They say time is the fire in which we burn and – as I’ve surely said before – nothing works better as a demonstration of the swift evaporation of your brief time alive on the planet than the maintenance of a blog. That, and having children, and being busy and having jobs and stuff. And thus it is that January 21st 2018 requires me to once more face the fact that another full year has passed and that Tetrapod Zoology is a year older: it’s 12. Happy birthday Tet Zoo. As is de rigueur for these birthday events, it’s time to review the year that’s passed, to summarise those things relevant to the TetZooniverse that happened during the year’s operation, and to indulge in a grotesque amount of self-absorbed reflection. If me writing about me sounds boring or frustrating, look away now.

Milo the Cane toad/Neotropical giant toad Rhinella marina got his own landscaped vivarium in 2017. Credit: Darren Naish

Oh, still here? At this point in my life I feel like I’m being pulled in about 40 different directions at once, there consequently being no long stretches of time devoted to the same one project or endeavour. Having said that, three main themes dominated my 2017: the construction and completion of the Tet Zoo office, Dinosaurs in the Wild, and the textbook (aka The Big Book or TetZooBigBook).

Someone with a great sense of humour – maybe more than one person, I don’t know – kept sending me toy fishes through the mail. Thanks. Credit: Darren Naish

And we’ll start with the last of those three, for January began with the final swift dash (cough) through that most trivial and monotonous of vertebrate clades – the tetrapods – those bastard fish things finally behind me. Long-time readers and Tet Zoo followers will know that I’d ‘finished’ fishes (or non-tetrapod vertebrates, if you prefer) some time late in 2016, so 2017 started with me working my way through anamniotes (that is, all those animals modern and ancient collectively termed ‘amphibians’). Translation: weeks and weeks and weeks of temnospondyls, which is mostly ok because temnospondyls are pretty neat.

I drew a whole lot of amphibians - temnospondyls, nectrideans, microsaurs, salamanders and so on - during the early part of 2017. You can see virtually all of this stuff (in various stages of completion) at the Tet Zoo patreon. Credit: Darren Naish

Moving away from the textbook, another of my books – Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved (Naish & Barrett 2016) – was reviewed in BBC Wildlife in February, and I’m pleased to say that said review was very positive. It was penned by zoologist and TV presenter Ben Garrod... who, entirely coincidentally, spoke at TetZooCon 2017 (on which more later).

Sciencing. Despite having proper jobs that simply don’t leave time for active scientific research, I continue to take hours years off my life by contributing to the scientific process when possible, and such it was throughout 2017. During February alone I gave a talk on theropod dinosaur diversity and the origin of birds for the Southampton Natural History Society, had a manuscript rejected from Scientific Reports, attended the celebrations of my colleague Luke Muscutt in view of his successful PhD-ing (Luke’s work centred around the use of robotic limbs in reconstructing plesiosaurian swimming behaviour… on which more later), and published a paper on neck morphology and biomechanics in the giant Romanian azhdarchid Hatzegopteryx (Naish & Witton 2017). That paper originated as part of a much larger, more extensive project on Romanian azhdarchids that involved a vast army of co-authors; it’s the latest volley on the long-running research project Mark Witton and I have going on azhdarchid palaeobiology and evolution.

The Tet Zoo office finally takes shape. Maybe I can now get some work done. Credit: Darren Naish

A significant personal achievement came to fruition in March as the flooring was installed in my new Tet Zoo Towers office, this being one of the final steps in the completion of a grand building project. I don’t know if getting your own dedicated office space seems all that much like a big deal, but it sure is if you’ve spent the previous few years doing your work at the dining room table. Finally, I was able to have all my literature, all my stuff, in the same single space.

Also in March I worked as consultant for a project with Don Lessem... let’s just say that it involves Chinese robot dinosaurs. Jessica Lawrence-Wujek, my PhD student, passed her viva, and the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre (NOC) once again played host to a mini-meeting of ichthyosaur workers.

No, the world of palaeontology is not "tearing itself apart", as stated in one online news article. Credit: Darren Naish

March 2017, incidentally, was Ornithoscelida month: Baron et al. (2017) published their Nature paper – the Tet Zoo take is here – and dinosaur experts the world over professed an opinion. Much testing occurred, various results being papers published later in the year. The next edition of Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved (which, yes, is happening) will need a slight tweak in view of this research.

Southampton and ichthyosaurs. While I’m here, this is as good an opportunity as any to say that 2017 was the year during which our vertebrate palaeontology research group at Southampton finally dissipated to the four winds. One after the other, the group’s members completed their PhDs and went through the viva process, and they weren’t replaced. There’s a long and complex backstory here that I can’t divulge. It was good while it lasted and brings to a close the story-arc initiated in 2011/2012 when I first wrote about my becoming a post-doctoral researcher at Southampton. A bunch of technical papers have emerged from everything that happened (with more yet to appear; others never will appear for an assortment of reasons) but we never did do various of the things we planned. Jess, Aubrey and I spoke several times about collaborating on something ichthyosaur-themed, and maybe one day we will.

Two of my colleagues – both Mesozoic marine reptile specialists – doing some hard sciencing. At left: Aubrey Roberts. At right: Jessica Lawrence-Wujek. Both received their doctorates in 2017. Credit: Darren Naish

If you follow the thrills and spills of ichthyosaur research, you’ll know that we’re currently in a very active research cycle whereby the taxonomy and phylogeny of the iconic Lower Jurassic ichthyosaur Ichthyosaurus is being over-hauled in dramatic fashion. This work has mostly been led by Dean Lomax and Judy Massare. Jess’s work will prove pretty important: it involved the collection of a vast quantity of morphometric data on British ichthyosaurids, the analysis of which has major implications as goes ichthyosaur taxonomy, phylogeny and palaeobiology.

