Assorted scenes from TetZooCon 2015 (except for the image of David Lindo at lower left). Oh look, is that a book manuscript? Photos by Michael Lesniowski (except for the one at bottom left).
Needless to say, items more worthy of attention were dominating the news...

Before saying anything further, let me say that we’ll definitely be doing one next year. Plans are for the event to become bigger and better, but it’s all dependent on finances. And well done and thanks to everyone who helped support us via word of mouth and advertising, and who tweeted about the event. We did manage to get it trending on twitter!

Sea monsters, pygmy pachyderms, ichthyosaurs. We had a diverse set of talks on mammalogy, vertebrate palaeontology, cryptozoology, birding and outreach, TV natural history documentary-making and speculative evolution, and ornithology and the art-science interface. Every single one of our speakers performed admirably.

Cryptozoology - or is that speculative evolution? I'm sure you've heard this before.

I kicked things off with an analysis of sea monster research over the past 160 or so years – a review of thoughts on the prehistoric survivor paradigm, on the speculative creature building promoted by Sanderson, Heuvelmans and those who followed them, and on the way in which writings on sea monsters have become increasingly divorced from professional, ‘mainstream’ biology. I got the impression that many people unfamiliar with the cryptozoology literature were surprised and bemused by yellow-belly, Cadborosaurus, the discussion of Coleman and Huyghe’s many mystery primates, and by Mark Hall’s Bighoot. Yeah, Bighoot... a gigantic owl that hides in English North American forests and disguises itself as a large piece of wood. As I’ve said before, the hypothesis promoted throughout this talk – that sea monster research (and cryptozoological writings in general) has become more disparate with respect to professional zoology (see also Regal 2011) – is discussed further in work currently in preparation. We move on...

Tiny 'elephants' sold as magic talismans to protect the owner from elephant attack prove to be modified sengis! A scene from Matt Salusbury's talk. Photo by Darren Naish.

Matt Salusbury’s pygmy elephant talk was a review of everything pertaining to alleged pint-sized pachyderms, from a review of the fossil ones to the controversial individuals kept in captivity to the tales (and photos) that have come from the wilds of the Congo, tropical India and elsewhere. Jessica Lawrence-Wujek gave us a great introduction to the amazing world of ichthyosaurs. Their bizarre paddles, their gigantic eyes, the arguments concerning phylogeny, taxonomy and variation... Jessica also covered the Mary Anning story and the contribution Mary made to our understanding of these animals.

Jessica Lawrence-Wujek entertains us with tales of weird ichthyosaur paddles.

The Future Is Wild! Vicky Coules was up next and gave us a (possibly unique) look into the making and contents of the highly successful 2002 TV series The Future Is Wild. The series was an enormous commercial success, but I didn’t know that the TV execs behind its commissioning had wholly conflicting ideas on what the series should be like. One company was concerned about the absence of people so demanded some contrived explanation of how future Earth might end up human-free. They must have left on spaceships, you see.

Vicky Coules and her colleagues had great fun creating the names for the various creatures of The Future Is Wild. Slide by V. Coules.

Urban birding and Vote Bird. I was really pleased to succeed in booking author, broadcaster, naturalist and birder David Lindo for the event; what an honour. David reviewed his introduction to the world of birds and birding, some of which might be familiar if you’ve read his book (Lindo 2011); he also spoke about his Vote National Bird campaign. A millionaire friend provided David with a Rolls Royce – handed over for a princely £15! – which he customised with promotional material and loudspeakers. In the end, the Robin Erithacus rubecula won and is now Britain’s official national bird. But the big deal about the ‘vote bird’ event was what a clever bit of public engagement it was. It encouraged people to talk more about birds, and hence about wildlife and conservation in general, than ever before.

David Lindo was watching birds since before he was born. And he had a cute little pair of binoculars from an early age as well.

David Unwin, due to talk about pterosaurs and the shape of pterosaur science, was unfortunately unable to attend due to illness, but he’s booked for next year.

Scenes from the palaeoart workshop. Some of the best illustrations that resulted were pinned on our wall of fame.... and shame.

The palaeoart event. After lunch it was time for our Conway-led palaeoart workshop event. The assembled were split into groups, each led by professional palaeoartists Bob Nicholls, Mark Witton, and John. I was in charge of a table too. John made several copies of a famous Pterodactylus fossil, and participants were challenged to imagine it as a bird, as a bat, as a ‘reptile’, and as a... well, whatever they wanted. I was on the ‘whatever’ table, and my little pterosaur became a suspension-feeding benthic fish larva. Make of that what you will. Naturally, the quality of the many drawings was... variable, but there were some real masterpieces among them. ‘Winners’ and runners-up were pinned on boards for all to see. Maybe we should host an exhibition sometime.

