Monday, 28 September 2009

SVP 2009 Bristol - Review

For me, this has been a trip nearly three years in the making. When it was rumoured that SVP would be held in the UK, I made sure to keep my eyes and ears open awaiting the confirmation of the event. When it happened I immediately prepared for the event - nothing would be left to chance and I began to start checking out travel and accomodation, and as soon as SVP put the registration form up on their website, I was amongst the first to register and the trip was on!

At this point, Bristol was months away but, as usual, the time flew. The months turned to weeks, the weeks to days and then I was soon driving up the M4. I could hardly believe that it had come around that quick. It was going to be great but I had a frantic start to the week.

I was attending a preparator's workshop on the Tuesday but a coach fire on the M32 into Bristol ensured a torrid time in attempting to reach the workshop on time. To cut a long story short, I made it on time by the skin of my teeth and it was at this point that I realised that all the conferance venues were up hill. Well at least I would stay fit during my time here.

I really enjoyed the workshop and it was great to meet so many like-minded people. I was more than pleased that my self-taught skills were of a good order and I picked up more than a few helpful tips for the future. We finished off with a nice meal later that evening and it rounded off a pretty hectic first day.

Prior to arriving in Bristol, I had run through the abstracts book and created my own timetable of talks, symposia and posters that I wanted to see. On the first day I attended the Mary Anning marine reptile symposium and this was a great start to the meeting for me and I enjoyed it very much. During the afternoon I visited the Victoria rooms and looked around the exhibits and was pleased to see Scott Moore-Fay of the NHM on the preparator's table and it was nice to catch up.

During the evening I attended, with near enough the entire attending SVP members, the welcome reception from the city and the Mayor. This was held at the @Bristol Interactive Centre and was a good evening and it was here that I started to meet different people and took the plunge in introducing myself to some of the biggest names in palaeontology and I'm pleased to say that all of them were kind and gracious and were happy to discuss all things with me, in some cases quite sensitive data was discussed, and I was honoured that they trusted me with such information.

The second day was similar to the first. I began by attending the Romer Prize Session and was particularly interested in Loewen's ontogenetic variations in Allosaurus. For the rest of the morning I attended the preparator's session which had a few interesting talks but I was really interested by Jabo's et al and Brown's et al linked talks regarding training volunteer preparators in the Smithsonian Fossilab program. This is something which I believe is a real step forward and would hope inspires other institutions worldwide to emulate.

The day ended with the wonderful David Attenborough presenting a talk on Alfred Russell Wallace and the birds of paradise. This was one of the special centenary lectures for Bristol university in conjunction with the SVP meeting. Some of us were fortunate to get tickets, while the rest of the audience was made up of various dignataries and, I'm pleased to say, the general public.

Sir David did not disappoint and the audience were enthralled by his superb presentational skills, which, in conjuction with some excellent video footage, made it an event to remember. After the lecture, Sir David took various questions from the audience, which included such topics as population control, global warming and his favourite animals. For me, it was great to see this great naturalist in the flesh - truly inspiring.

After the lecture, I decided to grab some dinner in a local eaterie and was delighted to meet Scott Sampson of the University of Utah. Scott was running through his talk for the following day and, as we spoke, Scott Moore-Fay came in as well and the three of us spent a while chatting about all things palaeo and we were lucky enough to get a sneak preview of Scott's new chasmosaurines. But I wasn't aware of how special they were until the following day.

On the Friday, I went to the Great Hall to listen to the some of the presentations on pterosaurs and, to my surprise, I found these to be some of the most interesting talks of the meeting. Unwin and Lu's pterosaur with a pterodactyloid skull was excellent and, of course, having now been published, we now know it to be Darwinopterus. Kellner et al's continued work on Jeholopterus is excellent. What a magnificent fossil Jeholopterus is.

Throughout the rest of the day there was an abundance of interesting presentations, focusing on ornithischians, iguanodontids, hadrosaurs and ceratopsians. It appeared that the best was left to last and the aforementioned Scott Sampson's two new chasmosaurines was, for me, the presentation of the meeting. Watch out for the paper when it comes out, it will be nothing less than sensational and taxon "B" will become, I predict, one of the most iconic of dinosaurs. Remember - you heard it here first!

