Thursday 15 December 2022

Tetzoocon 2022 - Day 2

Go here if you have not read part 1 yet. If you want to listen to Me and C.M. Kosemen talk about our experience at the con, you can also check out our two-part podcast on the event:

These podcasts are also available on most RSS-based platforms. Anyway, let's just jump right into things:

The morning of day two was all dedicated towards our favorite flying reptiles, the bir... I mean pterosaurs. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to listen to Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone's presentation on why you should (or shouldn't) CT-scan a pterosaurs. By the title alone I bet it was interesting. I did come in time for Natalia Jagielska's talk about how to describe your own pterosaur. This was much more than her just retelling how her description of Dearc went. Instead it was an actual how-to guide on what to do and what the steps are from the moment of a fossil's discovery all the way up to publishing its description in a scientific journal. Especially notable is the frustration many go through with the process of peer-review (which, in its current form, I hear many paleontologists say nowadays, has become somewhat antiquated), as well as the fact that not everyone may have the financial means to publish their findings. As you can see here, Natalia also made excellent use of memes in her presentation.

After that was the pterosaur roundtable discussion where Jagielska, Martin-Silverstone, Witton, Conway and Naish all sat together and collectively dunked on "the two Daves", also known as David Martill and David Unwin, who have gained a bit of infamy thanks to their dubious claims in recent years around pterosaur biology. Especially telling was Martin-Silverstone's account of how one of the Daves simply tried to evade the discussion when told that fossilized melanosomes were found inside pterosaur pycnofibers, which is pretty conclusive evidence that these fibres were fuzzy epidermal structures on the outside of the body. At the end of the session I actually had a question for the presenters, but there was unfortunately no time for me. I did the next-best thing and asked Darren Naish on his blog afterwards and he gave me a pretty helpful reply. Through Memo I have also heard that John Conway also disagrees with Paul's idea on pterosaur locomotion, at least when it comes to azhdarchids. 

After that was Steve White's presentation on his new Mesozoic Art, the quasi-part-three of his Dinosaur Art book series, but now under a new publisher. White told about all the trouble he went through to get these books published and I think the main take-home message I got from his talk is that nowadays, unless you are a big name or dealing with children's media, it is best for paleoart- or paleontology-themed books to be self-published, something I will have to keep in mind (*wink*wink*).

After lunch and a signing event by everyone at the con who contributed to Mesozoic Art (it was a lot), came another rountable discussion, about something completely different. C.M. Kosemen, Gert van Djik, Jennifer Colbourne, Joschua Knüppe, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Dougal Dixon all sat together to talk about designing alien life. Especially Dixon I felt shined during this event thanks to his sheer enthusiasm. He quipped some funny but also thoughtful comments about the production-constraints on alien designs and also told us more about his novel Greenworld, which still has not gotten an English release! Especially fascinating was his statement that he thinks that real alien life will probably look nothing like what he or the other presenters designed and might resemble more something from Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, which I actually somewhat agree with. Then he surprised everyone when he whipped out his... model of a Greenworld character riding on an alien insectoid creature. It does not go mentioned enough that Dixon is also a pretty great 3D-artist who does an excellent job at turning his speculative creatures into models. The next surprise then came for the whole audtitorium when Spencer Drake, the grandson of the Frank Drake, happened to sit in the audience and asked the presenters their opinion on OG Drake's claim that, due to the constraints of evolving intelligence, most spacefaring aliens will happen to look vaguely humanoid enough that, if you encountered them at night wearing a trenchcoat, you'd probably mistake them for a human. Even though I also disagree with this assessment (I am firmly of the opinion that, when we finally do find extraterrestrial life, even intelligent forms, it could be so different that we might not recognize it as alive at first. I am actually somewhat frustrated with my own alien designs being still too similar to things one might find on Earth, but it is of course difficult to imagine things beyond any of your own frames of reference), I still thought some of the responses to Spencer were a bit too blunt and harsh. Especially Knüppe just saying that he hated it (without elaboration), to the point where he made a parody of the concept where a species evolved a humanoid body shape but happens to have the intelligence of a cockroach (an admittedly fun take, but to take some wind out of his sails, H.G. Wells already did that subversion over 120 years ago).

