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Dinosaurs at SVPCA – no Mesozoic non-avialan theropods, thank you very much – and what about those marine reptiles?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The venue: the Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis. Yes, that's a Spitfire.

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In the previous article I penned various of my thoughts on the 59th SVPCA (= Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology & Comparative Anatomy), this year held at Lyme Regis in Dorset. You might need to read that previous article to make sense of this one. That first article covered pterosaurs, various non-archosaurs and an assortment of random musings. Time to look at dinosaurs and marine reptiles. By the way, did I ever tell you that story about my holiday in Lynton and Lynmouth, Devon?

So, what about dinosaurs? In what might seem like a peculiar reversal of normal conditions, ornithischians were represented by a few talks and sauropodomorphs by a fair few but… believe it or don’t, there were no talks on non-avialan theropods. You may or may not choose to read something into this.

David Sole's recently discovered, beautiful Scelidosaurus. From Naish & Martill (2008).

David Norman’s public lecture on Scelidosaurus included a review of this dinosaur’s discovery. I’ve previously discussed the story of how Richard Owen could seemingly have used Scelidosaurus to support his interpretation of dinosaurs as heavy-limbed quadrupeds [go here], yet strangely failed to do so (Norman 2000, 2001). Interesting new specimens of Scelidosaurus continue to be discovered along parts of the Jurassic Coast. Don Henderson’s talk on a new, extremely well preserved ankylosaur from the Albian of Alberta was neat, even if the fossil does turn out to be a nodosaurid, a group declared to be “lame” by Don during his talk. Victoria Egerton spoke about juvenile Talenkauen teeth discovered alongside the adult holotype. Very interesting, but difficult yet to know whether it means anything as goes parental care and so on.

Paul Upchurch and co-authors presented the results of their review of Wealden sauropods – a subject dear to my heart due to various projects on the same set of fossils. Paul mostly said nice things about Xenoposeidon (Taylor & Naish 2007) and ‘Angloposeidon’ (Naish et al. 2004), and I agree with his take on Wealden sauropods in general. If you’re wondering, this new work on Wealden sauropods is due to appear soon in the Palaeontological Association volume on Wealden fossils. I have chapters in the same volume on theropods and crocodilians.

Other noteworthy sauropodomorph presentations included Matt Wedel’s on a new, gigantic, apparently bipedal taxon from the Elliot Formation (possibly related to Aardonyx celestae and first announced on Adam Yates’s blog Dracovenator), Paul Barrett’s on a new Apatosaurus skull, and Zoltan Csiki-Sava’s on Romanian titanosaur diversity. Mike P. Taylor gave a really interesting talk on all the factors that, combined, make it very difficult/impossible for us to say anything for definite about neck orientation, range of motion and even length in sauropods (and, by extension, other fossil tetrapods). Dissections of modern animals (both sauropsids and synapsids) show that significant amounts of cartilage in between the centra and on the zygapophyses are lost post-mortem, rendering it impossible to really reconstruct a neck when all you have are the dry bones.

The Plesiosaur Research Renaissance continues, but what about those ichthyosaurs?

Lynton. Devon. 1993.

As hinted at earlier (remember the whole ‘marine Jurassic’ theme of the meeting), it might seem fitting that those palaeontologists working on Mesozoic marine reptiles would choose to attend and present talks at this year’s SVPCA. And so it came to pass.

We had several talks on plesiosaurs, including one on inner ears and a few on new taxa. Roger Benson presented the results of recent work on the plesiosaurs from the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, all of which are from southern England. It seems that rhomaleosaurids and pliosaurids started out at small body size and with generalised proportions, and that diversity was high in faunas previously thought to contain just Thalassiodracon alone. Hilary Ketchum also spoke about pliosaurs – this time showing that Pliosauridae incorporated a list of relatively small, slender-snouted basal forms that lived alongside larger, robust-skulled, yet more archaic rhomaleosaurids during the early part of the Jurassic. Only once rhomaleosaurids had gone did pliosaurids evolve giant size and macropredatory features. It’s difficult not to compare this delay in the evolution of big, macropredatory pliosaurids to the similar lag that occurred among tyrannosauroid theropods (recall that tyrant dinosaurs spent much of their history at small body size, living alongside big-bodied but more archaic megalosauroids and allosauroids).

Having mentioned pliosaurids, we all went on a special trip to Dorset County Museum in Dorchester to see the incredible, recently discovered Weymouth Bay pliosaur skull [shown above]. It’s over 2 m long, and is also well preserved and comparatively little distorted – plans to do all kinds of neat and exciting studies on it are in the works. Big pliosaurids were the focus of a talk by Judyth Sassoon. Interesting to see motorbikes used as scale bars.

And it wasn’t a coincidence that another incredible (and very large) skull was also in the area at the same time – this time that of the giant ichthyosaur Temnodontosaurus platyodon. Specifically, the specimen (NHMUK R1158: shown at left, with me) is the one discovered by the Annings in 1810 or thereabouts and described in 1814 by Everard Home. It was specially transported from its home in the Natural History Museum in London to the Philpot Museum for the duration of the meeting. And this brings us, of course, to ichthyosaurs.

Three vaguely linked talks were given on ichthyosaurs: one on the hitherto unappreciated ichthyosaur diversity of Lower Cretaceous England (by Valentin Fischer), one on the late Robert Appleby’s mostly unpublished ichthyosaur work (by your humble author), and one on a new ichthyosaur from Iraq originally studied by Appleby (by Jeff Liston). The three of us are working together (with others) on various ichthyosaur projects – see the epic photo below – and we even managed to mostly complete a technical paper while at the meeting. Ichthyosaurs were also a constant presence at the meeting due to their use on the very nice conference t-shirt, artwork by the brilliant Bob Nicholls (of paleocreations.com).

