Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Bizarre Deinocheirus.....

Deinocheirus mirificus – a dinosaur that we are all familiar with and now, thanks to the disclosures at this year’s SVP meeting in Los Angeles, an animal that we are now much more able to visualise in life. I first learnt about Deinocheirus as a kid and I was mystified by the huge arms of the type specimen. For me, at the time, it represented the ultimate theropod but for palaeontologists it was inconceivable that the rest of the animal could be simply scaled up from the huge arms as you might restore a conventional theropod - it was just too big.
There was even a train of thought that Deinocheirus was a kind of giant reptilian sloth using its arms to pull down vegetation. Eventually, as the science of phylogenetics came to the fore, we got nearer to the truth and Deinocheirus was generally regarded as a basal ornithomimosaur but even then there were still discussions about whether this diagnosis was accurate and a few of us were always secretly hoping that it would indeed turn out to be some kind of super predator. One thing that everybody agreed on – we needed more fossils.
Eventually they were found and Yuong-Nam Lee, of the Korean Institute of Geoscience & Mineral Resources, and colleagues presented their findings to a large and expectant audience. Two specimens were displayed – MPC-D 100/127 and MPC-D 100/128 – recovered from the Upper Cretaceous Nemegt Formation at Altan Uul IV and BuginTsav in 2006 and 2009 respectively. Much of the missing post cranial material that had eluded fossil hunters of the years was recovered although one of the specimens had already been illegally plundered which is both disturbing and unfortunate to say the least.
Of the material that was displayed there were a series of cervical vertebrae in full articulation complete with the atlas vertebra (C3 – C10) which are very ornithomimosaur-like and a similar series of dorsal vertebrae which display tall anterodorsally facing and highly pneumatic neural spines. The dorsal ribs are fairly straight and are indicative of a narrow body.  The sacral vertebrae (S1 – S6) also demonstrate tall neural spines and are fused (except for sacrals S1 and S6) and form a strong plate of bone.  This appears to demonstrate the presence of a hump in Deinocheirus akin to those found in other dinosaurs and is somewhat unexpected in this taxon.
There is also a series of caudal vertebrae preserved whilst the ilium is quite distinct and displays a raised anterior dorsal margin. The pubic region, as a whole, is strongly developed. The femur is well developed, robust and longer than the tibia and is clearly both unique and diagnostic of Deinocheirus.  Also of interest is the presence of gastroliths in the gastralia of MPC-D 100/127 (well over a 1000) and this is indicative that the animal was probably herbivorous.
Despite the fact that there is still no skull material for Deinocheirus, this new post cranial material looks wonderfully preserved and has allowed us to confirm that Deinocheirus is indeed a basal ornithomimosaur and is, therefore, a stunning vindication and endorsement of phylogenetics – a real triumph. The real surprise, however, is the visual reconstruction of the animal that drew audible gasps from the enthralled audience. There are a number of reconstructions already circulating but, in my opinion, not one of these has got the proportions or appearance of the animal correct.
I do not intend to add further fuel to the fire, and I am certainly not talented enough to produce my own image but if I said to you that Deinocheirus looks like a cross between an ornithomimid, a therizinosaur and Concavenator then you will appreciate just what a bizarre animal this really is. We all look forward to the paper which, at time of writing, still unfortunately appears to be some way off.
Next up - tyrannosaurids but before that I will be publishing a guest post which is a terrific article about the filming at the Natural History Museum in London for David Attenborough’s new programme, David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D, to be broadcast on New Year’s Day so watch out for this one.
Lee, Y., Barsbold, R., Currie, P., Kobayashi, Y. & Lee, H. 2013. New specimens of Deinocheirus mirificus from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia.  Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, SVP Program and Abstracts Book, 2013, pp161.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

SVP Reflections

As many of you are aware, the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology’s latest annual meeting has recently ended in Los Angeles. This was one of the biggest and most well attended yet with early estimates during the meeting predicting an attendance of over 1500 delegates from all over the world. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend again this year and I was part of a large contingent from the UK who made the trip.
I still consider it a privilege to be able to attend this meeting and I am very aware that many people find the cost prohibitive and are unable to make it and so I consider myself very lucky. It was also the last meeting in the US until 2015 since next year’s meeting is to be held in Berlin and I knew that there is a strong likelihood that some of my friends and colleagues from North America were unlikely to make 2014 for the very same reasons of cost.