Then came John Conway's presentation on his new book A History of Painting (With Dinosaurs), which basically sprung up from the question of what would have happened if Renaissance artists and other famous painters, from Dali to Monet and Warhol, had painted dinosaurs. What followed were Vermeer oviraptors and cubist ankylosaurs. Notably, Conway presented the book and each painting as a trial-and-error experience, the whole endeavour basically being an experiment in what styles work and do not work for dinosaur illustrations (and it of course also asks the question what dinosaur art should even be like and if it even needs a specific use to “work”). After All Yesterdays and hyper-realistic paleoart by the likes of Julius Csotonyi and Andrey Atuchin, I believe Conway here crystallized what might very well become the next big paleoart-movement, which I think had already been brewing in the background for a couple of years: A shift away from trying to be photo-realistic and more towards stylisation and experimentation with what methods and styles are useful, both for artistic as well as scientific purposes. And I can already see various areas to expand on where other arists could experiment. Conway restricted himself only to European/western art history from the Renaissance onward, but of course people all throughout the world have developed vastly different and intriguing art-styles since prehistory. How would dinosaurs look through the painting methods of East Asia? How would the Ancient Egyptians have depicted dinosaurs in their tomb reliefs?

Finally came Mark Witton and Ellinor Michel's presentation on The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Park, a great book I have already written about. Witton and Michel talked about what drove them to write this book, as well as some anecdotes. Very fascinating was Michel's story of how, due to being restricted by her wheelchair, she was forced to stare at the park's alleged Megaloceros fawn for an extended amount of time while Witton and others were closely investigating the main statues, which led to her noticing that it did not at all look like a deer. After further investigation it turned out that this was not meant to be Megaloceros, but actually the last surviving member of a family of four Xiphodon that were originally on the Tertiary Island. As the authors note, such a massive mistake in the park's long history of restructuring makes one wonder what else might be missing from the park's original iteration. Having read the book beforehand, I already knew about the missing Xiphodon, but it was a nice detail to know how exactly Michel and Witton made that discovery.

At last then came the Tetzoocon Quiz. I got only nine out of thirty points, though according to Naish the average is four, so good for me I guess. I definitely appreciated the question about what plot did not happen in the tv show Primeval. I am always happy when people remember that one, but the question made me realize how bizarre this show must have been for people not into it.

And that concludes the first ever Tetzoocon I was able to attend. Laughs were had, merchandise was bought, friends were made. I got to photograph Dougal Dixon being proud of his dinosaur tie (and also bought from him the new 40th anniversary edition of After Man). I hope I made some people tune into the CMTK Podcast and also read Har Deshur. On the day after there was also a guided tour by Naish through the Crystal Palace Park, but I was unable to attend that because then we already had to fly back. However, I did go to the park by myself the day before the convention, and that story shall soon also be told.

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Thursday 8 December 2022

Tetzoocon 2022 - Day 1

Well guys, I have done it. I have managed to attend Tetzoocon for the first time! As you know, I am not from the UK, so this was part of a wider London vacation, during which I also visited the Natural History Museum and the Crystal Palace Geological Court, as well as a bunch of non-zoology related stuff (like the pretty awesome War of the Worlds Immersive Experience), but those stories I will tell in future posts. Before I begin telling you about the first day of Tetzoocon in this post, here are a few climatological and anthropological observations I made during my first visit to the UK in over a decade:

  • You know how in Breaking Bad any scene that is meant to take place in Mexico is tinted with a yellow filter? I felt like the same happened in real life as soon as I stepped out of the plane, but with the colour grey. I have never seen such greyest of greys as I did in London.
  • During a bus tour at night to see the Christmas street lights I noticed that the skyline gives the grey night sky quite an alien glow. In front of this backdrop, this gave the London architecture quite a sinister appearance. 
  • The British have technologically advanced enough to have already invented the traffic light. However, nobody in this remote part of the world has apparently had the idea yet that these lights are on occassion supposed to turn green for pedestrians, creating a peculiar culture of ritualized jaywalking. Perhaps the constantly grey environment has led an aversion to the colour green. 
  • Fish and chips taste the best when the restaurant-owner is a Turkish man.
  • This is the only country I know where law enforcement and other state employees dress like they purposefully do not want to be taken seriously.
  • The public transport system could use some work.
  • Everyone was very nice.

Day 1 of Tetzoocon began early in the morning with everyone arriving and the presenters setting up the stalls. One of the first people I got to talk with by coincidence was Gert van Dijk, who is a pretty nice dude. He asked me how I solved the problem of a convincing tripod walk-cycle with my Hellasic Dyles, to which I sheepishly had to answer that my aliens are tripods more out of Martian genre obligation rather than biomechanical sense. He certainly got me there. I also got to meet my friend C.M. Kosemen for the first time in person, which was pretty great. He even brought some memento-cards for our podcast. Memo and his wife were a bit late to the event so Me and my girlfriend helped them set up his stall before going into the first presentation. 

The event was of course opened by Darren Naish himself, no surprise there, who quipped some jokes and explained some things to newcomers.

