Dino Sirs on Tour: Prog Pal 2014, Part 1 (Ryan).

Since the schedule for conferences is jam-packed (and then when the day’s over, everyone is in the pub until people stagger back to hotel rooms), Richard and I could barely take the time just to keep you updated on Twitter during Progressive Palaeontology 2014. However, we’d thought we’d share our experiences (as this our first proper palaeontological conference) and hand out some tips for anyone out there whose thinking about going to a conference any time soon. Anyway, first off, I’ll (Ryan) give my accounts of ProgPal 2014.

Progressive Palaeontology (just Prog Pal to most) is an annual symposium/conference/get-together/piss-up where palaeontologists early in their career (predominately PhD and Masters students, with some keen undergraduates) come together and present their work. It’s a fairly small event, with around 100 people in attendance and lasting only a day. This makes it a perfect introductory conference, with a laid-back atmosphere that isn’t quite as scary as SVP or Pal Ass. Anyway, here comes the blow-by-blow account of my Prog Pal 2014 experience..

Tip #1: Preparation is the key to success. Aside from an opportunity to see what other palaeontologists are up to, conferences are about networking, and getting yourself ‘out there’. Some time before the conference starts, you’ll be sent a list of abstracts of all the people presenting, as well as a list of all the people in attendance. Check through this list and see if there’s any names that you’d like to work with, and plan all the people you want to shake hands with before you get there.

05:30: Christ it’s early. Christ I’m hungover. Richard and I decided we’d drink fairly heavily after the induction and icebreaker session. Big mistake, as I’ve got to give a talk today, my first ever talk at a conference. I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, so quietly practice my talk over and over.

06:42: Richard finally decides to stop snoring and wake up. Lazy so and so.

Tip #2: DON’T DRINK TOO MUCH THE NIGHT BEFORE THE CONFERENCE.

08:15: Richard and I are at the closest Wetherspoons (pub) to the National Oceanographic Centre (where Prog Pal was held this year), and our hangovers are subsiding after a hearty (and well priced) breakfast. With excitement and glee (as well as the grease from the breakfast) in our hearts, we set off to the NOC.

08:45: We arrive at the NOC and put up our posters. We’re a little late to the proceedings (like the rebels we are), so our posters are right at the far end. Great.

Tip #3: If you’re present a poster, put it up ASAP. Remember, you want the prime real estate so more people have the chance to see the work you’ve spent months slaving away on…

08:46: I impulse buy a Temnodontosaurus PalaeoPlushie. SO CUTE. (And accurate!)

09:00: Jon Tennant himself kicks of the talks of Prog Pal 2014 with a phylogeny of dwarves. No seriously, actual dwarves. (And then talks for a bit about atoposaurids).

Slightly disappointed when I realised the talk was on atoposaurids rather than actual dwarves.

Slightly disappointed when I realised the talk was on atoposaurids rather than actual dwarves.

09:51: Mid-way through one of my supervisors’ (Ben Moon) talk (on the phylogeny of ichthyosaurs) I have a “oh s**t” moment as I realise his data makes the published phylogeny I used in my analyses obsolete. Welp, back to the drawing board on that hypotheses.

10:30: Coffee break time! It’s also the start of the first poster session, so Richard and I eagerly away the throngs of people who love ichthyosaurs and stem-gnathostome evolution.

10:31-10:50: Richard and I get a grand total of 2 people each looking at our posters, whilst the throngs of people congregate at the other end of the conference hall…

Richard and I next to our posters. The person who photographed us here accounted for probably a quarter of the people who looked at our posters all day...

Richard and I next to our posters. The person who photographed us here accounted for probably a quarter of the people who looked at our posters all day…

Tip #3: I reiterate, if you can, place your poster where most people will see it!

10:40: One of my hypotheses get’s put through the ringer by Colin Palmer (a prominent worker in the field of pterosaur flight). He presents valid points, so it’s back to drawing board on yet another hypothesis.

Tip #4: Prepare for criticism (usually constructive). Conferences are about showing your work off to other scientists, and some people may know more about certain things than you. That’s okay, it might take you down a completely different path with your study, perhaps to new and exciting work!