This was why I made the sacrifices necessary to attend this years’ meeting since next year’s meeting will be a relatively short trip for us by comparison – and without the jet lag! The Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites made an ideal venue in my opinion except that it took a long time to get to grips with the multitude of nooks and crannies of the hotel and there were still many of us taking wrong turns, getting off at the wrong floor and using the wrong escalator even at the end of the meeting.
The session halls appeared ideal and there did not appear to be any technical glitches that I was aware of. The exhibitors were not so lucky and found their space restricted compared to recent meetings but, small as the spaces were, they were still very expensive for the vendors to procure. I felt particularly sorry for the guy from Skulls Unlimited who, already constricted by the designated space, also had a support stanchion to contend with – he looked as if he was displaying out of a cupboard.
Poster space appeared good although it did get rather crowded during the author present session but this is a natural tendency at SVP and all the sessions were well attended and good humoured. Coffee was present leading up to the morning sessions and at the morning interval but not during the afternoon session and I always think that is a little strange. Water was always readily available.
The welcome reception at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History was an excellent event. Coaches were laid on for delegates but the wait for these was somewhat long and it appeared to me that the organisers may have underestimated the demand. Some of us went by taxi in the end and shared the cost and this was a very cost effective way of getting to the museum.
The reception had no such issues and I was impressed by the organisation, and the food provided was both plentiful and of reasonable quality. The museum itself is stunning and a credit to the city. It will take an article to describe the museum and some of the exhibits but the T. rex growth series, which is the central display in the main dinosaur hall, is superb and many of us took copious amounts of photographs of many of the specimens for reference.

The silent and live auctions were good fun although I missed the silent auction on this occasion due to a prior dinner engagement. I arrived just as people were paying for their successful bids but everybody appeared well pleased with their goods. The live auction was the usual raucous affair with the theme for this year’s auctioneer’s dress code, unsurprisingly, being Halloween based. There was lots of money raised with the highlight being a replica of the crocodile Stegochampsa, donated by Triebold Palaeontology, going for just over $4000.
The awards banquet went off really well with several awards being handed out with the obvious highlight being the Romer Medal awarded to Jack Horner for his services to palaeontology and there was a nice moment as he and both his former and present students got together for  a few photographs. It was nice, from a UK perspective, to see Andrew Milner receive a well deserved Honorary Member Award as well. 
The after hours party, the traditional closure to the meeting, took place straight after the awards ceremony in the same hall as the auctions had taken place in. While the venue was fine for the auction it did not seem to me to be an ideal venue for the party. It was like a huge underground garage to be honest and, although it was easily big enough to accommodate us all, it was hard to generate a party atmosphere early on unlike in Raleigh last year when the party started almost immediately.
There were no disco lights to create that party vibe and the drinks at the bars were prohibitively expensive – which brings me to the fun part of the evening. Very early on many of us had cottoned on that there was a shop on the fourth floor where you could buy beer at a greatly reduced cost. The flow of people visiting the shop started lightly at first and then soon became a torrent as more and more people caught on.
Eventually, the hotel management decided to stop people going back into the hall with their bargain beer with the result, at one point, that there were nearly as many people outside the hall as there was in it. And then the challenge was to smuggle the beer in without getting caught which many of us managed quite successfully.
To be honest, many of us felt that this reaction was a little over the top and unnecessary. Even when the bars had closed they would not even sell us a bottle of water – for goodness sakes it wasn’t alcohol was it? “Bar’s closed” – “All I want is a bottle of water?” – “Bar’s closed”. Charmless and rude – thank you very much.
Criticisms? Well, as mentioned above, some (but not all) of the staff could do with a little more training and being a little more helpful instead of keep answering in a couple of syllables with no charm attached. Many people have already bemoaned the lack of free Wi-Fi for the conference although it was available in the lobby but this did not help those people who wanted to disseminate information to the palaeoworld as it happened – in real time so to speak. We hope the organisers have taken note of this in preparation for Berlin next year.
Controversies? There were one or two but the most controversial surrounded Pete Larson’s poster on the validity of Nanotyrannus. Not that there was actually anything wrong with the poster (everybody has an opinion) but the fact that he was supporting his claim by actually adding a further poster displaying the tyrannosaur from the soon-to-be-auctioned Duelling Dinosaurs and displaying cast fossils from the beast.
