This awesome photo was taken in the SVPCA 2019 exhibit area by Dean Lomax (L). On the right, Jessie Atterholt, me, and Mike are checking out some Isle of Wight rebbachisaurid vertebrae prepped by Mick Green, who is juuuust visible behind Dean. Jessie’s holding a biggish (as rebbachisaurids go) dorsal or caudal centrum and partial arch, me a lovely little cervical, and Mike an astonishingly delicate and beautiful dorsal. You can see behind us more tables full of awesome fossils, and there were more still across the way, behind Dean and Mick. I was going to throw this photo into the last post to illustrate the exhibit area, but by the time the caption had hit three lines long, I realized it needed a post of its own.

Photo courtesy of Dean, and used with permission. Mark your calendars: on Sunday, Oct. 13, Dean will be speaking at TEDx Doncaster, with a talk titled, “My unorthodox path to success: how my passion for the past shaped my future”. You can follow the rest of Dean’s gradual conquest of the paleosphere through his website, http://www.deanrlomax.co.uk/.

As usual I came back from SVPCA to a mountain of un-dealt-with day-job work, which is why it’s taken me so long to get this post done and up. I wanted to get it posted as quickly as I could decently arrange, because I had a fantastic time at this year’s meeting and I wanted to document a few reasons why, both to thank this year’s hosts and to perhaps inspire the organizers of future meetings.

A shot from the back of the banquet-hall-turned-lecture-theater during Mike’s talk.

1. Space

This year’s presentation space was unlike any I can remember from previous SVPCAs. Instead of being in a lecture hall, talks were held in a big ballroom, and attendees sat in chairs at big circular banquet tables. This had a LOT of positive effects: no edging along long rows of seats to get in or out between talks, easy discussion around and between the tables at the breaks, the opportunity for a group of people to sit together as a group (vs a line or same-facing block), plenty of space to set notebooks, laptops, papers, pens, drinks, etc. I realize that meeting space is probably one of the things that conference organizers have the least control over, but at least from what I saw this year I’d say the ballroom model works even better than the lecture hall model, so that’s a possible consideration for the future.

2. Time

Owing to the smaller-than-normal number of abstract submissions — possibly a function of the meeting being on an island rather than the, uh, somewhat larger island of Great Britain — everyone who asked for a talk got one, and the talk slots were long enough for full 15-minute talks and 5 minutes for questions. So the meeting seemed decompressed. No-one really rushed through their talks (although Mike did speak very quickly), and there was usually plenty of time for questions, and the all-important coffee top-up or between-breaks bio-refresh. I know that a fuller conference is in some ways a healthier conference, and I still maintain that if talks have to be trimmed at future meetings, established players like myself should take the hit so students and early-career-researchers can have some runway, but I still appreciated the more relaxed pace of this meeting.

3. Food and drink

Food and drink service was probably the best that I have experienced at a paleo conference, full stop. I wish I had taken a photo of the ranked rows of coffee cups on saucers, because they never ran out. I don’t think we ever ran out of coffee, either. A lunch of sandwiches, crisps, veggies, and hummus (edit: and cheese, lots of beautiful cheese!) was provided on Thursday and Friday all three days of the conference, and from what I saw, the lunches ran down to a bare handful of sandwiches at the very end but didn’t quite run out — and this was after everyone had ample opportunity to go back for more. Simply an outstanding job.

If I had one quibble, it was that the bar at Cowes Yacht Haven opened about five minutes before the start of Don Henderson’s Fox Lecture on Wednesday evening, without warning and after a lot of people (Mike and me included) had brought in drinks from outside, which we were then told we couldn’t drink on the premises. I realize that the opening and closing of the yacht club bar was probably outside the control of the organizers, but it was an annoyance for those of us who wanted to have a drink with the evening lecture.

4. Exhibitors

I admit to being disappointed when I realized that the meeting would be at Cowes rather than near the Dinosaur Isle museum in Sandown. We did get to visit the museum for the Tuesday evening icebreaker, but other than that we were in a different town entirely. The organizers’ clever solution was to bring the fossils to the paleontologists: several local collectors brought fossils for us to pore over on breaks and during poster time. This was particularly great for Mike, Jessie, and me, since so many of the fossils on display were from sauropods. Jessie and I were able to recognize neural canal ridges in the vertebrae of a rebbachisaurid for the first time, and we were able to use a brachiosaur caudal to demonstrate the ridges to Femke Holwerda, who then told us she’d seen them in a cetiosaur caudal. So our research made meaningful advancements because of the specimens on display, and we made useful contacts.

Speaking of Femke, her big Patagosaurus redescription has been accepted for publication at an OA outlet, so look for that most-welcome work in the not-too-distant future.

There were also paleoartists among the exhibitors, including John Sibbick, Mark Witton, and Luis Rey, among others, including some local artists. I picked up a nice print of a hand-drawn sauropod caudal by Trudie Wilson (this Trudie Wilson, not that Trudie Wilson, although I’m sure she’s a wonderful person too), which I need to do a whole post about, and will soon. I can’t remember now who proposed it, but someone remarked in one of the open sessions about how nice it was to have so much paleoart on display, and that maybe that was something that future meetings could lean into, including having paleoartists give talks about their art. That’s not unprecedented — John Conway and Bob Nicholls have both given presentations on paleoart at previous meetings, either in regular sessions or at evening social functions — but it is a great idea, and one I heartily endorse.

