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!


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