Sunday, October 22, 2017

TetZooCon 2017

I had an amazing time at TetZooCon last year, and at the time I hadn't been sure whether I'd be able to attend another one in the foreseeable future. I'm happy to report that I will (at least for the next few years), and I did!

TetZooCon has grown in size over the years, forcing it to move away from the lovely London Wetland Centre (where it had taken place in the past) this year to the student union of the University of London. A small price to pay, but I'm certainly happy for its success! I hear that it may switch venues again next year to accommodate yet more growth.

One of the "advertisement slides" that was projected on the screen during coffee breaks featured TetZoo Time. (This was also the case last year, but I'd neglected to take a picture.)

Like last year, all the speakers were excellent and covered a fascinating diversity of topics. No doubt Darren plans to prepare his own summary of the proceedings, so I will abstain from a comprehensive overview. Dani Rabaiotti's talk on animal farts (yes, really) was particularly memorable, and Beth Windle's talk on thylacines (rightly) elicited emotional responses from many attendees. Also a shout out to Aubrey Roberts (fellow member of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath), who did a talk on excavating and researching marine reptiles from Svalbard.

Beth Windle also made an incredible thylacine cake, which was tragically dismembered and consumed during the convention.

This year's paleoart workshop featured an attempt at creating two murals through the combined effort of the attendees. Each person was assigned a different Mesozoic animal (all tetrapods, as far as I'm aware) and then directed to draw their animal on one of two gigantic sheets of paper in the correct time period (which were labeled on the sheets). We were meant to draw everything to scale, but that didn't exactly happen, probably due to ambiguity regarding the size of the provided scale bars. In addition, the fact that there were separate scale bars for the background and foreground quickly got lost as the event went on. Loss of consistency is probably inevitable for any impromptu creative project involving so many people, but, most importantly, I think everyone had fun.

I was assigned the traversodontid cynodont Exaeretodon. My rendition turned out to be less than impressive, but I did include a couple of fluffy babies for extra cuteness. (Despite my simplistic art style, speed-sketching is not one of my strong suits, especially when dealing with a body plan I'm relatively unfamiliar with.) Steve White added a Morganucodon standing brazenly near the much larger synapsid, evidently considering it too cartoonish to be afraid of. Natee Puttapipat drew a Plateosaurus in the background, which deservedly went on to win one of the workshop prizes. I didn't catch the name of whoever drew the Coelophysis, apologies! I added a few small critters to the remaining white space (more on that later).


My friend Jack Wood (who I first met on Tumblr) is a much better paleoartist than I and accordingly put his skills to much better use. He also deservedly walked away with a prize for his work.


Another Tumblr friend, Northwyrm, drew some laughs with her "Hipsterlophodon".


Having finished drawing our assigned taxa and seeing the large amounts of blank space remaining in the Triassic sections, Northwyrm and I set about adding more Triassic animals, particularly pseudosuchians. We also (reluctantly, at least on my part) tried to draw some plants after some prompting by Mark Witton. Upon noticing that someone had drawn in an anachronistic flower in the Triassic, we felt obligated to come up with an explanation for it...


I gave a better performance at the TetZooCon quiz than at the workshop, miraculously managing to scrape second place in high scores again! I picked out from a selection of prizes the dinosaur book by Johan Egerkrans (which he later signed), who is an inspiration to practitioners of stylized palaeoart everywhere.


In addition to reuniting with friends I met at the last TetZooCon, I also met Joschua Knüppe, Michael Lesniowski ("Xane"), and Rebecca Groom (of Palaeoplushies fame and occasional comic inker for TetZoo Time) offline for the first time. Will the entire TetZoo Time production crew ever convene in the same room? Stay tuned...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Slimbridge Wetland Centre

This trip happened back in early August, but I haven't had time to do the write-up until now. I've been quite impressed by the London Wetland Centre, which I've now been to several times. Upon hearing that the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) had another wetland centre set up in closer proximity to the Bristol/Bath region (where I am currently based), I naturally had to make the time to visit.

