Thursday, October 6, 2016

TetZooCon 2016

Yes, it's still going. The third annual TetZooCon was held on October 1, 2016 in the same venue as before, the WWT London Wetland Centre, and you know Natee (Niroot) and I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I'm quite sure more-or-less every reader of this blog also reads Tetrapod Zoology, and if you don't, well, you should go and read author Darren Naish's entire blogging back catalogue right now. Don't worry, civilisation will probably still be here when you're finished. In any case, grab a beer, glass of wine or nice cup of tea, and let's take a look at what happened this year. (All photos are by Natee - see the complete gallery on the Fezbooks.)


As always, Darren was the first speaker, and this year he wanted to tell us all about those ridiculous dinosaurs and their Extravagant Structures. As all of you will well know, dinosaurs evolved some crazy protuberances more outlandish and unlikely than Donald Trump's hairdo. These ranged from the wacky crests of hadrosaurs to the frills and horns of ceratopsians, and from the sails and spines of some species to the absurdly long, long necks of others. But why, for god's sake, why did they evolve these things? As Darren discussed, all kinds of explanations have been posited, from the purely mechanical and functional to the Species Recognition Hypothesis, which causes Dave Hone to erupt into an uncontrollable rage, gain superhuman strength and battle the ineffectual military at its merest mention. The most likely explanation is sexual selection, but there are problems there too, especially in the lack of (satisfactorily demonstrated) sexual dimorphism in non-avian dinosaurs. Could oh-so-controversial Mutual Sexual Selection be at play? All great stuff, and the title of the talk - The Dinosaur Sex Wars - is coincidentally to be the title of Darren's next blockbuster erotic e-book. (No, not really.)

Darren Naish

Next up was Charles Paxton of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews. Charles' was an unusual talk for TetZooCon in its focus on, well, statistics and data; in this case, concerning sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. When did the most sightings take place? Are there trends in the number of sightings? What did people say it looked like, and at what time? Unsurprisingly, the results pointed to people either making stuff up or reporting things that could very obviously have been something quite mundane (like an upturned boat or pair of seals), but the huge spike in sightings in the 1930s was intriguing. Most entertaining were some of the descriptions of what the monster looked like. Of course, everyone knows that there's really a whole family of them.

Charles Paxton
A quick coffee/shopping break later, and up came Jim Labisko, who has spent a lot of time recently in the Seychelles. Sounds like nice work if you can get it, only Jim was studying sooglossid frogs, a fascinating and strange clade of anurans native to the islands. Predictably, these tiny, outwardly unassuming amphibians are very much understudied. Jim shared with us any number of revelations on their anatomy, behaviour and taxonomy, treating us to unique photographs, audio recordings and even real (dead) specimens. Jim also shared tomorrow's big sooglossid headline with us...although it's all very hush-hush I'm afraid!

Jim Labisko

As has been much publicised by all those who were there (why, I even felt compelled to share it live), palaeoartist Bob Nicholls brought his famous model Psittacosaurus, 'the most accurate model dinosaur ever', along to the Con for everyone to pore over adoringly. We also got to hear a little about its creation. Unsurprisingly, Bob spent countless hours examining the famous bristly-tailed psittacosaur specimen in the Seckenberg museum, measuring it to within a millimetre of its mineralised non-life and meticulously recording every last little quirk. Taking the opportunity to defend the rather strange-looking skin flap connecting the thigh to the tail on his reconstruction, Bob pointed out that, if it were the result of taphonomic distortion, it would be an extremely isolated example on an otherwise quite undistorted specimen. In any case, this celebrated media sensation was the runaway star of the show, and quite a coup for its organisers. It also inspired this year's palaeoart workshop, as wads of plasticine were handed out to the audience and participants were encouraged to sculpt their own quilled cutie. John Conway titled it 'Beat the Bob'. The result was that Bob's baby was soon surrounded by an army of tiny imitators.

Bob Nicholls

Next we had lunch, a chance to top up my caffeine levels and discuss terrible fibreglass and animatronic dinosaur models with like-minded fellows.

David Unwin

Lunch was followed by the revelation that the gentleman sitting directly in front of me, partially blocking my view of Bob's presentation, was in fact...stalwart pterosaur researcher David Unwin. (It's an interesting place to be, is TetZooCon.) David took to the stage for a talk on the reproductive biology of pterosaurs. Thanks to some astonishingly well-preserved specimens of pterosaur eggs and even parents (including the infamous 'Mrs T' the Darwinopterus), a surprising amount is now known about how pterosaurs grew up, reproduced, and reared their young. Or didn't rear their young, as the case would appear to be. Contrary to what you might have seen in the movies, pterosaur flaplings were highly precocial, and there's little evidence of the parents hanging around for very long once they'd hatched. Fossil eggs and juveniles indicate that they followed the 'traditional' amniote model far more closely than dinosaurs, with leathery-shelled eggs and a slow-but-steady growth rate. Fascinating stuff, and David has a really infectious enthusiasm.

