On Saturday 21st October 2017, over 130 people from all the corners of the TetZooniverse – scientists, science-writers, publishers, naturalists, artists and interested laypeople among them – gathered in central London for the fourth TetZooCon. Our audience is, of course, predominantly English but we were thrilled to be joined by friends from far-off lands as well. How did it go? Well, we filled the venue, the talks were well received, the book signings were a sell-out success, and things went pretty well – so far as I can tell – as goes the sale of merchandise and products. It was, in short, a major success, the vast majority of feedback being overwhelmingly positive. Thank you to everyone who attended, especially our amazing speakers and presenters.
TetZooCon is mostly built around talks and does have a conference feel, but it isn’t academic and technical and we welcome people at all levels of interest and expertise. If I were pretentious I would say that we’re trying very hard to do something big and significant in the way of scicomm and science popularisation and democratisation but, well, you know me. Thanks indeed to all the academics who recognise this and have done stuff to support us or even get involved. As for the rest of you…
The event is, however, not just talks: there are stalls, merchandise, our patented palaeoart event, book signings, and a scheduled pub trip. On the stalls: Rebecca Groom was back once again with a fantastic collection of amazing palaeoplushies, and once again they sold so quickly that they were all but gone by the time I finally made it over to her stall to buy one. Rebecca’s plush, scientifically accurate thylacines, dinosaurs, pterosaurs and marine reptiles, in addition to metal badges, are a huge draw for TetZooCon and I’m very pleased they sell as well as they do.
Several books were on sale, in cases for the first time. Steve White brought Dinosaur Art II to TetZooCon…. aaaand all copies sold out during the first break. Jim Robins – fondly remembered by many for all those prehistoric animals he illustrated for the Orbis part-work Dinosaurs! – attended and had numerous pieces of art on sale. I’ve long wanted to own some Robins art and was pleased to purchase a framed original of his Henodus illustration (used at Tet Zoo ver 2* some years ago). Bob Nicholls and Mark Witton sold art as well.
* Having mentioned Tet Zoo ver 2, I should use this opportunity to point out that said incarnation of said blog will disappear forever from the internet at the end of October 2017, I think due to financial issues and the fate of the host website. And, yes yes yes, I know that nothing ever really disappears from the internet, but you know what I mean. The good news: ver 2 has been rescued in entirety [comments and all] and will be available elsewhere.
So, on to the talks. Rose-Heather Mikhail kicked things off with her talk on the history of zoos (From Enlightenment to The Environment - 200 years of Zoos) – a grand undertaking for 30 minutes – and told us about arcane architecture, listed buildings, the sad tale of Chunee the elephant (killed in prolonged, horrific fashion after he killed a keeper and became unmanageable), and much more. It was excellent and I learnt a lot.
For many people I’m sure the most memorable event of the meeting was Daniella Rabaiotti’s stuff-of-legend talk Does It Fart: The Definitive Guide to Animal Flatulence. Dani recounted us with the biology and diversity of farting behaviour across animals (non-tetrapods included), played audio recordings, and discussed the story behind her book – co-authored with Nick Caruso and illustrated by Ethan Kocak [of The Black Mudpuppy fame] – Does It Fart? Said book (now available for sale from digital retailers, and from shops in the UK) was then available via a signing event, and I’m pleased to say that it sold pretty well… ok, it sold really well.
Aubrey Roberts – a former colleague of mine at the University of Southampton – discussed Mesozoic ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs and the perils of fieldwork on Svalbard. Aubrey (who very recently completed her PhD) is best known for her work on Jurassic marine reptiles but this talk was mostly about new findings of Triassic things – members of various of those enigmatic early groups that are part of the Mesozoic marine reptile radiation but are different from the ‘conventional’ ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs we’re more familiar with. There were even some fish fossils in there…
Beth Windle – well known on twitter for her valuable #thylastream project – joined us next and discussed what we know of the thylacine’s biology, behaviour, voice, biology, decline, extinction and life in captivity. Beth also brought along a thylacine cake which she made herself, a replica thylacine skull, and a copy of Coorinna, a fictional book – originally written in German – on the life of a thylacine. The cake was eaten during one of the later coffee breaks; I missed out due to my inherent responsibilities, and how I regret it.