10:50-12:30: The second session is talks on invertebrates and early vertebrates (even Richard ‘fish and early vertebrates 4 lyfe’ Dearden finds some parts a little dull). For most of it I have know idea what’s going on. I muddle through until Robert Lemanis’ talk on ammonite shell function, which was AWESOME.

12:54: Over lunch, Richard learns that he missed out on meeting Philippe Janvier (as he came to Prog Pal rather than go to the Woodward Symposium). For pretty much all of lunch he lets me know how he’ll never forgive himself.

13:25: Richard’s still going on about Philipe bloody Janvier.

13:30: Luckily, the third talk session starts, so Richard gets away unharmed.

Tip #5: Never mention Philippe Janvier in the presence of Richard.

14:15 PM: Sam Giles gives an absolutely wonderful talk on an exceptionally preserved actinopterygian skull from the Devonian. She really knows how to give a talk, and she presented some awesome CT data!

15:00-15:20: Another poster session. Robert Lemanis and I chat away about CT resolutions. (And I heartily congratulate him on making ammonites really cool).

15:20-16:53: Over the next hour and a half I was too nervous to remember anything, as my talk was coming up. Jon Tennant sends me an amusing Tweet.

Fairly sure this is Jon Tennant's favourite meme ever.

Fairly sure this is Jon Tennant’s favourite meme ever.

16:53: I give my talk, and the nerves get the better of me. I have some form of brainfart and stutter over the same point for what felt like an eternity. Somehow I get back on track and finish on time. Phew. I’m still in a foul mood for an hour or so.

Tip #6: Never let the nerves get the better of you. Yes it’s much easier said than done, but at the end of the day, you’re giving a speech about something that you probably know more about than anyone in the world, so you have a right to be there and ace it.

Yours truly about to give a talk. I didn't have butterflies, I had azhdarchid pterosaurs in my stomach...

Yours truly about to give a talk. I didn’t have butterflies, I had azhdarchid pterosaurs in my stomach…

17:40: Audrey Roberts chats to me whilst I’m posted by my poster. We chat for a while about ichthyosaurs. It was great to meet another ichthyosaur worker!

18:00: It’s over, the posters are taken down and we head on over to the Royal Thai Pier to begin the evening’s festivities.

18:04: We realise it’s absolute pissing it down and spend the next 15 minutes walking gloomily.

18:19: Fear not! We arrived at the restaurant and chowed down on some tasty (and much too hot for Richard’s liking) food. Winners of the day are announced, and it was great to see so many Bristol students (and alumni) take home prizes! Wine is consumed.

20:25: Richard’s supervisor buys him a drink, I look over to my supervisor in a desperate attempt to get a free beverage. No chance.

Richard looking pleased with himself after eating something hotter than a fish finger sandwich. Our friend, Amy, looking miserable as always.

Richard looking pleased with himself after eating something hotter than a fish finger sandwich. Our friend, Amy, looking miserable as always.

21:00: We’ve made it to the same Wetherspoons as last night, we feel like we’re home at last.

21:01-22:00: I hang out with the Bristol MSc cohort, and we all drink far too much. Although not as much as Richard’s supervisor, who’s still buying Richard drinks. No sign of Ben buying me a drink.

22:30: Richard (now fairly drunk) announces we should mingle. So we stand up, and immediately take drunk selfies for a bit.

Tip #7: Make sure either a) they can’t see you or b) that the people you planned to network with you at the conference are drunk enough to forgive you taking selfies. Or just ask them to join in.

Tip #8: On a more serious note, the pub is great way to network in an informal setting, if you don’t get the time to speak to people during the conference.

23:04: Ben Moon reveals to me with wry smile he probably should have given me his phylogeny a while back. No kidding. Still, it gives me something to look at over the summer.

23:10: Jon Tennant tells me he voted for my talk, saying my work was ‘progressive’ and ‘cool’. Somewhat tipsy, it was hard not to straight up hug the guy.

23:30: I watch a fellow MSc student hilariously try and get 4th authorship on Richard’s future paper, despite doing absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, Richard’s having none of it.