This appears to conflict with SVP ethics and left many people aghast. For a more comprehensive retrospective account of this issue I urge you to pop over to Brian Switek’s post here for the detail. Personally, I made a point of avoiding the poster when I had heard about this occurrence but I appreciate that it was difficult for the organisers to realise that he would take the opportunity to, in effect, promote the sale of the Duelling Dinosaurs.
The last poster session featured David Peter’s poster on a “flightless” pterosaur. Now I understand that there was a chance of a few heated discussions regarding this poster and to say that Peter’s vision of palaeontology, and the science behind it, leaves something to be desired   is an understatement. However, authors are required to be present at their poster from 4.15 to 6.15 to discuss their work and answer questions – Peters was not.
At least Larson had the guts to stand by his poster but for Peters to have somebody else to stand in for him speaks volumes about his so called “science”. And, I have to say, there were other authors also away from their posters during the session. Now I appreciate that drinks are required and that a comfort break may very well be needed and that it is good to catch up with friends but there were two posters where I returned repeatedly to talk to the authors - and they were nowhere to be seen. I found this somewhat disappointing.  
There have been one or two discussions regarding the content of this year’s SVP with a few people suggesting there may be a lack of innovation and ground breaking techniques although others have countered these thoughts. I have no thoughts on this either way and I have not attended enough SVP meetings to know or make comment. I did notice one thing however.
It appeared to me early on that many discussions focussed on gathering data and doing research on various subjects whether ontogeny, taxonomy or describing new specimens perhaps using new analytical techniques and some very clever digital programs as is the norm these days. However, many questions and theories that were posed at the beginning of these presentations were not actually answered by the end of them. In other words, here is the question, this is what we have done but we have not actually been able to find the solution – in fact more questions were posed.
Initially I found this a little odd and felt, at the time, perplexed since I was listening to interesting people talking about interesting processes regarding always interesting taxa but without a satisfactory conclusion. But later, after thinking about it, I realised that I was missing the point and acknowledged that, at the very least, all of these researchers were expanding the dataset and increasing our knowledge of a much bigger picture, perhaps for other researchers to complete the tasks.
It is worth pointing out again a couple of pretty weird occurrences via the society this year – not necessarily involving the host committee. Firstly, the abstract volume was available to all and sundry quite early on, in effect open access, which is peculiar since the abstracts are embargoed until their presentation at the meeting and are only normally available to SVP members. They were lucky that, as far as I am aware, that the embargo was not broken. Add to that even the index in the volume is wrong. The pre-meeting list of those who were attending turned up via email half way through the meeting when normally emailed in advance. It is strange this has happened this way and there has not been a single comment about this, as far as I am aware, by the society as to whether this was a mistake or if they are leaning toward a more open access style. It would be nice if they were to clarify the situation.
A room with a view.
 In conclusion I have to say that I really enjoyed the meeting and, despite the aforementioned one or two issues, was really very well organised and committee deserve great credit. It was great to see so many friends and colleagues again and, of course, I was delighted to make new ones. I was again lucky that so many of them were generous with their time and not only were glad to discuss their work and plans with me but were often equally interested in how my fledgling research group was proceeding.
There is one particular instance that, I must admit, both surprised and overwhelmed me. I will not embarrass my colleague by naming him but I had already watched him present his talk at one of the technical sessions when I bumped into him later in the day. He preceded to tell me how much that he had been influenced by my writing and how it had help him develop his own career. He said some other nice things as well – I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
This was something that I did not seek and certainly did not expect – I really did not know what to say. I almost felt a lump come to my throat as we shook hands and he walked away. This is something that you just cannot buy and I am absolutely delighted to have helped someone, who obviously has a very bright future ahead of him, with his early career.
As I was saying, copious amounts of thanks to everyone who gave up their generous time to talk to me at this meeting but special mentions this year go to Thomas Carr, Richard Butler and especially my roommate, Roger Benson, who allowed me to tag along on so many occasions, listening in on so many of his discussions and helped me to learn so much.
Normally, after SVP, I tend to provide a pretty intense review of the meetings proceedings but since the abstract volume has been in the public domain for a long time now I will provide an edited form of my previous reports.  Coming up then - some of the meat and drink of the meeting featuring, amongst others, two new tyrannosaurids, a giant abelisaurid and, of course, Deinocheirus.