A slide from the John Hutchinson Kneecap Show
 While David showed us various different pterosaur specimens and all aspects of their anatomy to build his case, John Hutchinson - yes, that John Hutchinson -  decided to focus in on, of all things, kneecaps. If you've never really thought all that much about kneecaps, you're not alone by any means; as John explained, they've often been shunned as an area of anatomical study. Who'd want to bother with kneecaps? Of course, being the biomechanical whizzes that they are, John and his team at the Royal Veterinary College have been conducting research into kneecaps (or patellae) in every amniote group you care to mention, with some very surprising and often quite head-scratching results. For example, while no evidence of kneecaps has yet been found in non-avian dinosaurs, they've evolved and been lost repeatedly in various different groups of birds. Even within the ratites, emus have kneecaps that have basically been reduced to chunks of fatty tissue, while ostriches have two of damn things. It transpires that, far from being things that are just sort of...there, or maybe protecting nerves and tendons, they actually have an active role to play in locomotion.

Hannah O'Regan

John's kneecaps were a difficult act to follow, so kudos to Hannah O'Regan for her highly entertaining presentation entitled From Denning to Dancing: the Unnatural History of Bears. Hannah focussed particularly on the history of the brown bear in the UK; rendered extinct in the Holocene, only to return again and again. No doubt those pesky humans had some hand in the matter. Through use of fascinating archaeological artefacts, Hannah explored the cultural importance of the bear through time. Once used as symbolic talismans at burial sites (or at least, their disembodied parts were), bears were later exploited for entertainment, particularly in the brutal bloodsport of bear-baiting. Bear-baiting is of no small significance in the cultural history of the nation; Hannah explained how, in Shakespeare's time, it was even seen as more culturally respectable than going to the theatre, while bear-baiting arenas sprung up on London's South Bank. More recently, we've seen dancing bears, and the adoption of the bear as a cuddly toy to give to children. (For, as Hannah wryly noted, there's nothing more adorable than a towering, deadly carnivore that could easily kill you.)

Angela Julian

Last to step up to the plate was Angela Julian, with a talk on Preserving Britain's Herps. Like recent European immigrants and anyone who looks a bit funny, reptiles and amphibians in the UK are under threat - from habitat loss, predation by introduced species, Theresa May (probably) and other factors. Angela is the national co-ordinator of the charity ARG (Amphibian and Reptile Groups) UK, which is dedicated to the preservation of our native herps - of which there is a surprising variety. As well as taking us through the UK's native reptile and amphibian species, Angela explained what ARG are doing to help the cause, including habitat protection and construction, public outreach (cue not-at-all embarrassing newts in baseball caps to appeal to 'da kidz') and more besides. As well as providing a fascinating look at often-overlooked UK wildlife, the efforts of Angela and the other good folks at ARG were truly inspiring to hear about. Also, now that I know they eat native lizards, I feel slightly less guilty about mashing a game pheasant against the front of my car.

Katrina's got bunnies.
Katrina van Grouw (for it was she) popped up with an announcement on her new book, which is in the same vein as The Unfeathered Bird, but this time about domestic animals, and with even more illustrations. Trust me, it's going to be utterly fantastic.

There was also the quiz. It was a bit easier than before, but that ain't saying much, Bub. Mo Hassan won, and duly received his prize, a lovely shiny mosasaur skeleton plaque thing provided by Everything Dinosaur (who are really wonderful guys, by the way). Well done Mo!

And then we went to the pub, where I had a chat with none other than Ralph A. Attanasia the third, who once submitted a truly awesome piece of art for my 'salty saltasaurs' contest. (I hear he's also involved in something called Cake Boss, which is presumably a mafia show with Mr Kipling as the don.) I also got a bit drunk and started impersonating him at one point. You can't blame me; his voice is awesomely buttery and smooth, like enjoying a straight Jack Daniels by the fireplace. Not that any of us developed a crush on him.

All in all, a wonderful time was had by all, once again! I'd like to thank Darren Fish and Johnway for their superlative efforts, as well as every last one of the speakers. Here's to next year!


  1. Man, sounds like so much fun! I hope I make it to one of these someday! I'll just be sure to plan any potential trips to England in October...

  2. Sounds amazing, by the way I sent those photos from Dinosaurs Of The Southwest, do you guys so maybe you'll be able to review that one, although I have no idea if you've actually read the text or not, and wasn't sure if I should share some of the most amusing moments from it with you or not, if you would like that I'll also email some of those.

    1. I've received that, thank you - another reader sent through some artwork from the book, so I should be able to review it. Might make it my next one.


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