23:35: Richard brings up Janvier again and I seriously consider glassing him.

23:50: Last orders, Richard and I stay classy and order two double G&T’s.

00:00: We set off back to the hotel, fairly inebriated.

The last photo I took at Prog Pal 2014. A selfie (of course). We were sober, honest.

The last photo I took at Prog Pal 2014. A selfie (of course). We were sober, honest.

And their we have it ladies and gentlemen, Progressive Palaeontology 2014. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the field trip to the Isle of Wight the next day, as I had to give a talk back in Bristol. I had great fun, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who made Prog Pal possible this year, you guys did a wonderful job of organising the whole thing. Finally, I just like to summarise a few things about conferences:

  • Always prepare who you want to network is, as my Nan often says (and it really does apply to the academic world) “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, so it’s vital that you take every opportunity to meet and greet people that you’re interested in working with.
  • Be prepared for constructive criticism. It’s a huge part of the academic process (and it always hurts a little bit more in person).
  • If your presenting a poster, think about where abouts in the conference hall you’ll be located (if you get the choice).
  • If your giving a presentation, don’t let nerves get the best of you, and remember that you know your stuff, otherwise you wouldn’t be there!
  • Most of all, have fun, it’s so invigorating to spend time with lots of people who are passionate about the same kind of things you are.

Stay tuned for Richards account of Prog Pal (and prepare to read about Philippe Janvier…) over the next few days.

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What’s New(s): 11/04/2014

Avid readers of TDS, we have again not published as often as we’d have liked to over the last few weeks, as deadlines are piling up over here in TDS Towers. Fear not, as below is a bountiful harvest of palaeontological news, five of the most succulent morsels, handpicked by Richard and I, for your entertainment.

Embry-old

Fossilised creatures generally, even those as big as dinosaurs are pretty rare. The forces of nature and preservation all stack up against palaeontologists when we try and find fossils. So when very small fossilised early stage embryos from over 500-million-years-ago are found, it certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. Whilst not new to science, the latest publication of fossil embryo’s gives some much needed insight into how such small and delicate structures were fossilised. Researchers from Missouri and Virginia Tech have found fossilised embryos in the Shuijingtuo Formation (China) which are around 500 million years-old (from the Cambrian period). Despite not being the oldest fossilised embryos (the fossil record of embryos stretches back beyond 580 Mya in the Doushantuo Formation, Pre-Cambrian), the Shuijingtuo embryos contain the soft tissue impressions of the chorion (the fertilisation envelope). The authors also suggest that in this fossil deposit, the preservation of these soft tissues is more common due to these tissues being (somehow) selectively phosphatized. At this point, how these small and rare embryos got to be preserved is all that is known of the Shuijingtuo embryos, but future discoveries on what organisms these embryos belonged to, or even better preserved embryonic soft tissues will prove to be very exciting reads in the months and years to come.

Whilst not the embryos in question, they have caused a massive stir over the years.

Ancient ‘Sp-eye-ders’ from M(ontce)A(u-les-Mines Lage)RS(tätte)

I’m (Ryan) a huge arachnophobe. So I wasn’t best pleased when Richard brought this (albeit interesting) tidbit of news to my attention. A new extinct species of harvestman from the Carboniferous, Hastocularis argus, was recently discovered in France which has allowed the authors to comment on the evolution of the group. It’s also thrown up some eye-opening surprises. Before I continue on the subject, the jovial title of this story is wrong. Whilst harvestmen are arachnids, they aren’t spiders, they’re actually more closely related to mites. Regardless, the discovery of H. argus has allowed Garwood et al. to investigate the origins of harvestmen more closely, as the exoskeletons of these arachnids are rarely preserved in the fossil record. With the creation of a new mite suborder, Tetrophthalmi (which includes H. argus and the Devonian species, Eophalangium sheari), Garwood et al. have, contrary to previous beliefs, argued that the diversification of modern harvestmen occured later in geological time (Carboniferous, rather than Devonian).

The (albeit not so scary looking) Hastocularis argus rendered in full 3D glory.

The (albeit not so scary looking) Hastocularis argus rendered in full 3D glory.