This other wetland centre is the Slimbridge Wetland Centre, the oldest of these WWT nature reserves. The London Wetland Centre had set a high bar for quality, but wow. Slimbridge exceeded my expectations and blew me away.

My Slimbridge trip started off with a series of amphibian exhibits near the main entrance. Here are some red-eyed tree frogs in their signature daytime posture.

A yellow-banded poison-dart frog.

A blue poison-dart frog.

I previously commented that the London Wetland Centre likely houses more species of captive waterfowl than anywhere else I've been to. Slimbridge easily broke that record. Here are a pair of Bewick's swans.

Some greater white-fronted geese.

I'll come back to the waterfowl in a moment, but it's also worth mentioning that Slimbridge additionally houses every species of extant flamingo. Here are some Andean flamingos. They share their exhibit with James's flamingos, though I failed to spot any.

Back to the waterfowl, here's a ruddy shelduck.

There are even some nice mammal exhibits here. One pond is set aside for Eurasian beavers, though they rarely emerge from their lodge during the day.

I found the displays for small rodents particularly impressive. All too often, zoo enclosures for small rodents resemble glorified hamster cages, but Slimbridge's water vole and harvest mouse exhibits did a great job of simulating their natural environments. Though I didn't spot the voles on this trip, the harvest mice put on a good show, and I was eventually able to get a decent picture of one.

Like its London counterpart, the Slimbridge Wetland Centre is more than a zoo. It also serves as valuable habitat for wildlife. Wild common shelducks were, well, a common sight. (To avoid confusion, I will specify whenever wild individuals are pictured in this post.)

A common crane, a species that is not common in the wild in the UK. This is one of the wetland centre's captive individuals, but wild ones are sighted somewhat regularly at Slimbridge. (I was not so fortunate on this trip, however.)

A pair of ashy-headed geese, a species of strange-looking South American waterfowl.

A Cape Barren goose, a species from southern Australia and one of the rarest waterfowl in the world.

A freckled duck, another Australian species.

Most of the wild birds I saw were too far away to take good photos of using my digital camera, but here's a small taste of what the wetland centre has to offer. The majority of species pictured here are black-tailed godwits. There are also a good number of northern lapwings and black-headed gulls.

Some snow geese, with both the white and blue color morphs represented.

A bar-headed goose. This species is well known for migrating over the Himalayas at high altitudes. They have been recorded flying at heights of over 7.2 km.

A pair of Australian wood ducks. They are not closely related to the North American wood duck, but they do also nest in tree hollows.

A southern pochard, looking rather devilish with its red eyes.

A comb duck. The males of this South American species have an unusual display feature.

A flock of greater flamingos, the third of the wetland centre's flamingo species. Note also the Cape teal in the foreground.

Across from them are the lesser flamingos.

An Argentine ruddy duck. The males of this species are infamous for having a phallus that can equal their own body length when erect.

Some black-necked swans and a photobombing (wild) common wood pigeon.

A coscoroba swan, actually more closely related to the Cape Barren goose than to true swans.

A wild rook and Eurasian jackdaws. Common species here, but unfamiliar to a North American like me.

An Orinoco goose, a very terrestrial waterfowl species that rarely swims or flies.

A pair of red shovelers.

A flock of the fifth flamingo species here, the Chilean flamingo.

A crested screamer. Despite appearances, this is yet another waterfowl.

This immature common shelduck vexed me to no end until I finally figured out what it was.

American flamingos. That's all six flamingo species covered!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Royal Tyrrell Museum

The Royal Tyrrell Museum has been on my bucket list for a long time, not only for its world-renowned paleontological collections but also for its role in the plot of the now-defunct Tyrannosaur Chronicles. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to visit when I learned that it was one of the field trip destinations during SVP 2017.

