Monday, October 23, 2017

TetZooCon 2017

On Saturday October 21, Natee and I once again attended TetZooCon, the convention spun off (lest we forget) from Darren Naish's long-running blog, Tetrapod Zoology (currentlyhostedatScientificAmerican), and the incredibly tightly focused and well-edited TetZoo Podcast. It's becoming the very best kind of annual tradition. Better even than Christmas; all the boozing is there*, but you get to hear awesome zoology-themed talks and schmooze it up with renowned scientists and artists, rather than having to pretend to like your extended family. For its fourth iteration, the show moved venues and was even bigger and grander than ever; a bit like Jurassic World with more convincing dinosaurs and female characters. Here's how it all went down.

While it was a little sad that the show had left the fittingly naturalistic setting of the WWT Barnes Wetland Centre behind, this year's venue did have the benefit of having a bigger hall, better screen, and much closer Tube stations. The day was the usual mix of eclectic talks on all manner of tetrapod-related subjects, a palaeoart exercise, book signings and the Bastard Quiz, as I have taken to calling it. But more on all that later.

Rose-Heather Mikhail

The first talk of the day was delivered by Rose-Heather Mikhail, and entitled From Enlightenment to The Environment - 200 Years of Zoos. Of course, menageries are much older than that, but this was more a potted history of the 'zoological garden' in its modern sense; an institution of a more post-Enlightenment, scientific bent. As such, it took in the beginnings of London Zoo and the Paris Zoological Park and progressed through the evolution of zoos as more commercial enterprises, encompassing the advancement of enclosure design. It may not surprise some to hear that the earliest 'naturalistic' enclosures were more about showmanship than animal welfare. I was particularly interested in the story of Chunee the elephant, kept in a tiny enclosure in a menagerie in London, then fatally shot when he got too much to handle, then turned into a skeletal mount, and then bombed in World War II (see above). I'd read about him before (the account of just how long it took to kill him with crude firearms is excruciating), but wasn't aware of his 'afterlife' as a museum exhibit.

All good stuff, and without wishing to embarrass her, I'd like to commend Rose-Heather for overcoming her initial nervousness to give the talk. I only mention it because I could very much relate and was suitably impressed.

Daniella Rabaiotti
Next up was Daniella Rabaiotti with Does It Fart: The Definitive Guide to Animal Flatulence. It was a ripping, seat-of-the-pants tale of how a daft discussion on Twitter among academics can turn into a media phenomenon and - yes - a book deal. As it turns out, lots of mammals fart (but we knew that), as well as snakes and even some fish. In fact, certain fish fart to communicate with one another. Daniella's favourite African hunting dogs not only fart, but stink to high heaven at the best of times, as demonstrated in the above illustration by Ethan Kocak, whose work features in the book. There was a lot of sniggering in this talk. I was, of course, completely stony-faced, because I don't have a sense of humour and everything I write on this blog should be taken completely at face value.

Aubrey Roberts

It's difficult to follow a talk about something as earth-shaking as a massive collection of farts, but Aubrey Roberts did an excellent job with her presentation entitled The BIG, the Small and the Weird - Mesozoic Marine Reptiles of Spitsbergen. As someone who regards a cold day at Lyme Regis or the southern Isle of Wight as extreme fossil hunting conditions (have you met the Wight natives?), it was highly enthralling to hear of Aubrey's adventures with the Spitsbergen Mesozoic Research Group. This intrepid band has been unearthing the fossilised secrets of Svalbard, the Nowegian archipelago very nearly on top of the globe. The crumbling, derelict hotels of Sandown certainly have nothing on the majestic, sweeping vistas encountered by Aubrey and the team, and I'd have been perfectly happy if Aubrey's talk had consisted of landscape shots alone. Of course, she also had the small matter of those pesky marine reptiles to discuss, including some material so super-secret, we weren't allowed to photograph her slides. Many of the plesiosaur and ichthyosaur specimens they've found and described have greatly advanced our understanding of the evolutionary history of these animals. Particularly thrilling are the Triassic bonebeds that fill in the gaps of scientists' knowledge of the period immediately following the Permian extinction. Really awesome stuff.

Beth Windle
Beth Windle's talk was on an animal that went extinct only in the last century - the famous thylacine. It's well known for being a textbook example of convergent evolution - thanks to its remarkable resemblance to placental carnivorans, especially canids - but as Beth explained, there was an awful lot more to it than that. In her 30 minute slot, Beth provided as complete a picture of thylacine anatomy, behaviour and habits as would appear to be possible, right down to the (sometimes terrier-like) noises they made and how they communicated and interacted not only with one another, but with other species too. The story of the thylacine's interaction with mankind may be a rather tragic one, but Beth was keen to point out that the causes behind its extinction may not be as straightforward as is often presumed. There was bounty hunting, but it was at largely sustainable levels; what the hunters didn't know was that wild thylacines were succumbing to a brutal, mange-like disease that devastated the species. Where the disease came from isn't entirely clear. The last thylacine in captivity has been referred to as 'Benjamin', and Beth explained how careful analysis of rare film footage has shown that it was indeed male. Very fascinating and, inevitably, often very sad.