L to r: Liston, Naish, Fischer.

Regular readers of Tet Zoo will know that I’ve been hinting at some big background project on ichthyosaurs for some years (see this article, for example), and I’m now able to say that it’s ‘the Appleby project’. After years of trying, I’ve recently succeeded in landing a post-doc, and I’ll be using at least part of my time to push out research on ichthyosaurs. It was great to meet Dean Lomax and Judy Massare at the meeting – yeah, Judy Massare! Both workers had a poster on the new Pliensbachian Ichthyosaurus specimen that Dean recently published (Lomax 2010); there were a few other posters on ichthyosaurs, including one (by Jeremy Martin et al.) on the remarkable diversity seen in Temnodontosaurus [see the slide below, from my talk]. Right now I could whittle on for thousands of words about ichthyosaurs. And at some stage I will.

That about brings things to a close. It was kinda weird to have an international conference hosted in a small venue like Lyme Regis (more or less a first for SVPCA, I think), but it worked – the meeting was well attended, ran smoothly, and had a great social vibe. So well done and congrats to those involved in the organisation, in particular to Richard Forrest. Thanks also to the friends and colleagues who made it such a neat event: to my fellow SV-POWsketeers Mike and Matt, to Jeff, Valentin and my other housemates, to the Martillites, to John Conway, and to Paddy Howe, Steve Etches and everyone else who let us look at fossils.

The next big event in the global palaeo-community is SVP, held this year at Las Vegas. That’s right, I said Las Vegas. I’ll be there.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on ‘marine Jurassic’ themed meetings and discoveries, see…

Refs – -

NAISH, D., & MARTILL, D. (2008). Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: Ornithischia Journal of the Geological Society, 165 (3), 613-623 DOI: 10.1144/0016-76492007-154

- ., Martill, D. M., Cooper, D. & Stevens, K. A. 2004. Europe’s largest dinosaur? A giant brachiosaurid cervical vertebra from the Wessex Formation (Early Cretaceous) of southern England. Cretaceous Research 25, 787-795.

Norman, D. B. 2000. Professor Richard Owen and the important but neglected dinosaur Scelidosaurus harrisoniiHistorical Biology 14, 235-253.

- . 2001. Scelidosaurus, the earliest complete dinosaur. In Carpenter, K. (ed) The Armored Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press (Bloomington and Indianapolis), pp. 3-24.

Taylor, M. P. & Naish, D. 2007. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England. Palaeontology 50, 1547-1564.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Dartian 5:09 am 09/22/2011

    After years of trying, I’ve recently succeeded in landing a post-doc, and I’ll be using at least part of my time to push out research on ichthyosaurs.

    That’s great news; congratulations!

    Link to this
  2. 2. BilBy 8:15 am 09/22/2011

    Congratulations! Whoo, post doc!

    Link to this
  3. 3. rmounce 9:21 am 09/22/2011

    Congratulations on getting that postdoc position. See you in Vegas :)

    Link to this
  4. 4. sterndavidi 11:26 am 09/22/2011

    Congratulations on the post-doc! That’s great news.

    Link to this
  5. 5. John Harshman 12:10 pm 09/22/2011

    Would you be so kind as to explain the “Dinosaur free estate” sign?

    Congrats on the postdoc, by the way. And the sauropod neck paper is fun.

    Link to this
  6. 6. DMA12 12:48 pm 09/22/2011

    Congarts on postdoc.

    Link to this
  7. 7. KarMannJRO 10:07 pm 09/22/2011

    That’s not just a Spitfire. That’s a super-Marine Spitfire!

    And, congrats on the post-doc!

    Link to this
  8. 8. Andreas Johansson 1:14 am 09/23/2011

    Congrats, Darren!

    Good to see the theropods take the backseat for once. A spotlight stealing squad is what the little blighters are.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Andreas Johansson 1:15 am 09/23/2011

    There was supposed to be a link …

    Spotlight stealing squad

    Link to this
  10. 10. Jerzy New 10:35 am 09/23/2011

    Bipedal sauropodomorph? As real as these apparent bipedally running Apatosaur hatchlings?

    Link to this
  11. 11. David Marjanović 10:52 am 09/23/2011

    Conga rats!!!

    That’s right, I said Las Vegas.

    …which sounds totally silly at first, but makes sense because there aren’t many places in the world that can deal with two thousand people. Bristol was too small for an SVP meeting, and this one is projected to be bigger still!

    Bipedal sauropodomorph? As real as these apparent bipedally running Apatosaur hatchlings?

    Huh? No, it’s just not a sauropod. Plateosaurus was bipedal, too.

    Link to this
  12. 12. MikeTaylor 11:24 am 09/24/2011

    Jerzy New asks: “Bipedal sauropodomorph? As real as these apparent bipedally running Apatosaur hatchlings?”

    I don’t think I know about the apatosaur hatchling tracks, can you point me to a reference?

    But, yes, Adam and Matt’s giant bipedal sauropodomorph is legit. It’s the ulna that’s a giveaway: proportionally very short, and so shaped that it would have been impossible to pronate the manus.

    Link to this
  13. 13. Andreas Johansson 11:30 am 09/24/2011

    How giant is it?

    Link to this

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