Among the natural history museums I've been to, the Tyrrell is unusual in how it has a single main pathway that forces visitors to pass through most of the exhibits in a specific order, instead of having many disparate galleries spread apart that visitors can selectively visit as they wish. Upon first entering the exhibition halls, visitors are immersed in a depiction of life in the early Maastrichtian of Alberta. The main stars here are a group of Albertosaurus models representing different life stages, inspired by the Dry Island bonebed.

There are also some models of smaller animals for patient visitors to find, such as this Aspideretoides, a soft-shelled turtle. A Didelphodon (which I don't have pictures of) is depicted as an arboreal, opossum-like animal, a portrayal that has likely been outdated by findings of more complete specimens. Who should I talk to in order to get a model of Albertonykus added to the exhibit? :)

Following the diorama, the fossil displays proper begin. The first part of the exhibitions provides an introduction to the basic concepts and methods used in paleontology. It's also an excuse to give visitors a small taste of some of the museum's most impressive specimens in its collections. Here are 25 specimens of the gar Atractosteus preserved together.

A small wing off to the side (one of the few displays at the Tyrrell that it's possible to skip past, not that a first-time visitor should or would skip anything) showcases notable specimens that have recently been scientifically examined. Here is the skull of Regaliceratops.

A lovely specimen of Rhamphorhynchus with preserved wing membranes.

A Struthiomimus skull.

The skull of Latoplatecarpus in palatal view.

Back out along the main visitor pathway, an excellent specimen of Gorgosaurus. As part of the field trip, we were given behind-the-scenes tours of the museum collections, and I can say there's far more where this came from!

A cast of the Tyrannosaurus specimen nicknamed "Black Beauty".

The original skull of "Black Beauty".

A mounted skeleton of Dromaeosaurus.

After the introductory exhibits is "Grounds for Discovery", a newly-opened display featuring some of the museum's most exceptional specimens. This being the Royal Tyrrell, selecting the "most exceptional" specimens must have been an incredibly tough choice. However, I'll wager most everyone would agree that the holotype of the recently-named Borealopelta had this in the bag.

The skull and forelimb material of an unnamed pantodont mounted in life position.

Here is the lower jaw of Leptacodon, a lipotyphlan. I found this to be a creative way of exhibiting small mammal specimens.

This is Promioclaenus, a hyopsodontid.

The head and neck of Nichollssaura, an Early Cretaceous leptocleidid plesiosaur.

The rest of the museum is framed as a journey through time, with exhibits arranged in chronological order. Before visitors enter the "time tunnel", they can get a view from an elevated walkway of a mammoth being menaced by saber-toothed cats, giving them a glimpse of where they will end up.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Cambrian material on display, along with a diorama of Cambrian fauna at over ten times their actual size. However, neither the lighting nor the size of the specimens are conducive to obtaining good photographs.

Looking down to the floor below reveals the dinosaur hall, a tantalizing peek at what's to come. Here is a Camarasaurus, the sole sauropod at the museum.

The backside of Triceratops.

The obligatory Tyrannosaurus. Fans of the Tyrannosaur Chronicles blog (so... only me then?) will remember this as Traumador's mother.

However, there is much to go through first before one reaches the Mesozoic. Here is a depiction of a Devonian reef, which reminds me of the marine dioramas that used to be at the Smithsonian. A shame that they are not planned to return following the ongoing renovations of the paleontological displays there.

I thought the globes that accompanied each exhibit were a nice touch, showing how the Earth's landmasses have changed over time.

Easily missed next to the much larger Dimetrodon (not pictured here) is Mesenosaurus, a small varanopid synapsid.

Off to the side is the Cretaceous garden, mainly home to plants similar to those that were alive during the Cretaceous. If you're lucky, you may also spot some animals that inhabit the garden, such as this fire-bellied toad.

The animal residents are there to keep insect pests in check, but some of the plants themselves contribute to the effort as well. Here are some carnivorous pitcher plants.