Modern harvestmen have just a single set of eyes, the medial pair (central). However, the 305-million-year-old H. argus has two pairs of eyes, a medial and a lateral (outer) pair. In the same paper, Garwood et al. report that work on modern harvestmen has revealed that despite the passage of over 300 million years, they still retain some genetic framework for these lost lateral eyes. This paper (despite being on arachnids *shudders*) is pretty great, as it combines modern 3D visualisation techniques (CT scanning), phylogenetics and some genetic work in order to really get a handle on the origins of a previously poorly known group. This again proves that the combination of palaeontology and biology is a real ‘dream team’ when it comes to unearthing evolutionary relationships.

 Cambrian heart-thropod’s gets palaeontologists’ blood pumping

I genuinely rewarded myself with a break after making that title, the puns have (if I do say so myself) been exceptional this week. Regardless, a fascinating insight into the evolution of the cardiovascular system has been published in Nature Communications this week (7th April). An exceptional specimen of Fuxianhuia protensa, a 520-million-year-old arthropod from Chenjiang deposits has been described, and with a cardovascular system almost intact. Even though the phylogenetic placement of Fuxianhuia is controversial to say the least, in 2012 it was discovered that Fuxianhuia had a relatively complex brain, suggesting by the early Cambrian, arthropods already had similar visual capabilities as modern insects.

 

Fuxianhuia reconstruction from Ma et al. (2014). a) cardiovascular system and CNS; b) whole body reconstruction; c) cardiovascular system in relation to the gut.

Fuxianhuia reconstruction from Ma et al. (2014). a) cardiovascular system and CNS; b) whole body reconstruction; c) cardiovascular system in relation to the gut.

Perhaps it is a tad unsurprising that this latest Fuxianhuia discovery reveals that the cardiovascular system of arthropods from the early Cambrian were relatively advanced, and more than able to keep the ‘complex’ brain oxygenated with blood. The combination of an advanced cardiovascular and neural/visual system has led Ma et al. to conclude that F. protensa had well developed sensory (using vision and its antennae) system, and in life it was a highly mobile forager. They also conclude that even by the Cambrian Explosion, arthropods had evolved many advanced biological systems.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Hupehsuchians, swimming in a half shell.

Because what would a blog post on TDS be without a marine reptile? (Also, it’s taken until the 4th news piece to get to a tetrapod, what is this nonsense?). Moving on swiftly, the next discovery presents a new species of marine reptile, Parahupehsuchus longus. After taking a quick look at the holotype of P. longus (pictured below) you’d be very much forgiven if you thought it was an early Triassic ichthyosaur. P. longus is in fact a hupehsuchian, which a group of diapsid reptiles from around 250 Ma, and are known exclusively from one locality, in Hubei Province (China).

An incredibly dumb looking hupehsuchian, Nanchangosaurus (a close relative to Parahupehsuchus).

An incredibly dumb looking hupehsuchian, Nanchangosaurus (a close relative to Parahupehsuchus).

So what makes Parahupehsuchus so cool? Well in its defenceP. longus has a weird expansion of its ribs (similar to the ribs of turtles, that’s how they ‘make’ their carapace) which overlap to form a ‘bony tube’. As indicated by the aforementioned pun, Chen et al. think that this is used as a defence mechanism. Whilst the fact that the same kind of defence mechanism (revolving around the expansion of the ribs) has convergently evolved in at least 2 groups of marine diapsids is fairly interesting, it’s the wider implications of this discovery that really make Parahupehsuchus cool. What does any creature needs a defence mechanism for? That’s right Captain Obvious, defence. This almost definitely means that during the early Triassic, there were large predators and a higher trophic level was present at this time. This is odd, you wouldn’t expect this trophic level to recover so quickly after the Permo-Triassic extinction event (commonly referred to as ‘when life nearly died’, so you know, it’s pretty potent). Chen et al. make 2 pretty bold claims from this one discovery, stating that the recovery from the event was faster in the marine realm (specifically faster in marine predators) and that this marine tetrapod predator trophic level is probably the first one ever to emerge in evolutionary history.