Straight after that came John Scanella's excellent talk regarding Torosaurus being a synonym of Triceratops due to apparent ontogenetic parietal change. From a personal point of view, I found the presented evidence to be compelling although I accept that there is still further work to be done and John did cede to this point. Really interesting and I look forward to the paper.

That evening the SVP silent and live auctions were held with the usual fancy dress, big crowd and an ethusiastic pair of organisers in the form of Leslie Noe and Brent Breithaupt. I had a little go in the silent auction for a few things. I thought I was being clever by bidding late on one particular book but Jerry Harris's wife(?) was even better at it and trumped me last knockings! All good fun but a little tight on the room side.

The final day of the meeting arrived and I was already feeling withdrawal symptoms. There wouldn't be a lot of walking though since I knew I was to be in the Great Hall all day. Again there were a plethora of superb presentations throughout the day. Highlights include, but are certainly not restricted to, Denver Fowler's good work regarding the grasping claw of Deinonychus, which worked particularly well following, as it did, Phil Manning et als' work on the same claws' biomechanics. A clash of ideaology though as Denver's focus was on the claw being used to restrain prey as opposed to Phil's finite analysis which pointed to the claw being used for arborial purposes.

Christiano Dal Sasso's work on Scipionyx samniticus was another highlight and the images that accompanied the talk were astonishing. How fossilisation of this quality ever takes place is beyond me - truly astounding. Megalosaurids and basal tetanurans received some deserved attention by Roger Benson and it is nice that the taxonimic wastebasket that is "megalosauridae" is being tidied up.

Three out of the last four talks of the morning session featured my perennial favourites, the Tyrannosauroidea. Two of the talks featured Stephen Brusatte et al's discovery and description of Alioramus altai and the braincase of the same animal. At the time, and shortly after, I was a little harsh with my throwaway comments regarding this animal which, on the face of it, was wrong of me and I'm grateful to Tom Holtz for putting me right. So apologies to Steve and his team for a job well done.

Miyashita and Currie's new phylogeny of Tyrannosauroidea was interesting for what it didn't do - that is there were no significant revisions of note to work that had previously been done by previous workers including Currie himself. The only oddity is that Alioramus comes out closer to Tyrannosaurus than Daspletosaurus but we'll have to wait for the detail before making any judgements. But I was intrigued that there appear to be at least four confirmed species of Daspletosaurus representing two distinct lineages. I love daspletosaurs - they are proper tyrannosaurids and knowing that there are now multiple species (and probably more) adds to their attraction.

After lunch it was the turn of the sauropods, and lots of interest here as well. I've started to be more interested in sauropods these days since they are almost mechanically impossible (if I'm making my self clear!) and I've always thought that when we can say for sure how they actually "worked", then we will have gone a long way to understanding how dinosauria "worked" as a whole.

I was in the company of Heinrich Mallison of the the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, for this session. It was a delight to have someone next to you with so much insight and, you might say, such constructive criticism and appreciation. He amazed me in as much that he continued to work on his latest digital rendering of Plateosaurus whilst managing to talk to me and listen to the presentations all at the same time. And what a 3D program he has on his laptop - truly awesome.

After the final technical session, we all headed for the last poster session, which was definitely the best attended of the meeting. But, as mentioned previously, the room constraints made viewing really awkward and, if you spent any time talking to the authors, then everything tended to seize up. It was really hot as well but everybody coped and nobody appeared to get agitated at all and it made for an enjoyable experience. Heinrich seemed to be particularly enjoying himself, presenting his poster on sauropod rearing capabilities, since every time I looked, his poster was always well attended and he was always in full flow!

Eventually the poster session drew to a close and the exhibits hall was dismantled and most of us returned to our rooms and hotels and prepared for the SVP awards ceremony and the traditional end of meeting party. I didn't attend the awards ceremony but did go the party. It appeared that almost everyone was there and it appeared that a good time was had by all. When I left it was still going strong. I said a few brief farewells and made my way back to my room. As I walked back, the realisation that the meeting was over started to sink in and I found myself wanting it to go on. But, as we all know, all good things must come to an end.

I started the drive home the following morning, slightly sad it was all over, but absolutely buzzing because of the great time I had. It really had been a fabulous meeting. Next years meeting is in Pittsburgh which I probably won't be attending but never say never - and circumstances do change. But Las Vegas in 2011 - now that is really tempting!

A Word of Thanks......