A very large specimen of Shonisaurus gets an entire exhibition area to itself.

Then the main dinosaur hall comes into view. Here, visitors are no longer funneled along a single path and have more freedom to wander around the hall, and there is much to see. Starting out in the Jurassic, an Allosaurus is mounted finishing off a Camptosaurus.

Ornitholestes. Note the retractable second toes and lack of a nasal crest.

Stegosaurus needs no introduction.

Moving onward into the Cretaceous, one of the few specimens of Confuciusornis that can be seen outside of China.

To paraphrase one of my undergraduate instructors, Thomas Holtz, "one does not visit the Tyrrell to look at casts of Morrison dinosaurs" (or, for that matter, at that single Confuciusornis, as nice as it is). The stars of the show are the locals. Here, a Euoplocephalus defends itself from an Albertosaurus.

The skull of Edmontonia.

One corner of the dinosaur hall is devoted entirely to ceratopsians, which is unsurprising considering how many have been found in Alberta. Here is Chasmosaurus.

The horn-less, frill-less ceratopsian Psittacosaurus, another rare exception to the otherwise Canadian lineup.

The skull of Leptoceratops.

Pachyrhinosaurus.

Styracosaurus.

Centrosaurus.

Anchiceratops.

Albertaceratops.

Moving away (but not too far away) from the ceratopsians, a pair of Stegoceras.

Basilemys, a large turtle.

Gorgosaurus looms over a Centrosaurus carcass.

Prosaurolophus hugs a tree.

Myledaphus, a Cretaceous freshwater guitarfish. Myledaphus teeth are commonly found, but fossils that preserve the rest of their bodies (such as this one) are far less so (which is unsurprising, given that they are cartilaginous fish).

The skull of the crocodylian Leidyosuchus.

The tibia of an azhdarchid pterosaur. The arrow is pointing to an embedded Saurornitholestes tooth.

The skull of Ankylosaurus.

The Cenozoic section of the museum returns to funneling guests down one path, but, after being mentally blown away by the dinosaur hall, most visitors are probably grateful for some order. Here is Simoedosaurus, a choristodere. At around this point in the gallery, there are also some live animals to look at (including a Florida soft-shelled turtle and some gar), though I was unable to get good photographs of them.

Even here, you haven't seen the last of the dinosaurs! This is an Eocene coraciiform.

A Gomphotherium.

As visitors near the exit, Glossotherium says, "Bye." Ground sloths really like waving. (I regret not taking a picture of the sign on this one, because it was almost impossible to find out which genus it was! Almost no one else on the internet had identified it as anything more specific than "ground sloth".)

I didn't take as many decent photos during the aforementioned tour of the collections as I'd have liked, but I at least got one of this iconic Dromiceiomimus/Ornithomimus specimen, currently not on display.

This specimen is notable not only for its well-preserved, articulated skeleton, but also for the fact that it preserves carbonized traces of forelimb feathers on the bones of its forearm where they once attached. See if you can spot them!

A specimen of Prosaurolophus with a patch of scales preserved.

A pond just outside the museum entrance, complete with a fountain and a leaping ichthyosaur.

I wouldn't be surprised if this pond was the most lushly-planted area here for miles around. Unsurprisingly, local wildlife, such as this cedar waxwing, was taking advantage.

Scenery more typical of the Albertan badlands.

Some marked trails near the museum provide the opportunity to experience the badlands more directly if one wishes. Trekking on one such trail, I spotted this vesper sparrow.

Ground squirrels were a common sight. This appears to be a Richardson's ground squirrel, though I may be wrong.

One of many Pachyrhinosaurus models surrounding the museum.

All in all, my first visit to the Royal Tyrrell did not disappoint. I hope that it is not my last. After all, there is still one thing that I haven't managed to accomplish on this trip, and that is seeing the original specimens of Albertonykus! I suppose that's going on the bucket list as a revised entry...