July 14, 2014 | 85
The world’s very first Tetrapod Zoology Convention – we’re calling it TetZooCon – happened on Saturday 12th July, and what fun it was. Our venue: the London Wetland Centre, a Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust conservation park officially opened in 2000 and situated in Barnes, west London. I’m curious to know whether this is the first convention organised around a single blog. Anyway, as the first ever of its kind, it was something of a gamble – we organised it in a rush, didn’t do any advertising beyond what you might already have seen on Tet Zoo, TetZoo.com, facebook and twitter, and simply hoped that enough people would turn up to make it worthwhile. Did it work? It kinda did, actually. The ‘we’ is myself and John Conway; we were also aided and abetted in various ways by Jenny Taylor, Gareth Monger (thanks for help with the banners), and the various people discussed below.
What did the day involve? Mostly it was talks (seven of them in total), but we also had two interactive events and a wetlands tour… oh, and there was a pub trip too. Rebecca Groom’s palaeoplushies were in attendance as were various of our books, t-shirts and whatever other merchandise we could get ready in time. Huge thanks to everyone who attended; special thanks to those who livetweeted during the meeting (#TetZooCon) and helped communicate goings-on to the outside world. As you should be able to see from some of the photos here, the number of people seemed about right for the size of the venue – we never found ourselves wishing that more people should be in the audience. Anyway, on to recollections about the event…
I kicked things off (after John’s introduction) with my ‘The past, present and future of speculative zoology’. The aim was to review the history of speculative zoology, give some idea of what speculative zoology does and does not include (ideas about aliens? Ideas about alternative evolutionary pathways? Speculations on ‘missing links’ and hypothetical prototypes?), and wrap it all up with what we know of anthropology and the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. Does speculative zoology have any sort of ‘function’? Even if it doesn’t (we can’t really evaluate speculative ideas scientifically), the whole phenomenon might be seen as a “probably inevitable consequence of the human condition”: it has ties to monster building, something we humans have always indulged in, and thence to cryptozoology (Naish 2014). I was delighted to discover that Victoria Coules and Steve Nicholls – series writer and series director, respectively, of The Future is Wild – were in attendance at the meeting. Victoria was especially happy with the palaeoplushie Microraptor she purchased, and walked around with it draped alluringly over her shoulder.
A Tetrapod Zoology convention would not, of course, be complete without talks on various of the Mesozoic archosaurs that have appeared on Tet Zoo over the years. Mark Witton presented a neat review on the “Tet Zoo stalwart pterosaurs”, the azhdarchids, focusing in particular on how views of these animals have changed over time. From the weird demonic semi-fictional azhdarchids that appeared during the 1970s to the various surreal skeletal images of the 1980s and the homogenous and anatomically realistic ‘terrestrial stalkers’ (sensu Witton & Naish 2008, 2013) of modern times, Mark treated us to a spectacular tour of azhdarchid imagery: palaeoart memes aplenty. He also spoke about some of the exciting new stuff that we’re still working on and hope to see published soon. More on palaeoart in a moment…
Two (unrelated) talks focused on mystery animals. Well, mystery animals of a sort. Paolo Viscardi of the Horniman Museum and Gardens (he blogs at Zygoma) spoke about one aspect of his extensive investigations into mermaids: specifically, it was about his research on Feejee mermaid ‘carcasses’ – those grotesque, fascinating objects that have seemingly masqueraded over the years (well, ever since P. T. Barnum got the ball rolling in 1842) as taxidermy specimens of ‘real’ mermaids. As Paolo explained, mermaids of a few different kinds are known, and all have distinct cultural and geographical origins. CT-scanning, x-raying and dissection were all used to investigate certain of them: that old favourite ‘explanation’ (that those ‘mermaids’ are made from the front halves of monkeys stitched to the back halves of fishes) is completely wrong, Paolo’s forensic work showing that they’re actually complex fabrications involving several materials. Some of the data discussed in this talk was published by Paolo and colleagues in a recent paper (Viscardi et al. 2014).
Continuing with the theme of shadowy fringe creatures, Carole Jahme reviewed the possibility that Caliban – the near-human but non-human character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (originally written in 1610 or 1611) – might have been based on accounts of Orang pendek, the famous red-furred, bipedal crypto-ape of Sumatra. Shakespeare seemingly went to great effort to incorporate new scientific discoveries and theories into his plays, and Carole explained how there were good reasons for thinking that he would have spoken to the explorers and travellers of the time, some of whom would have related accounts of creatures then unknown to science. Whether you accept the idea that stories about unknown ape species were being conveyed via the writings of Elizabethans or not, the fact remains that this was a fascinating look at the often confused ideas about those non-human primates from far-flung parts of the world, and on how they were distinguished from, and sometimes confused with, humans.