5. Proximity to everything else

Mike did sterling work finding an AirBnB house for a bunch of us (Mike, Darren, Mark Evans, Femke Holwerda, Jeff Liston, Mark Witton, Georgia Witton-Maclean, and Vicki and London and me) that was 300 feet from the entrance to Cowes Yacht Haven and about 700 feet from the banquet hall where the talks were held. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a short walk between my lodgings and the talk venue, even when I’ve stayed in the hotel where the conference was being held. There was also a Sainsbury’s grocery store, a bank of ATMs, and a bunch of restaurants within, seriously, a two-minute walk of the venue. I realize that this was also a lucky circumstance, not readily repeatable for other meetings that take place in museums or university lecture halls at some remove from commercial districts, but it sure was nice. If you had ten minutes, you could legit pop out to Sainsbury’s for some crisps or a beer, and be back at your seat with time to spare.

6. Loot

This one is purely personal, and mostly outside the organizers’ control. (Although they did carelessly put those exhibitors right in the path of my wallet, which fortunately was only running at about Category 3 this trip.) I’m only listing it here to guilt me into finishing the post (or posts) about the items I acquired on the trip, but folks, I did all right. More on that later.

So, a huge thank-you to the organizers of this year’s SVPCA for pulling off such a comfortable and enjoyable meeting. It was a gem. For more on what it was like, please see this post by Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at London’s Horniman Museum. If you know of other post-SVPCA conference reviews or retrospectives, please post them in the comments.

In a word, amazingly. After 6 days (counting public galleries last Sunday), 4300 photos, 55 videos, dozens of pages of notes, and hundreds of measurements, we’re tired, happy, and buzzing with new observations and ideas.

We caught up with some old friends. Here Mike is showing an entirely normal and healthy level of excitement about meeting CM 584, a specimen of Camarasaurus from Sheep Creek, Wyoming. You may recognize this view of these dorsals from Figure 9 in our 2013 PeerJ paper.

We spent an inordinate amount of time in the public galleries, checking out the mounted skeletons of Apatosaurus and Diplodocus (and Gilmore’s baby Cam, and the two tyrannosaurs, and, and…).

I had planned a trip to the Carnegie primarily to have another look at the Haplocanthosaurus holotypes, CM 572 and CM 879. I was also happy for the chance to photograph and measure these vertebrae, CM 36034, which I think have never been formally described or referred to Haplocanthosaurus. As far as I know, other than a brief mention in McIntosh (1981) they have not been published on at all. I’m planning on changing that in the near future, as part of the larger Haplocanthosaurus project that now bestrides my career like a colossus.

The real colossus of the trip was CM 555, which we’ve already blogged about a couple of times. Just laying out all of the vertebrae and logging serial changes was hugely useful.

Incidentally, in previous posts and some upcoming videos, we’ve referred to this specimen as Brontosaurus excelsus, because McIntosh (1981) said that it might belong to Apatosaurus excelsus. I was so busy measuring and photographing stuff that it wasn’t until Friday that I realized that McIntosh made that call because CM 555 is from the same locality as CM 563, now UWGM 15556, which was long thought to be Apatosaurus excelsus but which is now (i.e., Tschopp et al. 2015) referred to Brontosaurus parvus. So CM 555 is almost certainly B. parvus, not B. excelsus, and in comparing the specimen to Gilmore’s (1936) plates of CM 563, Mike and I thought they were a very good match.

Finding the tray of CM 555 cervical ribs was a huge moment. It added a ton of work to our to-do lists. First we had to match the ribs to their vertebrae. Most of them had field numbers, but some didn’t. Quite a few were broken and needed to be repaired – that’s what I’m doing in the above photo. Then they all had to be measured and photographed.

It’s amazing how useful it was to be able to reassociate the vertebrae with their ribs. We only did the full reassembly for c6, in part because it was the most complete and perfect of all of the vertebrae, and in part because we simply ran out of time. As Mike observed in his recent post, it was stunning how the apatosaurine identity of the specimen snapped into focus as soon as we could see a whole cervical vertebra put back together with all of its bits.

We also measured and photographed the limb bones, including the bite marks on the radius (above, in two pieces) and ulna (below, one piece). Those will of course go into the description.

And there WILL BE a description. We measured and photographed every element, shot video of many of them, and took pages and pages of notes. Describing even an incomplete sauropod skeleton is a big job, so don’t expect that paper this year, but it will be along in due course. CM 555 may not be the most complete Brontosaurus skeleton in the world, but our ambition is to make it the best-documented.

In the meantime, we hopefully left things better documented than they had been. All of the separate bits of the CM 555 vertebrae – the centra, arches, and cervicals ribs – now have the cervical numbers written on in archival ink (with permission from collections manager Amy Henrici, of course), so the next person to look at them can match them up with less faffing about.