Naish (l) and Dame Mary Richardson, Oxford Literary Festival, March 2017. Credit: Darren Naish

The Hunting Monsters events. The end of the month saw me talking at the Oxford Literary Festival about Hunting Monsters, the cryptozoology-themed book (first covered on Tet Zoo back in February 2016) I’d initially published as an ebook (Naish 2016). I was introduced by Dame Mary Richardson, which was a fine accolade. My hard-copies of Hunting Monsters – a big box of them – arrived in May. Tet Zoo articles of the time covered sigmodontine rodents and the Rilla Martin ‘Ozenkadnook tiger’ photo (generally thought to be a hoax, and suggested to be such in Hunting Monsters).

There are a lot of passerines. Very few of them are at all easy to photograph. At left, a singing male Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla, a sylviid sylvioid oscine passerine. At right, a Dunnock or Hedge accentor Prunella modularis. Accentors (Prunellidae) are passeroid oscines. Credit: Darren Naish

April always starts with the announcement of a momentous discovery at Tet Zoo, and such it was in 2017. It’s also the time of year when I spend hours in the woods, desperately aiming to photograph passerines and woodpeckers. I had some successes but a far greater number of failures. I attended a special meeting celebrating the completion of Katrina van Grouw’s latest book (on which more soon) and spent time in Somerset, in particular Cheddar Gorge and its various caves. I put the finishing touches to a book produced in collaboration with Don Lessem (it’s not out at the time of writing) and, once again, attended the Lyme Regis Fossil Fair. Horace the pliosaur is no more but has been replaced by a Crystal Palace-style Iguanodon.

Cheddar Gorge (Somerset, UK) is full of Tet Zoo-relevant stuff. This photo shows Gough’s Cave, with a replica of Cheddar Man positioned as it was originally discovered back in 1903. Credit: Darren Naish

Also during April, I finished reading Bernard Heuvelmans’s book Neanderthal (Heuvelmans 2016) – which isn’t really about Neanderthals at all but the infamous carnival exhibit known as the Minnesota Iceman, another topic covered in Hunting Monsters – and by early May I was ready to publish my thoughts about the book at Tet Zoo (the articles are here and here). Work for Dorling Kindersley and Usborne took up part of my time during May, but at least some progress was made on the anamniotes chapter of The Big Book (that pertaining to microsaurs: a group covered briefly on Tet Zoo in July).

Another Hunting Monsters-themed publicity event occurred in which I did a podcast interview with Jim Harold of Jim Harold media: you can hear it here. At about the same time (mid May) I was also interviewed by John Pickrell for an article on the hypothetical survival of non-bird dinosaurs to the present (the final piece – published in September – is here) and by a scientist working for a prominent science-themed scientific publication on science regarding what those of us involved in the world of palaeoart call the All Yesterdays Movement though – at the time of writing – I don’t know what ever came of this. On the subject of fails, an event with CNN never happened…. which is fine.

I have special badges and even had to wear a hi-vis during construction. Credit: Darren Naish

And, so, to Dinosaurs in the Wild. The biggest event of 2017 was Dinosaurs in the Wild (DITW from hereon), the interactive, immersive time-travel experience that – at the time of writing – is soon to open in London. Book tickets now. The idea behind DITW is that time travel exists, and that a multinational corporation – Chronotex Enterprises – has set up a number of bases in the geological past, one of which (TimeBase 67, located in western North America during the Maastrichtian) is now open to the public. The experience involves seeing live dinosaurs (and other Maastrichtian animals) in their environment and a tour of the TimeBase 67 facilities.

Naish (l) and Haines, at the Dinosaurs in the Wild celebrity event at Manchester’s Event City, late 2017. The banner behind features art by Damir Martin. Credit: Darren Naish

I’m the scientific advisor on DITW and cannot emphasise how much time, effort, planning and research went into this project: months of work involving art and CG, model-making and robotics, filming in the field, the training of actors and other staff, the creation of graphics and props and explanatory text, and so much more. So many meetings, so much travel. DITW originated as the brainchild of Tim Haines (of Walking With Dinosaurs fame), and the experience had its first opening – in Birmingham – in early July before moving on to Manchester for its opening there in early October. Most of my year was taken up with DITW. It’s been a great ride, is not over yet, and I have tons of behind-the-scenes info and imagery that I hope to put into a Tet Zoo article at some stage.

Dinosaurs in the Wild has been a huge hit. Time-travelling visitors observe live dinosaurs through giant windows, here in the lookout section of the facility. Don’t worry, that glass is reinforced and the people are quite safe.... Credit: Darren Naish

And that’s where I have to end for now, the rest of 2017 will be reviewed in a subsequent article. Therein we look at the other relevant events of the year (TetZooCon and other conferences, the Neovenator paper, that fish, my Evolution In Minutes book… and more) and at the ever-exasperating issue of taxonomic balance. Was 2017 – finally – the year in which that much-sought balance was finally achieved? Of course not, but let’s see.

Oh – the image at the very top of the article is the Allosaurus skeleton on display at the Lapworth Museum in Birmingham.

For previous Tet Zoo birthday articles, see...

Refs - -

Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. 2017. A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature 543, 501-506.

Heuvelmans, B. 2016. Neanderthal: the Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman. Anomalist Books, San Antonio, Tx.

Naish, D. 2016. Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus, London.

Naish, D. & Barrett, P. M. 2016. Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved. The Natural History Museum, London.

Naish, D. & Witton, M. P. 2017. Neck biomechanics indicate that giant Transylvanian azhdarchid pterosaurs were short-necked arch predators. PeerJ 5: e2908.