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Thursday, 17 July 2014

TetZooCon 2014: the event the palaeozoological blogosphere deserves


Last Saturday hosted an event which might, in future years, be considered a strange experiment. Set up in typical convention manner with attendance fees, invited talks and interactive audience activities, its unique selling point was its inspiration: a (largely) technical science blog which covers obscure animals in as much, often more, detail than you'll find in any textbook or scientific paper, as well as arcane topics such as speculative biology, natural history art memes, and cryptozoology. I'm talking, of course, of TetZooCon 2014.

NB. Like a chump, I didn't take a single photograph the entire day, so you'll have to make do with a very bland blog post.

Held at the London Wetland Centre on the 12th of July, TetZooCon 2014 was the latest expansion of the 'TetZooVerse', an internet enterprise founded on three incarnations of the Tetrapod Zoology blog and, more recently, a podcast, two internet comics and on-demand merchandise. The brainchild of Darren Naish and (more recently) John Conway, it's undoubtedly one of the longest running and most successful science outreach exercises on the internet, and notable for covering complex narratives and scientific problems in the world of tetrapod studies. TetZoo fans thus comprise not only casual internet surfers but also researchers and practising scientists. Few other blogs can boast such appeal and far reach, making TetZoo one of the few internet enterprises which might manage the tricky move from the 'free' virtual world to one of admission fees, travel expenses and conference overheads.

In many respects, TetZooCon almost felt like watching a live version of the blog as different talks - essentially 'live blog posts' - covered an array of TetZoo-relevant topics. Unlike TetZoo, the floor did not solely belong to Darren and John, but shared by a host of excellent speakers. I'm not going to cover the talks in detail here because others have already done so, but the topics included speculative zoology, amphibian conservation, wildlife photography, vertebrate palaeontology, crytozoology and mythical animals. Regular readers will know that I was among the invited speakers and covered changing perceptions of azhdarchid pterosaurs. As with other elements of the TetZooverse, these talks meandered from pure science (sauropod neck length) to almost humanist topics (mermaids, the cryptozoological leanings of Shakespeare). Many struck ground between these extremes, noting the interplay between science and culture and how they've influenced each other - for better and worse. Arguably, providing a platform for such talks and the diversity of topics was TetZooCon's greatest success. I've not been to a conference where talk topics varied so considerably and, in contrast to conferences with homogenous themes, there was no chance for getting subject-weary here. The talks were presented at pitch-perfect semi-technical level, assuming that the audience was intelligent and would have some prior knowledge of the broader subjects at hand (e.g. there were no, or only very brief, explanations for what things like Orang Pendek, sauropods or azhdarchid pterosaurs are), while also appreciating the room was not full of experts. It helped, of course, that the speakers and presentations were excellent. I definitely walked away with a greater education than I walked in with.

Other events included a palaeoart workshop, where attendees - led by palaeoartists John Conway, Bob Nicholls and, er, me - attempted to restore the life appearance of the historic 'Mantell Piece' Mantellisaurus fossil, and a TetZoo-themed quiz. The former was of interest for not only palaeoart aficionados, but also anyone wanting to know how fossils are interpreted. There was discussion over bone identification, how many individuals were represented by the specimen, how we could deduce the affinities of the animal and so-on, and we all compared images and notes at the end. The work of the lead artists was beamed onto the screen behind us so audience members could not only see what we were sketching, but engage in discussion with us about specifics of the fossil. Suffice to say (cheating ne'er-do-wells aside who recognised the specimen and simply drew an ornithopod), there was virtually no reconstruction consensus. Tours of the wetland centre and the obligatory pub dinner followed, while merchandise - including prints, 'official' TetZoo products and the much lauded Palaeoplushies - was on sale all day.