Scenes from the palaeoart workshop. At left, John Conway holds his drawing of Pterodactylus depicted in 'reptilian' guise.

Van Grouw’s Unfeathered Bird. The final talk of the day was Katrina van Grouw’s on the long story behind her monumental The Unfeathered Bird, a book that’s mandatory reading/viewing for anyone interested in animals, anatomy and evolution (van Grouw 2013). I was really happy to get Katrina as a TetZooCon speaker. Her talk – she’s now given it, in one form or another, on something like 40 occasions – is funny as well as fascinating, and it’s accompanied by an incredible array of images. Katrina’s next project is underway at the moment and I’ll be discussing it here when the time is right.

Katrina van Grouw and her talk: A Very Fine Swan Indeed: Art, Science, and The Unfeathered Bird. Sorry for the blurriness. Photo by Darren Naish.

Palaeoplushies, books. Stalls and tables packed with merchandise were present in abundance. A wall was devoted to John Conway prints. Framed van Grouw artwork for sale, wall-mountable Mark Witton and Bob Nicholls prints, giant wildlife photos by Neil Phillips, books from Salusbury, Lindo, Naish and others. Rebecca Groom’s palaeoplushies were in attendance once more. New items included a plushy Dimetrodon, metriorhynchid and that Tiktaalik. The latter is not a tetrapod (elpistostegalians are non-tetrapod tetrapodomorphs, or stem-tetrapods) but I think we can tolerate its presence at the meeting.

Conway prints for sale - you might recognise some of them from Cryptozoologicon Volume I. Others are original.

On the subject of Rebecca’s plushies, I simply have to mention the astounding life-szed Helmeted hornbill Rhinoplax vigil that Rebecca made, via commission, for TetZooCon regular Agata Stachowiak. The hornbill was one of the stars of the meeting – what an awesome and highly desirable object! Remember that hornbills are under threat due to logging, burning, hunting and habitat deterioration... a subject highly relevant right now what with the destruction of so much habitat across Indonesia.

Plush Helmeted hornbill, made by Rebecca Groom, commissioned by Agata Stachowiak. Photo by Agata, used with permission. WOW.

By all accounts, things sold well. All my copies of Tetrapod Zoology Book One shifted, so I was happy. John and I also sold a bunch of Cryptozoologicon Book One, though we were idiots and completely forgot to unbox the big stack of All Yesterdays we took along with us as well... d’oh. We’re interested in knowing what sort of thing people would like to buy at TetZooCon, so we asked about it in our questionnaire. People want technical books... and toys!! Pre-empting this, we tried to arrange a stall of toys (as in, animal figures and models) but couldn’t pull it off – maybe we will in future.

Rebecca Groom's palaeoplushies grace us with their presence once more...

Speaking of things we couldn’t pull off, we also couldn’t get livestreaming or filming sorted this time – it’s too difficult, too time-intense and too awkward unless you have someone managing all that stuff for you. Maybe we will in future. And, having said all that, Michael Lesniowski provided tech support and recorded audio for us, so we might have something.

Mark Witton prints for sale. They're on boards and so are ready to be hung on walls and such.

The quiz – by now the stuff of legend – ended predictably enough, with only a scant elite getting more than half the questions right. Hey, it’s not meant to be easy. Kelvin Britton won again with a very respectable score. Mo Hassan came second, and Richard Hing third. Richard Nicklin actually came joint third but lost a tie-breaker question, alas. Our (kindly donated) prizes were incredible and included a huge box of amazing prehistoric animal toys supplied by the brilliant Everything Dinosaur people, a giant print of Mark Witton’s ‘brontosmash’ artwork, and t-shirts and prints featuring Katrina van Grouw artwork.

Thank you to Everything Dinosaur for the brilliant quiz prizes!

And thus events drew to a close. We disembarked and made our way to the excellent Red Lion pub, and what fun we had. I had less books to carry on the way back to base.

To the future. I mentioned next year. Yes, there will definitely be a TetZooCon 2016, and we’re talking right now about when this might be and who might be there. Several speakers are already lined up. Thanks once more to all our participants and speakers: Matt Salusbury, Vicky Coules, Jessica Lawrence-Wujek, David Lindo, Mark Witton, Bob Nicholls and Katrina van Grouw. Thanks to everyone who turned up, helped out and got involved in stuff (thanks to Mo and Jenny for assistance), and thanks to those who helped but weren’t able to attend, like Gareth Monger.

Until next time!

For previous articles relevant to the issues mentioned here, see...

And for other reviews of TetZooCon 2015, check out...

Refs - -

Lindo, D. 2011. The Urban Birder. New Holland, London.

Regal, B. 2011. Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

van Grouw, K. 2013. The Unfeathered Bird. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.