Best. Conference. Ever.
December 12, 2011
I’m just back from a three-day conference in Bonn, Germany, which I unhesitatingly nominate as the best I’ve ever been to. To begin with, the subject was a guaranteed winner: sauropod gigantism. I can hardly overstate how awesome it was to hear 43 talks about or relevant to sauropod gigantism (sixteen on the first day, fifteen on the second and twelve on the third). For another thing, it was one of those rare occasions where all three SV-POW!sketeers got together — I think the fourth or fifth time ever. For yet another, I met honorary SV-POW!er Ranger Vanessa Graff and Brontomerus artist Francisco “Paco” Gasco for the first time. And it’s always good to spend time with people like biomechanics wizard John Hutchinson and occasional SV-POW! guest-blogger Heinrich Mallison. (Apologies to those I’ve not mentioned by name: lots of good people!)
The meeting was The 2nd International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism: a public meeting of DFG Research Unit 533 “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs”. That’s a mostly German group, headed by Martin Sander, which has been working for nearly eight years on multiple lines towards understanding the evolution of gigantism. Along the way, that group has produced 105 publications and counting, including a very nice hardcover volume Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants, available for the reasonable price of £40 [amazon.co.uk] or $50 [amazon.com]. (Compare with the price of £95 [amazon.co.uk] or $190 [amazon.com] for the comparably sized Geological Society volume on the history of dinosaur palaeontology. Hang your head in shame, GeolSoc.) Maybe most importantly, the group published a big synthesis paper at Biological Reviews that is freely available, and which everyone interested in sauropod palaeobiology should read to understand the current state of the field. Although I certainly don’t agree with everything that’s been published by the group, overall it’s done excellent work and plenty of it. So it was a real privilege to be a part of this second public meeting. (Matt and I were also at the first, three years ago.)
Maybe the greatest thing about this meeting was the involvement of many scientists whose usual work is not on sauropods, but who were able to bring their expertise in other fields and apply it to sauropod-related problems. For example, Jurgen Hummel on on digestive energetics, Michael Fagan on biomechanical modelling, Tom Schanz on soil mechanism (and implications for interpreting tracks) and Jennifer McElwain on plant growth in simulated palaeoatmospheres. The word “interdisciplinarary” is bandied around a lot, but this conference really fulfilled that description. That’s truly helpful: for example, five minutes’ conversation with people who actually understand digestive energetics saved me weeks or months of what would have turned out to be fruitless work on the Nourishing Vomit Of Eucamerotus hypothesis.
Another huge benefit of working with scientists who have other specialisations is the ability to triangulate on a problem. For example, in my talk on how little we truly know about sauropod necks, I mentioned that we don’t know whether their intervertebral joints were fibrocartilaginous, like those of mammals and crocs, or synovial, like those of birds. I had been hoping to get a student working on comparative dissections of birds and crocs in the hope of identifying osteological correlates that might allow us to recognise relevant indications in sauropod bones. But Martin Sander pointed out that histological analysis of the preserved osseous articular surfaces might allow us to tell directly what kind of joint was used — an approach that would never have occurred to me.
So: scientists who know about things other than sauropods. Recommended.
Unlike most conferences, this one allowed time for discussion after each talk — something that made a huge difference. The slots allocated were each 30 minutes long, but speakers were asked to use only half of that time. In practice, many talks ran twenty minutes or so, but nevertheless the kind of discussion that you get in ten minutes is qualitatively different from the rather perfunctory one-quick-question-and-move-on that you get at most meetings. It was in those intervals that a lot of important ambiguities were clarified, misunderstandings remedied, and ideas explored. (I’d love to see this become more widespread, but of course I understand the difficulty of fitting all the talks into the programme at a larger conference like SVPCA. Not to mention SVP.)
Unsurprisingly, highlight talks for me included those by Matt (reviewing the last three years’ developments in pneumaticity, and considering the way forward) and Darren (presenting our no-necks-for-sex work in a way that was both persuasive and funny).
But perhaps the talk I enjoyed most was Vanessa’s on neck support hypotheses (ligament, pneumatic stabilisation, ventral compressing bracing, muscle). It’s only the second time she’s presented at a conference, and the first time ever in palaeo. Having workshopped the content of the talk extensively, first with Matt, then with both of us, she then prepared the presentation within an inch of its life and did a fine job of delivering it.
There is good news for the 6,999,999,940 of you who missed this conference: the sessions were all recorded on video, and will hopefully become available shortly. And there will be a proceedings volume — exact venue to be announced, but we have some good options. Matt, Vanessa and I will all contribute to this. (Darren won’t, of course, since his talk was describing already-published research.)
And more good news for the future: although the funding for DFG Research Unit 533 is coming towards an end — it has about a year left to run — the people who have been running it are keen to hold a 3rd International Workshop, in maybe three years’ time. It’s not clear yet where the funding will come from, but let’s hope they come up with something!
… and a correction to Taylor et al. (2009)
One point that came up in Kent Stevens’ talk was a factual correction to something we wrote in our 2009 neck-posture paper, and it seems right that we should put it on the record. We wrote (Taylor et al. 2009:216) that:
Physical manipulation of the mounted Diplodocus skeleton DMNH 1494, by Ken Carpenter, resulted in a mounted posture in which the neck is extended farther vertically and horizontally than is allowed by Stevens and Parrish’s digital model (personal observation). Since the neck of this mount is a cast of the Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, the very same individual used by Stevens and Parrish (1999), it is evident that the results of such computerised studies are not as objective as they may appear.
Regarding the provenance of the Denver Diplodocus mount, we were misled by the DMNH online catalogue. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be online any more, but this is the information it gave regarding the reconstructed portions:
Majority of specimen exhibited in Prehistoric Journey; skull cast from CM 1161, cervicals cast from CM 84, Left scapula, and L & R humeri, radii, & ulnae all cast from HMNS 175 (Houston Musuem of Natural Science), distal 6 caudals cast from Western Paleontology Laboratory specimen.
Kent has spoken to Ken Carpenter about this mount, and it turns out that while the majority of the neck is indeed a CM 84 cast, the last three or so posterior cervicals are from a different specimen — presumably DMNH 1494 itself — and are somewhat restored in plaster. Thanks to Kent for clearing this up.
(Regarding the rest of Kent’s talk: I’ll withhold comment until Kent publishes his criticisms.)
Update (the next day)
Thanks for John H. and Heinrich, who both tweeted the conference. You can (for now, anyway) read their comments, and a few by other people, in the saved messages under #SauroBonn. But I don’t know how long they last, and I don’t know a good way to save them. Can anyone help?