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Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

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Vertebrate palaeontology at Lyme Regis: of `All Yesterdays', the `Leathery Winged Revolution', and Planet Dinosaur

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If you’ve been wondering, Tet Zoo isn’t dead (as you might guess by the fact that Tet Zoo ver 3 has slipped way down the ratings over at Nature Blog Network). It’s just that I’ve been away, this time at Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, specifically for the 59th Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy (or SVPCA) [image above by Robert Nicholls of paleocreations.com]. And what fun I’ve had. There were those hours of wandering around in the dark, trying frantically to find my place of residence (the wonderful Horn Tavern), those countless anecdotes about that holiday I had, in 1993, in Lynton and Lynmouth, and all those incidents involving chairs, beer, curry and Gregory Paul imitation (sorry, these apparently random bits of nonsense will mean something to certain of my friends and colleagues).

Vidovic, Hing and Lawlor, fossiling.

The Jurassic Coast is where you might go for ammonites (should you like that sort of thing), plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, Scelidosaurus and historical palaeontology (Anning, De La Beche, Conybeare and so on). It thus follows that any palaeontological meeting held there is likely to be dominated by a strong ‘marine Jurassic’ feeling.

And it was for me, at least – partly because I spent a lot of time talking about, thinking about, and looking at ichthyosaurs. More on that later. Rather than reviewing or discussing any of the talks or other SVPCA presentations at length, I’m aiming here to discuss things in a fairly loose, stream-of-consciousness style, mentioning things as and when they occur to me. So, like normal, then. I regret that my coverage will be Mesozoic-heavy, partly because I had to miss some of the Cenozoic/mammal-themed talks due to other commitments. If the marine Jurassic theme sounds familiar, that might be because you’re read my articles on a previous meeting held relatively recently at Street in Somerset [see links below] – an area with a similar set of marine reptile taxa to those present in the Lyme Regis region.

All Yesterdays: the Conway show

Goats- - I mean, Protoceratops in a tree. Image (c) John Conway/Ontograph Studios.

I think it’s fair to say that one of the most unusual presentations was the ice-breaker talk given early on in the meeting by John Conway and (an absent) C. M. Kosemen. It was titled ‘All Yesterdays’ (bonus points if you know why this title was chosen) and involved the presentation of various novel reconstructions of fossil animals that look weird, yet are actually more or less within the realms of possibility, though currently impossible to test or disprove. Combining Looney Tunes (what is it with Mesozoic archosaurs and Looney Tunes right now?) and various nods to artists of the past (including Zallinger and Knight), John presented us with such wonders as a wobbegong plesiosaur, log-mimicking Majungasaurus, porker Parasaurolophus and a particularly well-endowed Citipati. The illustrations were shown via a vintage slide machine and actual slides. Wow, retro. For more on John and his outstanding work, be sure to check out Ontograph Studios.

Wobbegong-mimicking plesiosaur (c) John Conway/Ontograph Studios.

In more technical talks, Jenny Clack discussed a new Scottish fossil from the Carboniferous that seems to be from Crassigyrinus (don’t know what Crassigyrinus is? Go here), yet is 20-25 million years older than the other known specimens. I also enjoyed Marc Jones’s talk on the shearing bite of rhynchocephalians (if you know of footage that shows a tuatara tearing a baby bird to pieces, please say so – Marc wants!). Mark Hutchinson’s talk on the Upper Triassic Tikiguana was very interesting: it is a crown-group draconine agamid (see Datta & Ray (2006) for the initial description) - - so is it reworked from substantially younger sediments? Susan Evans’s talk on the palaeobiology of the Jehol Group lizard Yabeinosaurus was also great (some of this work has been recently published: see Wang & Evans (2011)).

Ryoko Matsumoto’s talk on a Paleocene choristodere showed that some members of this group possessed a crocodile-style, serrated dorsal margin to the tail. Jeremy Martin spoke about a freshwater teleosaurid from the Jurassic of Thailand. Were teleosaurids invading freshwater habitats as a novelty, or were the freshwater forms the primitive ones?

The “Leathery Winged Revolution” (not my phrase)

Mark Witton, Hollie (20, from Manchester) and a dimorphodontid.