I have been so fortunate to meet so many of the people that I wanted to meet and every single one of them was courteous and gave up a little of their time for a chat with me and, in some cases, share their considerable knowledge as well. In no particular order, I'd like to thank the following people:

Catherine Badgley, Greg Brown, Lorraine Cornish, Phil Currie, Amy Davidson, Patrick Druckenmiller, Denver Fowler, Jerry Harris, Scott Hartman, Tom Holtz, Dave Hone, Scott Moore-Fay, Scott Sampson, Remmert Schouten, Darren Tanke, Mike Taylor, Mike Triebold and a host of others whom I was fortunate to meet. Thank you all.

Special thanks to the wonderful Eva Koppelhus who was gracious enough to spend quite a bit of time chatting to me and introduced me to the charming Ariana Paulina-Carabajal, who somehow succeeded in making theropod braincases really interesting.

Finally, my biggest thanks go to the previously mentioned Heinrich Mallison, who just made the week such fun, taught me quite a bit, and told me such great stories that not laughing was not an option!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

SVP 2009 - Final Day

Day 3 was a long, long day. I started off listening to some papers on pterosaurs and these were amongst the best talks of the week. The first dinosaur papers soon followed and there were some really interesting papers but the highlight was Scott Samson's (whom I'd eaten with only the previous night) paper regarding two new chasmosaurines from Utah, as yet unnamed. These were truly awesome animals. And then the revelation (not new mind) that Torosaurus is no longer a valid taxon.

After another lively poster session and something to eat, it was time for the SVP silent and live auctions and these were well attended and great fun. I eventually got home later in the evening and crawled into bed ready for the final day.

Today was tough early on. I was having trouble keeping up as it were but as the morning moved on there were some good papers and there was a couple of subtle exchanges regarding tyrannosauroid phylogeny. Really feisty stuff. The afternoon was dominated by sauropod papers and there were a couple of interesting talks but a few of them, in my opinion, were non-events. But like I say, that's my opinion.

After another superb poster session, I'm now in my room getting ready for the end of conference party and I have to say I'm already suffering from withdrawal symptoms - it's been that good. I return home tomorrow and although I'm looking forward to it, I know that I'll go pretty quiet after coming down from a very big high.

I'll sum up the meeting soon with a list of names of the people who have taken the time to speak to me and discuss things. I feel very privileged. Now lets go the party.....

Thursday, 24 September 2009

SVP 2009 - Live

Well I'm writing this during a break on the second day of the SVP conference in Bristol. And I must say that it's meeting all my expectations and more. This event is massive and you wouldn't imagine that there would be this many paleontologists in the world, let alone in Bristol right now.

Before the conference started proper, I attended a preparators workshop and this concentrated on the use of glues and consolidants. It was great meeting and listening to so many good preparators. I was delighted to find that my self-taught preparation skills are, indeed, of a good standard and is a case of refinement. We followed the workshop with a preparators dinner that evening which was good fun.

The following day the conference started proper, and I attended talks on marine reptiles during the morning. There was some really interesting talks and I will discuss these at some point in the future. During the afternoon I visited the exhibits at the Victoria Room and looked at the first of the poster sessions.

Today I attended a few talks in the Romer Prize session ( a really interesting talk on allosaur ontogeny here) and then attended the preparators session for the rest of the morning. After a look at the second poster session I returned to my room for a bit of a break - I've been on the go non-stop for a few days now. Tonight I'm attending a lecture by David Attenborough on Wallace and the birds of paradise and I'm really looking forward to it.

With two days to go I've already seen so much and met so many people. I consider myself very lucky and look forward to the rest of the meeting. The really good stuff is about to start!

Monday, 21 September 2009

All Roads Lead to Bristol - SVP 2009

As many of you know, SVP 2009 is at Bristol University this year - the first time the event has been held in the old world and I'm really looking forward to it. For me, this will be the chance to meet so many of the people that I have corresponded with over the years, as well as the opportunity to meet new acquaintances and, hopefully, some good contacts.

More than that, it is the opportunity to learn so much that draws me to the event. Indeed, as I have already mentioned tonight, I shall be as an ant amongst giants, but I hope to make a small contribution to the event and ensure that I do more listening than talking!