Bird’s and pterosaurs had to Cope with one another

Cope’s rule, simply put is a hypothesis that states evolutionary lineages, over time, increase in size. Pterosaurs have long been the poster child of Cope’s rule in the fossil record (along with horses) going from small rhamphorhynchids in the late Triassic to the huge (and probably flightless) azhdarchids of the Cretaceous. The study by Benson et al. set out to try and understand this apparent trend in pterosaur size evolution further. They found that up until the late Jurassic/early Cretaceous the average wingspan didn’t really go above 1m, and over the cretaceous there was a sustained increase in wingspan, until you reach the monstrous 10m+ wingspans of azhdarchids such as Quetzacoatlus northropus.

Obligatory funny, only very slightly related picture.

Obligatory funny, only very slightly related picture.

A controversial notion that it was the emergence and radiation of the (somewhat smaller) birds in the late Jurassic/early Cretaceous that drove the evolution of large size in pterosaurs. In a unexpected turn of events, Benson et al. actually suggest that this may well be the case, citing a possible combination of ‘intrinsic factors’ (such as terrestrial living in azhdarchids and other flight mechanisms in other groups) and ‘extrinsic factors’ (such the evolution of birds, which would have taken the niches occupied by small aerial feeders away from the pterosaurs) as the cause of the switch to selection of a larger body size in pterosaurs. It just goes to show that competition can be, in some cases, used to explain macroevolutionary processes and patterns.

References

Brose, J. et al.  (2014) Possible Animal Embryos from the Lower Cambrian (Stage 3) Shuijingtuo Formation, Hubei Province, South China. Journal of Paleontology: March 2014, Vol. 88, No. 2, pp. 385-394.

Garwood, R. J. et al. (2014). A Paleozoic Stem Group to Mite Harvestman Revealed through Integration of Phylogenetics and Development. Current Biology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.03.039.

Ma, X. et al. (2014). An exceptionally preserved arthropod cardiovascular system from the early Cambrian. Nature Communications 5, 3560, doi:10.1038/ncomms4560.

Chen X-h, et al. (2014) A Carapace-Like Bony ‘Body Tube’ in an Early Triassic Marine Reptile and the Onset of Marine Tetrapod Predation. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94396. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094396

Benson et al. (2014). Competition and constraint drove Cope’s rule in the evolution of giant flying reptiles. Nature Communications 5, 3567, doi:10.1038/ncomms4567.

Taxon of the Week: Koumpiodontosuchus

Dear reader, don’t be put off by such a name, nor by the fact that poor little Koumpiodontosuchus has been dwarfed by Nanuqsaurus, the recently descovered ‘pygmy’ tyrannosaur (more on that when Richard finishes the latest What’s News), because this little Cretaceous critter raises some interesting questions about eusuchian phylogeny. It’s also going to be fairly short, as Richard and I are crazy busy at the moment.

Sometime in March 2011, a lady, out with her family, discovered part of the skull of Koumpiodontosuchus, and almost immediately handed it over to Dinosaur Isle, a museum on the Isle of Wight, UK (as can be seen in my dorky picture on the about page of TDS). In a rather coincidental turn of events, some months later the second part of the skull was donated to the same museum by other denizens of the Isle of Wight. The now completed skull was then meticulously studied by Dr. Steve Sweetman et al. of the University of Portsmouth. Cut to the present day, and what we have is a new species of bernissartiid crocodile (a group that includes some of the smallest neosuchian crocs, i.e. modern crocs and their immediate ancestors) from the Early Cretaceous. Koumpiodontosuchus adds to the already diverse ecosystem we see in the Early Cretaceous of the Isle of Wight, which includes an allosaur (Neovenator), Iguanodon, Polacanthus (a thyreophoran), Eotyrannus, good old Baryonyx and a brachiosaur (as well as some azdharchid pterosaurs and mammals).

A wonderful reconstruction of early Cretaceous life on the Isle of Wight. Courtesy of Mark Witton.

A wonderful reconstruction of early Cretaceous life on the Isle of Wight. Courtesy of Mark Witton.