After lunch, my talk – Hunting Monsters – was next. It was basically a plug for the book of the same name and involved discussions of sea monsters, photos pertaining to the Loch Ness monster, bigfoot, and the ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’, all couched within a sceptical, science-led perspective. The discussion of bigfoot and the Patterson film felt timely given that October 20th was supposedly the 50th anniversary of the film’s recording (I say “supposedly” since there are very good reasons for doubting that Patterson really made the recording on that date). The talk allowed me to shift many copies of my book in another signing event. I also sold all my copies of Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved and the last stock I have of Tetrapod Zoology: Book One.
I was joined during the signing by Johan Egerkrans who was selling and signing several of his books, including Alla Tiders Dinosaurier and the brand-new Flygödlor Och Havsmonster, on pterosaurs and marine reptiles. Johan’s art is spectacular and his attendance was a real highlight – so pleased he could come along.
Our final talk was by Ben Garrod, qualified mammalogist, TV science-guy and buddy to David Attenborough. Ben spoke about his experiences and thoughts regarding the world of TV science, about the limitations and challenges, and about the backgrounds to various of the projects he was involved in. He said a lot of stuff that was ‘off the record’. The stories about weird people who pile on criticism (typically via twitter) for weeks on end and criticise a presenter’s taste in scarves or whatever were irksome. Such people are often clever sillies, the same sort of people who (in my experience) think they know better than experts when it comes to things like climate change. In a weird crossover mash-up thing, Ben said that the best solution was to use the nodosaur as ‘your new spirit animal’ while showing the Bob Nicholls’s scene of spiky, forest-dwelling Borealopelta… a full-sized print of which [one of only two in existence] I purchased at a conference auction earlier this year.
For this year’s palaeoart event we invited attendees to reconstruct – in a sense – the Zallinger mural, two gigantic reels of paper – marked out with increments corresponding to the subdivisions of the Mesozoic Era – being the ‘wallpaper’ on which people drew an assortment of extinct animals. As you can see from the adjacent pictures, we ended up with massive illustrated scenes showing great parades of tens of creatures (the reference illustrations were various of the drawings done for my giant textbook project… still in preparation). The artistic skills of many attendees – even those who don’t think they can draw well – always impress us. And, no, we were not somehow conscripting people into slave labour and getting them to draw the illustrations I still need for said textbook project, though rest assured we will use them for something else…
The quiz – as per usual – was notoriously difficult but hopefully fun, the questions referencing all manner of things relevant to the day (Ivan Sanderson’s giant penguins, the swans of Britain, tetrapod discoveries of the 20th century) as well as a great many things of little to no relevance too. A substantial store of prizes included fantastic gifts from Everything Dinosaur and Dinosaurs in the Wild; plushy Dakotaraptors, ankylosaurids and tyrannosaurids, the enormous volume Them: Age of Dinosaurs and a haul of impressive boxed dinosaur models among them. Kelvin Britton won once again (this being his third win – it would be his fourth, I’m sure, but there was one year in which he was unable to attend), Albert Chen was second, Ivan Kay was third.
Much more happened besides. We had good, continuous twitter coverage – thanks to everyone who participated – and hand-drawn illustrations relevant to the talks were tweeted throughout by Sara Otterstätter and Caitlin Kight… and maybe other people too, I couldn’t keep up! A pub trip followed, and on the Sunday a select group of us visited the Natural History Museum.
If TetZooCon 2017 went as well as it did, what’s next? I can say already that a list of speakers and events are planned for 2018. More significantly, it feels to me as if we’ve turned a proverbial corner, and that the time is right to make the transition to a longer, bigger event. On that note, keep an eye on #TetZooCon on twitter and the TetZooCon facebook page. Thank you, once again, to our excellent speakers and presenters, thanks to John, Jenny, Will and everyone else who assisted with the events of the day, and thanks so much to everyone who turned up and participated. I had a great time and look forward to the next one.
There are already a few other write-ups of TetZooCon 2017 online, check out Marc Vincent’s piece at Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs and this article at Raptormaniacs.