I hope to see some of you there but if not you are bound to hear more about the event in the coming weeks. Some of the abstracts I've read are truly amazing! See you soon.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Sometimes I Hate Being Right

Soon after my luckless trip to Quarry 4, I was again heading south to the Bluff. Apart from my usual anticipation and excitement driving to the quarry, I also had that feeling in the pit of my stomach that today was not going to be my day. I don’t think there was any particular reason for this feeling but it was there none the less and I hoped it was just me being silly.

I’ve had these feelings before, but they also come with a positive message. It’s like a sixth sense, which I also get when I go fishing - that wonderful, nerve tingling sensation that something exciting is about to happen. Of course, it’s not always right but when it does come off, I find it one of the most satisfying feelings to have.

Arriving at the Bluff I was, as usual, one of the first to arrive. Having signed in, and after exchanging the usual pleasantries, I made my way to the quarry. I wasn’t the first – indeed there were three others already present. One lady, who I knew well from over the years, was engrossed in her searching. Of the other two there, one guy, Mark, I had met last time but the other I didn’t know.

Mark is a preparator at the NHM. I was extremely interested to learn that he was working on the original specimen of Mantell’s Hylaeosaurus armatus, an animal recovered in 1832! He confirmed that BMNH R3375 is still encased in Tilgate sandstone despite continuous preparation over the years and is proving “stubborn” to extract. I’m sure!
He has also invited me for a look behind the scenes which I am very much looking forward to.

I walked along the dinosaur beds looking for a suitable spot to start searching in. Having found what were the obvious remains of a tree, I opted to dig around it, but first I had a quick glance around to see if anything had worked its way to the surface. I looked briefly and then moved on.

I was only about 50 yards away when I looked back to where I had left my gear to see the others gathered around my pitch! I slowly ambled back (as you do) only to find that four pieces of bone were picked up off the surface only a few feet from my gear. I could hardly believe it. I must have simply missed them.

Closer inspection revealed them to be associated pieces of bone, jet black in colour (unusual for this quarry). it was difficult to say with any certainty what animal they belonged to, but one possible rib piece looked distinctly crocodillian.

The discoverer was Chris who had come with Mark and he was, understandably, quite pleased. I, on the other hand, was suitably rattled and this seemed to confirm that my feeling about the day was coming true. I continued my search of the surface and was not surprised at finding nothing.

I returned to my spot, made absolutely certain that there was no more bone in the vicinity, and started to dig into the reptile beds. Mark was doing the same, about five yards to my left but Chris continued his walkabout and headed toward the North West banks.

As the morning wore on, the temperature rose and both Mark and I were working hard for scant reward. Approaching midday we were surprised to see a large group of people standing on the rim of the quarry, all kitted out, looking down at us. They quickly descended and joined us in a long line of excavators – I’ve never worked with so many people in a single bed. Mark and I exchanged glances, slightly bemused by the whole issue.

We were even more surprised when they started conversing in French! We later found that they were a group of visiting French geologists and enthusiasts who had gained admittance to the Bluff for the day. Work continued apace but even with all these extra hands, all that turned up was a single Lepidotid scale.

Eventually news reached us that the North West insect beds were again producing the goods and that a nice vertebra had also been recovered. The French picked up on this and soon migrated en masse to these beds. There were just three of us now, until Chris wandered back with yet more salt to rub into our wounds.

Chris had stated that he was desperate to find an Iguanodon tooth, and whilst walking on the top of the North West section came across a spit tooth just sitting on the surface. Amazing! The tooth, although heavily worn in life, was jet black in colour and had retained its overall shape – a really nice example.

Whilst standing there chatting about the morning’s events, Chris then decided to root around in Mark’s spoil heap and immediately extracted two different species of brachiopod that Mark himself had missed. Ouch!
It was time to move on.

Chris went back to the northwest bank while Mark and I also went on walkabout – we were now desperate for anything no matter how insignificant. But as the afternoon wore on it became apparent that we would continue to struggle. Mark eventually found a fish scale, and even when Chris joined us for the latter part of the afternoon, there was nothing else to be found.

Eventually it was time to leave and again I was empty handed – as many other people were. As we were leaving, however, Mark found another lepidotid scale in the road around the Bluff; a knife was all that was required to secure his prize.

The Bluff can be annoyingly tough at times but generous at others. I’ve always found that the second trip of the year is never as productive as the first. Usually, on the first trip, there will have been at least one good scraping of clay removed by the brick works, as well as an eroding winter of wind, rain and frost.