The first proper presentation was then given by naturalist Jack Ashby, who gave a talk about his book Platypus Matters: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals. It began with some fun facts about platypodes, some of which were certainly new to me, such as the venom produced by the animal's ankle spur being able to cause pain for months. Many of these amazing facts about the platypus Ashby then used to ask the question of why, when we talk about Australian animals, we use such traits as a reason to describe them as weird or primitive, while animals more familiar to western audiences with equally unique traits get called amazing or magnificent. From here Ashby went into the colonial history of othering Australian animals and how this not only has a lasting effect today but also how inaccurately viewing Australia as an evolutionary backwater has had a tremendously negative effect on trying to preserve the continent's fauna. Overall, a great presentation. As I myself have written about the othering of certain animals, Ashby said a lot of things that resonated with me and he definitely convinced me to buy his book.

Hana Ayoob's planned talk unfortunately had to be cancelled, so next up was Dean Lomax talking about Locked in Time, a book on paleoethology which I had already read and can thus highly recommend. Lomax went into the history of what inspired his book and presented some of his favorite examples of fossilized behaviour. Pretty standard, but Lomax's energy and enthusiasm made it a very enjoyable talk.

After that was already book signing and lunch pause, where I helped Memo out at his stall and got to talk to more people. There was an interesting guy who bought three whole original drawings made for All Yesterdays, among which was Memo's version of Johann Jakob Scheuchzer's Homo diluvii testis. Working for the museum where most of Scheuchzer's original collection is stored (though the original salamander fossil is unfortunately still in Haarlem), I told the man some facts about that story, which led to him wanting to record my voice because apparently I was the first German-speaking person ever who could tell him the correct pronunciation of Scheuchzer's name. Pretty bizarre experience. Edit: As it turns out, the person in question was zoologist Paul Stewart.

Then came the big talk where Kosemen, Naish and Conway reminisced on the anniversary of All Yesterdays. Most of it was Naish retelling the story of how the book came to be, with some added details by Kosemen and Conway. I felt like I had heard most of it already and wished they had gone more into detail about the different reactions to the book and the movement it started, as well as what direction they thought paleoart might be heading into in the future. But hey, I will probably ask Memo that directly in the podcast.

Sitting at the talk were also these chaps from a little known website called Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs. Maybe you have heard of them.

The next presentation, of which I unfortunately forgot to take pictures, was Jennifer Colbourne talking about tool use in animals and if certain non-bird theropods could use tools as well. The different classifications of tool-use were interesting to learn about and there is nothing disagreeable with her assessment that, if troodontids did use tools, it would have been only a very basic, biologically pre-programmed practice. I did disagree however with her statement that there is no way fish could use tools.

Then came Cassius Morrison with his presentation about Ecological niche partitioning among non-coelurosaur theropods. The things he talked about were very interesting, among which being the idea of using megalosauroids, whose diets are pretty well-known, as a sort of rosetta-stone for various Mesozoic ecosystems, as well as the realization that megalosauroids may have already had strongly water-adjacent diets even before the evolution of spinosaurids. This might mean that giant carnivores like Torvosaurus should be imagined more as ecologically bear-like rather than as apex-predators. The problem was just that the way Morrison presented all this felt very long-winded and dragging. I think he could have summarized many things more concisely and I believe he also went noticeably overtime.

At last was Darren Naish's talk on the often overlooked herpetofauna of Britain, which was pretty good. Naish went into the fossil history of reptiles and amphibians of the British Isles, as well as many unfortunate mistakes in assessing the true herpetological diversity of the country, such as when pool frogs were for a long time mistaken as an introduced species, leading to their British population going extinct before it was realized they were natives all along. There is apparently also still a debate over whether treefrogs were ever native to the area or not. The presentation then took a surprising turn when Naish revealed that there were various Victorian societies that purposefully tried to integrate exotic animals into the native British ecosystem, which today has in some cases made it difficult to say which lizards living over there were ever native or introduced. Really fascinating stuff and presented by Naish in a very engaging manner. I also have a suspicion that he came across some of these things while earlier researching the phenomenon of British big cats.

After the presentations came the art gallery where I think everyone had a great time conversing with each other. Dougal Dixon signed my original German copy of After Man, Miranda was infatuated with Gert van Dijk's alien art...

...and I got to meet Mr. Biblaridion of Alien Biospheres fame himself. Fantastic guy, I must say. We talked about the joys of mass extinction in spec-evo, languages and the regrets we have for some of our older content. Afte the event, Memo, Michael and Me went together to a Chinese restaurant and had a nice evening.

But that is not all of course, since the event continued the next day and we will get to that soon.

If you liked this and other articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am thankful for any amount, even if it is just 1$, as it will help me at dedicating more time to this blog and related projects. Patrons also gain early access to the draft-versions of these posts.

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