Burpee PaleoFest 2020: my last conference

March 8, 2021

Last spring I was an invited speaker at PaleoFest at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois. I meant to get these photos posted right after I got back. But I flew back from Illinois on Monday, March 9, 2020, and by the following weekend I was throwing together virtual anatomy labs for the med students. You know the rest. 

The wall of ceratopsians at the Burpee Museum. Every museum should have one of these.

I had a fantastic time at PaleoFest. The hosts were awesome, the talks were great, the Burpee is a cool museum to explore, and the swag was phenomenal.

An ontogenetic series of Triceratops skulls. Check out how the bony horn cores switch from back-curving to forward-curving. The keratin sheaths over the horn cores elongated, but they didn’t remodel, so adult trikes probably had S-curving horns.

I know I poke a lot of fun at non-sauropods around here, but the truth is that I’m a pan-dino-geek at heart. When I’m looking at theropods and ceratopsians I am mostly uncontaminated by specialist knowledge or a desire to work on them, so I can relax, and squee the good squee.

I’m a sucker for dinosaur skin. It’s just mind-blowing that we can tell more or less what it would feel like to pet a dinosaur.

Among the memorable talks last year: Win McLaughlin educated me about rhinos, which are a heck of a lot weirder than I thought; Larisa DeSantis gave a mind-expanding talk about mammalian diets, evolution, and environmental change; and Holly Woodward explained in convincing detail why “Nanotyrannus” is a juvenile T. rex.

The pride of the Burpee Museum: Jane, the juvenile T. rex.

But my favorite presentation of the conference was Susie Maidment’s talk on stegosaurs. It was one of the those great talks in which the questions I had after seeing one slide were answered on the next slide, and where by end of the presentation I had absorbed a ton of new information almost effortlessly, by  just listening to an enthusiastic person talk almost conversationally about their topic. And when I say “effortlessly”, I mean for the audience–I know from long experience that presentations like that are born from deep, thorough knowledge of one’s topic, deliberate planning, and rehearsal.

The big T. rex mount is pretty great, too.

That’s not to slight the other speakers, of course. All the talks were good, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off. Full credit to Josh Matthews and the organizing committee for putting on such an engaging and inspiring conference.

Did I say the swag was phenomenal? The swag was phenomenal. Above are just a few of my favorite things: a Burpee-plated Rite-in-the-Rain field notebook, a fridge magnet, a cool sticker, and at the center, My Precious: a personalized Estwing rock hammer. Estwing makes nice stuff, and a lot of paleontologists and field geologists carry Estwing rock hammers. Estwing is also based in Rockford, and they’ve partnered with the Burpee Museum to make these personalized rock hammers for PaleoFest, which is pretty darned awesome.

I already had an Estwing hammer–one of blue-grip models–which is good, because the engraved one is going in my office, not to the field. (If you’re wondering why my field hammer looks so suspiciously unworn, it’s because my original was stolen a few years ago, and I’m still breaking this one in. By doing stuff like this.)

There’s a little Burpee logo with a silhouette of Jane down at the end of the handle, so I had to take Jane to meet Jane.

Parting shot: I grew up in a house out in the country, about 2 miles outside of the tiny town of Hillsdale, Oklahoma, which is about 20 miles north of Enid, which is about 100 miles north-northwest of Oklahoma City. Hillsdale is less than an hour from Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, where you can go dig for selenite crystals like the ones shown above. The digging is only allowed in designated areas, to avoid unexploded ordnance from when the salt plains were used as a bombing range in World War II, and at certain times of year, to avoid bothering the endangered whooping cranes that nest there.

I don’t know how many times I went to Salt Plains to dig crystals as a kid, either on family outings or school field trips, but it was a lot. I still have a tub of them out in the garage (little ones, nothing like museum-quality). And there are nice samples, like the one shown above, in the mineral hall of just about every big natural history museum on the planet. One of my favorite things to do when I visit a new museum is go cruise the mineral display and find the selenite crystals from Salt Plains. I’ve seen Salt Plains selenite in London, Berlin, and Vienna, and in most of the US natural history museums that I’ve visited for research or for fun. The farm boy in me still gets a little thrill at seeing a little piece of northwest Oklahoma, from a place that I’ve been and dug, on display in far-flung cities.

I already credited Josh Matthews for organizing a fabulous conference, but I need to thank him for being such a gracious host. He helped me arrange transportation, saw that all my needs were met, kept me plied with food and drink, and drove me to Chicago, along with a bunch of other folks, for a Field Museum visit before my flight home, which is how I got this awesome photo, and also these awesome photos. Thanks also to my fellow speakers, for many fascinating conversations, and to the PaleoFest audience, for bringing their A game and asking good questions. I didn’t know that PaleoFest 2020 would be my last conference for a while, but it was certainly a good one to go out on.

12 Responses to “Burpee PaleoFest 2020: my last conference”


  1. […] A belated thank-you to Josh Matthews and the rest of the Burpee PaleoFest crew for a fun day at the FMNH back in March. I got home from that trip about 3 days before the pandemic quarantine started, so it’s waaaaay past time for me to blog about how awesome that trip was. Watch this space. UPDATE: hey, look, it only took me a third of a year this time! Link. […]

  2. Andrew Says:

    You northerners have your selenite. This Norman boy got a huge kick out of stumbling upon a rose rock at the BMNH! Hard to describe that feeling: something heartwarming about a couple locals meeting so far away from home, makes you feel not so far.

    Great post; sounds like a fun trip!

  3. oliveunicorn Says:

    That looks like so much fun. I miss going to museums .

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    First thing I thought when I saw that wall of ceratopsians was “Needs more Triceratops“. Then I scrolled down.

  5. Brad Lichtenstein Says:

    My, what a year! So many thanks for sharing, I do love the personal anecdotes that bring this stuff alive, in a human way at least. Better Nate than lever! And yes, that is phenomenal swag. I’m jealous, as if I have ever had a reason to use any of that. I’d prefer to use them on the Moon, but again, that goal seems far out of reach at this point in my life.

  6. arctometatarsus Says:

    PaleoFest is hands down one of my favorite events every year. Ironically I had to skip last year’s because the following weekend (hah!) I was leading a field class in Arizona (HAH!!!).

    The Burpee crew pulled off a wonderful virtual version of PaleoFest just last weekend.

  7. Matt Wedel Says:

    Andrew, I almost mentioned barite roses, which I also enjoy finding in out-of-state and foreign museums. In 2019 Brian Engh found a little barite rose in our field area in Utah, and I was pretty envious. I consoled myself with a big, knotty piece of petrified wood with bark (legally collected from BLM land).

  8. dale m. Says:

    Matt. Did Susie Maidments talk on stegosaurs have a URL that I could connect to? OMG, I would have loved to have taken that talk in!

  9. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi Dale, I don’t know that it was recorded at PaleoFest, but there might be a recorded version somewhere. I’ll ask Susie and let you know what I learn.

  10. Nessie Says:

    I was particularly impressed by the PaleoFest staff and presenters for the care and thought that they put into interactions with young learners and special needs individuals.

  11. ramon Says:

    Hmm. I’ve a young stegosaur fan in the house, I’d be interested in those to, just to show her.

  12. Matt Wedel Says:

    Folks, I checked with Susie about her stegosaur talk, and it is not online. But she said that she gives a version of it fairly regularly, so there is a good chance you could catch it in the future. Follow her on Twitter @tweetisaurus for updates.


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