Only on very rare occasions will there have been another scraping to help with the second trip, and this is mainly the reason for the September trip always being more difficult. I left the Bluff again, down but not out, for I had gained two new fellow fossil hunters to share in trials and tribulations for the future! Roll on next spring when I’m sure that we will all return and try again. Who knows? Maybe that elusive skeleton may put in an appearance.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Almost There

Just a quick line to say that I am just about over this infection now and am feeling much better. Indeed, I have returned to work today and, despite the continual discomfort of the drugs on my stomach, am coping well. I am also working on the next field diary entry which will appear here shortly. A big thank you to all of you who have shown concern - it is much appreciated.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

My Turn To Be Ill

Over the weekend when I was fishing, just every now and then, I would get the shivers and feel really cold. At first I didn't pay any attention to it and put it down to "one of those things". However, when I arrived home on Sunday, I was obviously not right and felt progressively worse as the day wore on.

Sunday night was a torrid affair with hardly any sleep simply because of my temperature fluctuations and I could feel my throat becoming a little sore. As I rose from bed on Monday morning, it was obvious that I wouldn't be going in to work - I was a little giddy and quite weak and decided that I would deal with this sickness as I would any other sickness. So I gargled with TCP and took flu powders and hot lemon since this would normally work in most cases.

It was at this point that I rang the NHS swine flu line - just in case as it were. But I knew from the amount of times that I said "No" that I did not have this form of flu. As the day wore on I felt a little better but I still kept suffering the hot and cold flushes. Later in the day I checked out my throat and was confronted with a sight so disgusting that I then realised that I may have to go to the doctors at some point.

I went to bed, planning to go to work the following day, but a second really uncomfortable night made me realise that I wouldn't be going in at all. I managed to get an appointment early this morning and this was the result.

I have, and I quote, an "....ultra-aggressive infection..." of the throat. I am running an extremely high temperature, not too far from being classed as a fever (as you can imagine I was not enjoying this). This is because my body is struggling to fight the infection and then she smiled and said that she hadn't seen a throat like this for some time. I began to slump in the chair....

So the first thing to do is that I must control my temperature so I am to gargle four times a day with soluble aspirin, then swallow, to lower it and this will also clean some of the muck off of my throat. And I also have a very strong course of penicillin to combat the infection.

But then,and this was the "I don't want to worry you but...." moment, is that the next few days are crucial. If the drugs don't work then there may be a chance that an abscess will have formed (something called a quinsy) and this can inhibit breathing and will definitely entail a trip to hospital for an operation. This can mean having the abscess drained or having the tonsils removed or both.

So that's my current health report - not good - but it could be worse and the hospital trip is most unlikely (I hope, touch wood etc etc). Those of you that care need not worry, I shall be fine and be doing all the right things and hopefully be fully operational in the not too distant future. Thanks for listening.

Monday, 7 September 2009

What I Last Caught.....3

I actually managed to get away for the weekend and do a spot of carp fishing. I love all sorts of fishing but this is the one that really yanks my chain because you know, if you get it right, you are in for one hell of a ride.

Anyhow the weather appeared right and there wasn't a huge amount of pressure on the lake, which is always better. On the first night, however, things did not go to plan and all I caught was a bream, about 6lb in weight, of which 3lb was slime (just why are bream soooo slimy?).

The following evening felt much better. I really felt that something was going to happen and the fish were showing en masse. The first fish I caught was another bream, but this was around the 9 or 10lb mark and actually put up a bit of a scrap - a novelty in itself. Eventually the buzzer indicated that a very angry fish had attached itself to my hook and proceeded to give my entire body a very physical workout. I was almost certain that it was a common carp since this is how they fight in here, and after about 15 minutes slid the net underneath her.

At 23lb 6oz she was a real stunner and I sacked her for the images to be taken a little later. Just before first light I latched into another fish which I guessed to be a mirror carp because of its much more ponderous and steady scrap and was pleased to see that my guess was correct. At 15lb 4oz she was more than welcome.

I really do seem to have the rigs absolutely spot on at the moment and this is proven in that this was only my second trip here this year and have caught on both occasions. Incidentally it appears that nothing else was caught that night, at least not as far as I'm aware. I suppose I've set myself for a great fall now but I really am 100% confident in my carp fishing and in this game, confidence is everything.

With apologies for the sound and light levels (well it was first light and I didn't want to shout)here are a couple of short video clips of the fish - enjoy!