Was the event a success? As a speaker and delegate, my opinion is an unreserved 'yes'. There were enough delegates to generate that 'real' conference feel, the day was varied and interesting, and it was a lot of fun to be part of. With strict scheduling, custom 'palaeoart cams', delegation packs and almost flawless audiovisual performance (except for my own talk!), the day was pulled off with the sort of professionalism you'd expect from a long running conference rather than a first-time event. Most importantly, the day felt fresh and different from other conferences. As millions of TetZoo readers and listeners attest, there is a large audience for the 'offshoots' of zoological science such as palaeoart, speculative zoology and so-on, but few venues exist to chat about these topics outside of the internet. TetZooCon is a welcome plug in that gap.

Of course, whether we'll see a second TetZooCon depends on the transformation of online (and free) participation in the TetZooverse to financial and time commitments from potential delegates. This point is really why I wanted to write this short post. Turnout for this first event was good and, happily, conference overheads were recouped. At the same time, I don't think Darren and John slept in beds of gold leaves that evening. Events like these live and die on the whims of potential delegates so, if you were 50:50 about attending this time around and decided against it, rest assured that it was a blast and you won't want to miss out again. If the event passed you by entirely, but you like the idea of an annual celebration of the palaeontological and zoological blogospheres, then you'll also want to get on board next time around. This is a conference with lots of potential and, with enough support, it could become one of the most accessible, unique and interesting fixtures of the conference calendar. If it happens, I'll be booking my place for TetZooCon 2015 as soon as I can next year. If that's not high recommendation, I don't know what is.

6 comments:

  1. As someone whose involvement in science ended with a BSc over a decade ago, and who has only recently learnt to re-engage with science as an interested amateur (I love the facts, and the knowledge, but didn't have the discipline to ever work as a scientist), this event was right up my street -- sadly, however, family commitments meant I couldn't make it. Hopefully there'll be a repeat - blogs like this, and TetZoo, are a fantastic public service. My growing library of books that neatly straddle the line between 'scholarly' and 'popular' hopefully goes a little way to paying the debt that I owe.

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    1. Thanks for the nice words here - I've made sure the guys behind TetZoo are aware of your praise.

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  2. "Regular readers will know that I was among the invited speakers and covered changing perceptions of azhdarchid pterosaurs."

    I have some questions about that, but I forgot to ask them while reading your previous post.

    1stly, have you seen Sibbick's more recent depiction of Quetzalcoatlus ( http://www.johnsibbick.com/library/displayfull.asp?product=P27 ) ( http://www.johnsibbick.com/library/displayfull.asp?product=P26 ) &, if so, what do you think? I ask b/c I didn't know about it until recently.

    2ndly, I heard that pterosaurs in general & pteranodontids in particular lacked binocular vision. Is this true &, if so, how did the predatory species (specifically, pteranodontids) compensate?

    3rdly, any idea if/when we'll see videos of the lectures (including yours) online?

    Many thanks in advance

    -Hadiaz

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    1. Hi Hadiaz,

      1. Sibbick's more recent azhdarchids are, of course, more in line with modern depictions and their fossil record. They do suffer from some proportional issues, though: no-one seems to believe that pterosaur heads are as large as they are, nor that their bodies are as small as they are.

      2. At least some pterosaurs have overlapping visual fields - Witmer et al. (2003) demonstrated this for ornithocheirids. As for others, alas, the 2D nature of most pterosaur fossils precludes investigating this. Note that many birds do not have binocular vision however, and they seem to catch prey just fine.

      3. The guys at TetZooTowers are working on the talk videos as we speak, so soon-ish, I guess.

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  3. Forgot to ask in my previous comment: In reference to what you said about "art produced in the 1980s", how do Henderson's depictions of Quetzalcoatlus ( http://www.plantapalm.com/vce/evolution/images/Impact.jpg ) ( http://dinonews.net/rubriq/images/impact.jpg ) compare to those of GSPaul/MacCready/etc?

    -Hadiaz

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    1. It's difficult to see in detail, but my impression is that they're not especially GSP/MacCready inspired: note the head nubbin.

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