Helen Meredith, currently studying for her PhD at the Zoological Society of London, gave a brilliant and highly amusing talk in which she answered the question “What have amphibians ever done for us?”. The short answer is: they’ve done an absolute crapload in terms of their contribution to human medicine, culture, folklore and diet, and many species have important roles as ecosystem service providers and as model organisms that help us monitor and model ecological and climate change. Furthermore, efforts are afoot to understand phenomena like limb regeneration in amphibians to see if and how they can be applied to humans. Helen’s sheer enthusiasm for amphibians won the proverbial hearts and minds of many in the audience; she did a brilliant job of highlighting the beauty, importance and significance of these animals, and she’ll surely go on to help raise even further awareness of amphibians and the issues that face them.
Next: more Mesozoic archosaurs, this time dinosaurs, as Mike Taylor (of SV-POW!) explained why giraffes have such short necks compared to sauropods and why sauropods were able to categorically humiliate all other tetrapods in the long neck stakes. Some of this research might be familiar to people on the same conference circuit as me (and it was published last year as Taylor & Wedel (2013)), but it surely wasn’t to the majority of the TetZooCon audience. Like all the talks we had at the event, it was brilliantly illustrated, highly visual, and both amusing as well as educational.
We then took a break from talks for a while, an hour or so being devoted entirely to our Palaeoart Workshop. Three professional palaeoartists – John Conway, Bob Nicholls and Mark Witton – led things from the front, this being an audience participation event where we (the audience) were asked to reconstruct an extinct animal’s life appearance from a jumbled mass of bones. Special rigs, mounted iphones and a bit of apple software meant that we could watch John’s, Bob’s and Mark’s progress on the big screen. This was brilliant fun and is sure to become a regular feature.
Neil Phillips of UK Wildlife carried the last talk of the day – a series of photos and videos portraying wildlife he’s seen about the British Isles, tied together by his recollections about the adventures involved in getting the images. I most liked the capercaillie pictures, but the stories about terns, shearwaters, seals and foxes were great too.
Our last indoor event was the patented TetZooCon Quiz! 30 questions, set by me, covered a range of tetrapod-themed topics, from the history of domestic dog breeds to obscure dinosaur names, lizard longevity, shrew behaviour and crocodile anatomy. The quiz was never meant to be easy, just fun, and it included several silly questions based entirely on in-jokes from the Tet Zoo comments (e.g., “What was the 10,000th comment on Tet Zoo ver 3?“). We had three prizes: a wonderful pig skull, kindly donated by Mike Taylor, a set of art prints from Bob Nicholls, and a set of prints from Mark Witton. Kelvin Britton came first with a very impressive 23 out of 30; Richard Hing was second, and Marc Vincent and Natee Himmapaan came joint third. Well done everyone!
With events drawing to a close, we embarked on a tour of the amazing grounds at the London Wetland Centre. There are huge numbers of waterfowl (both captive and wild) to see, plus many other animals, but time was short so we didn’t get to see everything. Part of our group managed to get ‘lost’ and seemingly separated from the rest of us because they spent some time rescuing a family of ducklings that had gotten trapped behind a mesh fence (their mother was on the other side). I’m sure the birds would have figured it out themselves eventually, but it might have taken them a while to get re-united.
And – after a group photo and such – it was time to disembark to the pub. How did people feel about the day overall? I, personally, really enjoyed most minutes of it and feel good enough about it that I’d want to do it again. If that does happen (at the time of writing, a proper decision has yet to be made), we’ll have to revise our plans as goes venues, since things didn’t exactly work out brilliantly as goes the finances. Despite the major scares John and I had from the theatre equipment the day before, things mostly worked out on the day, and the mix of talks, quiz and palaeoart workshop all seem generally enjoyed. And, like I said, the turnout was good.
For news on what happens next, just continue to watch this space. All that remains, for now, is for me to thank the many people who helped out in whatever way: John and Jenny, Rebecca Groom, Gareth Monger, Michael “Xane” Lesniowski and the WWT staff. Huge thanks to our speakers and presenters: Carole Jahme, Helen Meredith, Bob Nicholls, Neil Phillips, Mike Taylor, Paolo Viscardi and Mark Witton. Finally, thanks to everyone who attended, it was a great pleasure seeing you there on the day! This was the very first ever meeting of the ‘Tet Zoo community’ – if you weren’t there, where were you?
Refs – -
Naish, D. 2014. Speculative zoology. Fortean Times 316, 52-53.
Viscardi, P., Hollinshead, A., MacFarlane, R. & Moffatt, J. 2014. Mermaids uncovered. Journal of Museum Ethnography 27, 98-116.