Estimated at only 66cm in total length, Koumpiodontosuchus aprosdokiti (roughly meaning button toothed, unexpected) is a small croc with a big name. As the name suggests, Koumpiodontosuchus has ‘button’ teeth (broad and flat) situated at the back of the jaw, with pointier teeth towards the front. This dental arrangement meant that Koumpiodontosuchus could have a good crack at both catching fish at eating hard-shelled material such as molluscs. Despite its neat arrangement of teeth, its not Koumpiodontosuchus’ crowning glory. That prize belongs to the choanae.

Koumpiodontosuchus reconstruction, again by Mark Witton. Also, casual Neovenators in the back there.

Koumpiodontosuchus reconstruction, again by Mark Witton. Also, casual Neovenators in the back there.

In crocodiles, the choanae are found in the upper jaw and form the internal nostril openings (holes). Despite containing all the extant crocodiles and their recent common ancestors, Neosuchia has a subgroup called Eusuchia (“true” crocodiles”) in which all modern crocs are found. Now, there are many defining features that allow palaeontologists/taxonomists/biologists to distinguish eusuchians from the larger pool of neosuchians, but a big defining feature in recent years has been the placement of the choana(e) within the pterygoids, towards the back of the skull (if you’re getting a bit lost with crocodilian cranial anatomy, the Witmer/Holliday Lab 3D alligator project really does help a bunch). Bringing it back to the early Cretaceous of the Isle of Wight, Koumpiodontosuchus is a non-eusuchian neosuchian (it’s just a neosuchian, no big deal), so you’d expect it not to have its choana placed at the back of the skull, between the pterygoids. 

Holotype of Koumpiodontosuchus. Choana circled in red. Amended from Sweetman et al (2014).

Holotype of Koumpiodontosuchus. Choana circled in red. Amended from Sweetman et al (2014).

Well would you look at that, a choana at the back of the skull and between the pterygoids, now that sure is a turn out for the books. So what does this mean? Well it adds to the amassing evidence from other extinct crocs (e.g. the Madagascan Mahajangasuchus, a rather ugly looking brute from the late Cretaceous) that the placement of the choana(e) within the pterygoids, on its own, might not be a might sign from the taxonomic gods that the croc you’re looking at is a eusuchian.

TL;DR: Koumpiodontosuchus is a cool new (small and cute) croc from the early Cretaceous of the Isle of Wight who, despite its size, manages to further challenge the taxonomic rules that define key groups of crocodylomorphs. Pretty cool, even if a tad unpronounceable.

Introducing TDS: A new way to R&R!

Hello world. The first thing this blog will do is apologise for two ridiculous abbreviations:

  1. TDS: The Dino Sirs
  2. R&R: Ryan & Richard (also rest & recuperation, pun)

This is indeed a joint blog run by two palaeontologists (in training currently, see more here): me (Ryan) and Richard (not me). We understand that trying to get a grasp of palaeontology through the primary literature can be frightful, attempting to wade through literature  full of ridiculous abbreviations (example). It’s also full of needlessly long names (example) and superfluous grammatical rules. So, we’d like to give the ‘bloggosphere’ (you) a relaxed summary of all the new and exciting palaeontological goodness that’s going on. We’d also like to give you an insight into what palaeontologists get up to (Hint: procrastination), and how to (if you’re super keen like us two) get into it. Finally, we love a lot of palaeo-blogs (Tet Zoo, SPVOW, WIJF, Pterosaur.net, Theropoda, DHAM to name a few), so we thought we’d give it a good go.

But wait, there’s more! We’ve got lots more (potentially) in the pipeline, including:

  • Guest bloggers!
  • Vertebrate of the Week!
  • FAQ’s!
  • Weekly news!
  • Palaeontology for Dummies!
  • And much more!

We can’t promise (unlike the name suggests, that was just a tasty morsel to catch your attention, apologies) they’ll be dinosaurs all the time. But we can promise (sort of) that we’ll keep you up to date with the latest palaeontological news as and when it happens. Oh, and silly, vaguely related things Richard and I get up to.

Until then, sit back, R (follow us on Twitter) &R.

(And then groan, as that abominable pun-reiteration was awful. To compensate here’s some dinosaurs:)

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