could write an article on the implications of that, I'm sure...

Speaking of Katrina, she was the final speaker, discussing her magnum opus The Unfeathered Bird, as very favourably reviewed on this blog by someone who is, I'm sure, a delight to meet in real life (and will definitely buy you a drink). I'd heard many of Katrina's tales pertaining to the making of the book before but, honestly, they'll never get old. It's a story of triumph over adversity, how the best meetings happen in pubs (true that), and why it's worth marrying Dutch people...who are good at assembling skeletons. With infectious enthusiasm, Katrina flicked effortlessly from boiling bird carcasses and inflating pigeon crops with a condom to discussing the preposterous anatomy of some of the birds covered in the book. Consider the trumpet manucode; among the birds of paradise, it may appear rather drab, with is business suit of iridescent black-blue plumage. But it can't half make a racket. How so? Why, it has an absurdly long trachea that is coiled up in its chest. Or how about the (multiple) birds with ultra-long tongues that wrap around their heads? You'd never tell from looking at them in the wild, and that's just one of a very many reasons why The Unfeathered Bird is so superb. As I was saying to people on the day, you need this book.

Photo by Darren Naish
Then we went to the pub. The same one as last year, where they have Fuller's ESB on cask. Consequently, I am now broke. Please send tins of beans and the latest dinosaur toys of respectable quality.

All in all, it was another excellent day and a credit to everyone involved. I'm very happy that not only is this evolving into a regular event, but that Darren and John have grand plans afoot to turn the whole thing into a multi-day festival of the TetZooniverse. Now that would be totally awesomebruh.


  1. I just want to briefly add how much I enjoyed it also. I'm only sorry I didn't get the chance to take as many pictures of the day's general activity, and the many wonderful palaeoart workshop drawings. I also want to try harder to override (a little, at least) my natural introversion and speak to people, as we made the acquaintance of some really interesting folks who had actually approached us first. Vanity note: Bob Nicholls came to speak to me and was extremely kind about my work. *Faints*

  2. Looks like a wonderful time was had by all! Thanks for the report!

    Will there be cryptozoology cosplay next year?


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