Friday, November 4, 2016

SVP 2016 report (with Bonus VDA from Bill Berry!)

Hello, folks! I'm coming to you at the tail end of an immensely busy and interesting month. In the past four weeks I've been in Montreal, Ottawa, New York and Washington, visiting a mix of family, friends, and professional contacts. I sold my first story to the Smithsonian, did a quick piece about possibly-carnivorous ankylosaurs for the Atlantic (co-starring LITC contributor Victoria Arbour) and have generally been running around like a small theropod with its head cut off. The culmination of the month was a visit to scenic Salt Lake City for the 2016 meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It was an odd meeting for me this year. My fees were paid by the Bitter Southerner, a lifestyle magazine I've done some work for in the past. It might seem like an odd meeting for a southern magazine to send a journalist to. You'd be correct--but as it happens, I'm working on a big nonfiction piece for them about the Cretaceous Southeast, so SVP was a chance for me to get a sense of the current state of research on Mesozoic Appalachia. Since I'm also doing illustrations for it, I ended up spending many of the talks painting frantically in a corner, listening with half an ear.

I'll let David handle the news coming out of SVP; as always, there's quite a lot of it, and much of it is pretty exciting. Big focuses of the meetings this year were the preservation of dinosaur soft tissue--in the form of veins, in the form of stunning skin impressions, and even preserved bits of brain--as well as several talks exploring ontogenic changes in various dinosaurs. Some of these seem incredibly bizarre--the odd ceratosaur Limusaurus, for example, is now argued to have a infant stage with fairly sizable teeth, which it looses over time as it takes on its ornithomimid-mimicking form. Others show that hadrosaurs like Edmontosaurus may have started out on two legs before transferring to four as they grew. This is a really interesting part of the field right now, and it's worth keeping an eye on. (There's some embargoed stuff about pterosaurs that I'll also be very interested to see hit the public, because it suggests something that's going to annoy a lot of paleoartists. I'm waiting to see Witton talk about it with real interest.)

The best part of SVP is always the people, of course, and I got to hang out with some LITC favorites: Brian Engh, Julius Csotonyi, Matt Celeskey included, as well as Steve Brussette, Jim Kirkland, Brian Switek, Scott Hartman, the Lazendorf award-winning Danielle Dufault, and all sorts of other awesome folks. (I also met Adam Fitch, an up-and-coming paleoartist and scientist, who's a super good dude. Keep an eye on him.)

But the highlight of the meeting was a trip to the Utah Museum of Natural History, which has one of the loveliest and most engaging Mesozoic displays I've ever seen.

The first thing you see when you walk up into the exhibit from the ground floor of the museum is this lovely mount of Lythronax, complete with skull, head reconstruction, and a gorgeous mural by Andrey Atuchin.

There's also a cool diorama surrounding a glass floor-case of a Gryposaurus skeleton, complete with patches of soft tissue. (It's almost impossible to get a decent photo of with an iphone, due to the lighting, so alas, nothing to share there.) I was impressed with the attention to detail in the diorama--the sculptor even added maggots to the dead Chasmosaur. I was less impressed with the uninspired choice of color scheme and the feathered legs, which look downright odd on what is ostensibly a large troodontid. It looks like a monstrously overgrown Anchiornis, which feels very out of place.

As you come around the bend, there's a very, very impressive Gryposaurus. This is not a cast--check out the supports holding up the bones. It's almost entirely complete, and it's an intensely charismatic animal as mounted. There's also a Chasmosaurus (of course), a Parasaurolophus and a rather dopey looking Ornithomimus.

One treat, however, was seeing a mount of Nothronychus and Falcarius, which may be the first mounted therezinosaurs I've ever had a chance to see in a museum. Guess what? They're weird as hell.

But the unquestioned highlight of the display is the Morrison section, wherein a mired Barosaurus threatens a group of Allosaurus eying it with considerable interest. Another glassed-in display on the floor showed the positioning of bones from the Cleveland-Lloyd fossil query, while one wall was occupied with skulls from various dinosaurs from the Morrison. (Cleveland-Lloyd deserves a mention here: the J. Peterson poster at SVP made a pretty compelling argument that signs of current in the orientation of bones suggest not a predator trap but a depositional environment, perhaps an oxbow in a river that had a habit of collecting carcasses. Alas.) The museum display is one of those impressive things that's nearly impossible to photograph--it really must be seen in person. Nonetheless, I gave it a good try.

You don't really understand how lightweight casts can be until you see a small allosaur bobbling gently in the breeze from the air-conditioning. Note also the Douglas Henderson panels on the walls, which work to suggest a landscape without trying to mirror the action taking place. It's a neat effect.

There's something a bit manky about that Allosaurus, though--too many ribs. The display below has a bit of an odd placement too--the juvenile's claws are dug directly into the bones, which is a bit weird, since you'd think the skin, fat, muscle and soft tissue would get in the way.

But that wasn't all the Morrison display had to offer. There was also a big Ceratosaurus scrapping with a Marshosaurus over a bit of Stegosaurus. This is also a really cool mount, and also very difficult to photograph.

The prize of place, of course, is the trophy wall--more ceratopsian heads than you can shake a stick at, arranged cladistically, with many of the really interesting ones coming from Utah itself. The sheer diversity of horn and frill on display is jaw-dropping. 

Then came the predators of the Kaprowaits, which included a wee dromaeosaur, the turtle and dinosaur-crunching Deinosuchus, the big oviraptor Anzu and a pair of Teratophoneus tyannosaurs lurking in the back.

 Finally, an unexpected treat at SVP was a display of some of Bill Berry's original art. He's pretty obscure, even by paleoart standards--he was a wildlife artist who did very little in the way of reconstructions of extinct life, and much of that for Dinosaur National Monument in the 1930s. However, his art is far, far ahead of its time, and seeing it in the flesh was an absolute treat. I wasn't able to get great pictures, partially because the overhead light placed much of it in shadow, but here's a smattering of the work on display.

This is one of the most reproduced of Berry's works, and for good reason: it's stunningly modern in composition and anatomy. We don't know much of anything about Berry's process, so we don't know if this was a deliberate choice to go in a different direction, a bit of experimentation, or a bit of farsightedness on his part. His more traditional art also looks incredible, though--check out the Allosaurus muscle study on the table. I wasn't able to get a shot of his tripodal Allosaurus next to it, but it looks about as anatomically convincing as a vintage theropod can look.

That grazing Camptosaurus also looks incredibly good, doesn't it? Look at those forelimbs!

A prosauropod (Anchisaurus, perhaps?) peeps out of some foliage.

Berry's command of light and vignette is truly incredible--I really hope someone eventually puts out a book of his art, because even with his tiny amount of paleo-art, he easily ranks as one of the greats. Better than Knight, perhaps, and easily better than Zalinger, Burian, and a lot of the other vintage paleoartists. If only he'd done more.

That's it, folks. It's been a hell of a month. I'm going to crawl into bed and get some well-deserved sleep. Keep an eye out for David's SVP roundup soon!


  1. I feel like I have a book with Berry's art in it. I know I've seen some of those pieces before!

    1. Some of his work was included in Gregory Paul's Scientific American Guide to Dinosaurs. Paul is a big fan of his art.

  2. Yup, that's gotta be it.

    Wish I could've gone to SVP this year. Maybe next year--it'll be very close to me (Alberta from Alaska).


Trolls get baleted.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.