Darren Fishbeard
Next up was some yahoo with a beard who wanted to talk about his new book, Hunting Monsters. I've heard Darren talk about this sort of thing before - Heuvelmans, sea monsters, the likely (rather mudane) explanations for cryptid sightings, and the logical hoops one must jump through to take some cryptozoological hypotheses at all seriously. I won't lie - it's always entertaining. Highlights this time included a thorough look at that Bigfoot footage, i.e. the Patterson film, and a look at how people like Heuvelmans have attempted to categorise cryptids in a serious, zoological manner (which leads to the 'pyramid of inferences', as seen above). Nessie, Cadborosaurus, Big Hoot; it was all here. It's important to note that Darren may be a sceptic, but he's willing to give tales of cryptids the benefit of the doubt and examine all the available evidence, rather than dismissing anything out of hand. It's something that his critics have tended to miss (or, less charitably, deliberately overlooked).

Ben Garrod

The final talk of the day was given by Ben Garrod, who's a proper celeb off the telly and everything. Ben's presentation - entitled Science on TV - You Can Please Some of the People all of the Time..., concerned the ins-and-outs of getting popular science shows made for TV, and how to reach the broadest possible audience (while keeping everything scientifically sound). Not that I'm envious or anything, but Ben got to spend a lot of time with a certain Sir David while working on a TV programme about the animal now known as Patagotitan. It turns out that we can all breathe a sigh of relief, as Attenborough's as lovely a man in reality as his TV persona suggests, not to mention endlessly energetic, curious and a little bit mischievous. Ben himself has been all over the Beeb of late, and explained the importance of narratives and storytelling in bringing science to a broad audience. (But what about the bitterness and petty political jokes so beloved of our readers?) One also has to be tough. One entertaining anecdote related to how Ben was repeatedly criticised by a peculiarly persistent and pedantic engineer over his presenting style, choice of words and...brightly-coloured scarf.

Photo (and art) by Natee.
All this, and I haven't even mentioned the palaeoart workshop, which involved every member of the audience being tasked with drawing a Mesozoic animal along absolutely enormous paper timelines. The animals also had to be to scale with one another (ish...), and there were prizes for the most valiant efforts. Our very own Natee won a set of lovely Britain's animal toys for their Plateosaurus (above); no mean feat given that Natee is used to cramming fiendishly intricate detail into an area the size of a postage stamp. I, meanwhile, was given Tupandactylus, couldn't be arsed, and just drew a severed head on a pike (below).

Photo by Natee, 'art' by me.
In terms of palaeoart, TetZooCon is a great place to meet your heroes. I know people say that you shouldn't meet your heroes, but it's always worked out rather well for me here. As well as all the usual suspects (like Mark Witton and Bob Nicholls - I know, YAWN), this year Steve White, Johan Egerkrans and Jim Robins (among others) were also on hand, signing books, selling wares and just generally being up for a good chinwag. I must say that it was a real treat to finally speak to Jim, whose work for Dinosaurs! magazine I so admired as a kid back in the 1990s. I can confirm that he's a really lovely bloke to have a chat with about dinosaur art. It was also a pleasure to chat to Johan and others in the pub, and I'm thoroughly enjoying his book Flygödlor och Havsmonster, even though I don't speak a word of Swedish. I've also acquired a copy of Dinosaur Art II (signed by Steve, Mark and Bob), so expect a review soon!

Jim Robins
Steve White
I could go on all day about this fantastic event, but I'd better knock things on the head. Hearty thanks must go out to Darren, John, all the speakers and everyone involved in organising the event. Thanks also to everyone who put up with me during the day, including Anna, Ralph the Third, Paige, Sara, Katrina and everyone else. Oh, and to anyone who came up to me because they recognised me from this blog, I appreciate it! (What an ego I have.) A brilliant day and here's to it only getting bigger and better in the coming years.

*Only if you go to the pub afterwards, of course. I always do.


  1. Ah, I wondered who drew the decapitated Tupandactylus head!

  2. Next step: you give a talk!

    I'm always tremendously jealous of you at this time of year.

    1. Perhaps you can time a future visit to these shores in late October? ;D

    2. I really don't think I'm qualified enough to talk. :P Having said that, I actually had an idea for a talk the other night - a kind of potted history of dromaeosaurs in art, tying in to the changing science. Could cover various memes, different artistic approaches and so on. Feel free to steal my idea, someone with a relevant qualification!

  3. Lovely post, Marc! I couldn't agree more with everything.

    (By the by, the Britains animals were mostly wild rather than farm. :) You may recall my fishing out the lions, tigers and bears (oh, my!) and the camelids and so forth... ^_^)

    1. Quite right, and I admired the rhino. I'v removed the word 'farm'...

  4. The childish part of my brain couldn't resist mentally editing out the commas in this string of labels:

    Darren Naish, farts, head on a stick


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