Pterosaurs were extraordinarily well represented this year. Among the several talks, Dave Unwin discussed a new dimorphodontid taxon from the UK, Eric Buffetaut presented an analysis of some possible ctenochasmatoid remains from the Stonefield Slate, Brian Andres showcased a British wukongopterid, and Mark Witton discussed forelimb posture in Dimorphodon. Wukongopteridae, incidentally, is the group that seemingly includes the infamous ‘modular’ pterosaur Darwinopterus (Lü et al. 2009, Wang et al. 2009, 2010) [Darwinopterus has been covered a few times on Tet Zoo: see Darwinopterus, the remarkable transitional pterosaur, A spectacular new fossil provides insight on the sex lives of pterosaurs, part I, and A spectacular new fossil provides insight on the sex lives of pterosaurs, part II: what it all means for eggs, nests and the behaviour of babies].

Mark also gave a public lecture on pterosaurs: ‘Pterosaurs: the Leathery Winged Revolution’. It was tremendously well illustrated, featuring Page 3 girls and a crapload of Wittonesque reconstructions, many of which are – I presume – planned for Mark’s soon-to-be-finished Princeton University Press book on pterosaurs.

African fish eagle, Lyme Regis. Honest.

And well done that Mark for fighting against an awful lot of background noise, including that produced by a helicopter (seemingly hovering just outside our venue, Lyme’s Marine Theatre) and clanking crockery. I was later to learn that the offending helicopter (which we’d seen flying around the town several times during the course of our stay) was being used to fly Steve Backshall around for the Live ’n’ Deadly roadshow. ‘Live ’n’ Deadly’ is a touring spinoff of Deadly 60, a BBC children’s TV series (fronted by Steve Backshall) that focuses on neat predatory animals and their behaviour and biology. I actually think it’s pretty good and I like Steve: he very kindly wrote the forward to Tetrapod Zoology Book One and is always good for a laugh. It was due to Live ’n’ Deadly that I happened to spot an African fish eagle Haliaeetus vocifer sat on top of a house, in Lyme Regis. I think the bird was called Fraggle, but I might have dreamt this.

Distracted by Planet Dinosaur

Having started talking about TV… well, I don’t watch much television these days, but how ironic that – while SVPCA was going on – the sea turtle episode of Inside Nature’s Giants was on (I missed it, but am sure I’ll catch it eventually). And then there was Planet Dinosaur.

BBC's Spinosaurus, from ep 1 of Planet Dinosaur.

Fuelled up on beer and a righteous sense of misplaced indignation, I and a bunch of my Portsmouth-based buddies made an evening of it, sitting around a TV set with a box of rotten fruit and empty beer-bottles ready for the throwing. But, hell no, I have to say that it honestly was pretty good. Naturally, certain palaeobiological speculations were presented as being ‘harder’ than they might actually be (example: the depicting of Rugops as a scavenger dependent on the leftovers of spinosaur meals). Furthermore, some of the CG was a bit off (the animals didn’t run well, they sometimes looked a bit… well, rubbery, and temporal fenestrae and so on often looked way too ‘hollow’) [adjacent BBC Spinosaurus from the Planet Dinosaur site].

But – overall – Planet Dinosaur made the point of showing/stating which bits of evidence have allowed scientists to come to the palaeobiological conclusions that they have, and the narration (provided by John Hurt) even included cautionary language like “We think that xxxxx did xxxxx because xxxxx”. Of course, not everyone agrees with my rosey-tinted view (for those who don’t know, I co-authored Walking With Dinosaurs: The Evidence with Dave Martill back in 2000; I’ve been involved in Planet Dinosaur, but only on an at-the-end-of-the-phone basis). Dave Hone (he of Archosaur Musings) and I would later come to fisticuffs over how appropriate it may or may not be to describe Spinosaurus as 17 m long. I’m cool with it; Dave is, apparently, not.

To be concluded!

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

Refs - -

Datta, P. M. & Ray, S. 2006. Earliest lizard from the Late Triassic (Carnian) of India. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26, 795-800.

Lü J., Unwin, D. M., Jin, X., Liu, Y., & Ji, Q. (2009). Evidence for modular evolution in a long-tailed pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 277, 383-389

Wang, X., Kellner, A. W. A., Jiang, S., Cheng, X., Meng, X. & Rodrigues, T. 2010. New long-tailed pterosaurs (Wukongopteridae) from western Liaoning, China. Anais de Academia Brasileira de Ciências 82, 1045-1062.

- ., Kellner, A. W. A., Jiang, S. & Meng, X. 2009. An unusual long-tailed pterosaur with elongated neck from western Liaoning of China. Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 81, 793-812.

Wang, Y. & Evans, S. E. 2011. A gravid lizard from the Cretaceous of China and the early history of squamate viviparity. Naturwissenschaften 98, 739-743.

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

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