We have people to thank. We had lunch almost every day at Sushi Fuku at 120 Oakland Avenue, just a couple of blocks down Forbes Avenue from the museum. We got to know the manager, Jeremy Gest, and his staff, who were unfailingly friendly and helpful, and who kept us running on top-notch food. So we kept going back. If you find yourself in Pittsburgh, check ’em out. Make time for a sandwich at Primanti Bros., too.

We owe a huge thanks to Calder Dudgeon, who took us up to the skylight catwalk to get the dorsal-view photos of the mounted skeletons (see this post), and especially to Dan Pickering, who moved pallets in collections using the forklift, and moved the lift around the mounted skeletons on Tuesday. Despite about a million ad hoc requests, he never lost patience with us, and in fact he found lots of little ways to help us get our observations and data faster and with less hassle.

Our biggest thanks go to collections manager Amy Henrici, who made the whole week just run smoothly for us. Whatever we needed, she’d find. If we needed something moved, or if we needed to get someplace, she’d figure out how to do it. She was always interested, always cheerful, always helpful. I usually can’t sustain that level of positivity for a whole day, much less a week. So thank you, Amy, sincerely. You have a world-class collection. We’re glad it’s in such good hands.

What’s next? We’ll be posting about stuff we saw and learned in the Carnegie Museum for a long time, probably. And we have manuscripts to get cranking on, some of which were already gestating and just needed the Carnegie visit to push to completion. As always, watch this space.

References

Four huge beasts

March 13, 2019

Left to right: Allosaurus fragilis, Apatosaurus louisae, Homo sapiens, Diplodocus carnegii.

Derrrrr

March 13, 2019

Separated at birth.

Left: Apatosaurus lousiae holotype CM 2018, cast skull associated with specimen. Right: Matt Wedel. Scientists have long wondered how such a bloated beast could etc. etc.

This one.

No time for a long post today, but there are a couple of cool developments I wanted to let you know about. The folks at the Barnes & Noble Settlers Ridge store in Pittsburgh got in touch and asked if I’d give a short talk and do a book signing while I’m in town. That will be this coming Sunday, March 10, at 1:00 PM, in the children’s section at that store, which is located at 800 Settlers Ridge Center Drive. They’ll have copies of my big sauropod book with Mark Hallett, and my kid’s book that came out last fall. Come on out if you’re in the area and interested.

And this one.

In other news, the excellent Medlife Crisis channel on YouTube recently did a video on the recurrent laryngeal nerve and gave a nice shout-out to my 2012 paper. The video is five minutes long and — in my heavily biased opinion — well worth a watch:

Here’s a frozen pig head being hemisected with a band saw.

The head in question, and the other bits we’ll get to later on in this post, both came from Jessie Atterholt’s Thanksgiving pig. As soon as Jessie knew she was cooking a pig for Thanksgiving, she had a plan for the head and the feet: cut ’em in half, skeletonize one half (like Mike did with his pig head), and plastinate the other. Jessie has her own plastination setup and you can see some of her work in her Instagram feed, here.

Here’s the freshly hemisected head. At one time or another, about four of us were involved in checking the alignment of the cut, with the intention of just missing the nasal septum (it can be easier to see some of the internal nasal anatomy if the septum’s all on one side). But we were all wrong–not only did the saw hit the nasal septum dead on, it hemisected the septum itself. Which I guess is the next-best possible outcome. The septum is the big expanse of white cartilage behind the nose and in front of the brain. You have one, too–it separates your left and right nasal cavities–but yours is a lot thinner.

Here’s the left half washed off and cleaned up a bit.

I was completely entranced by the little blood vessels inside the nasal septum, seen here as tiny traceries of red inside the blue-white cartilage. Also notice the frontal sinus above the septum and in front of the brain.

Here’s the right half in a postero-medial oblique view. Shown well here are the first two cervical vertebrae, plus part of the third, and the intervertebral joints. This was a young pig and the remains of growth plates are still visible between the different ossification centers of the vertebrae. If I get inspired (= if I get time) I might do a whole post on that.

It wasn’t my pig or my show, but Jessie made me a gift of two pig feet, and I got a little time on the saw. Here I’m using a plastic tool to push one of the pig’s hind feet through the saw.

We had been dithering over how best to prep the feet but the lure of the band saw proved irresistable: we hemisected all four. We’re planning to do half skeletonized/half plastinated preps for all of them, a forefoot and a hindfoot set for each of us.

Jessie and I were joined by two other WesternU anatomists, Thierra Nalley and Jeremiah Scott. Here Thierra is explaining to Jeremiah, who works on primate dentition and diet, that mammals have more parts than just teeth.

That’s a good segue to this video I shot, in which Thierra gives a quick tour of the hemisected pig head. All four of us have just come off of teaching human head and neck anatomy, so it was cool to see in another mammal the same structures we’ve just been dissecting in humans.

From 1:40 to 1:55 in the video Thierra and I are discussing the prenasal bone, something pigs have that we don’t. It’s the separate bone at the end of the snout in this mounted skeleton:

Darren discusses and illustrates the prenasal bone in this Tetrapod Zoology post.

Parting shots: many thanks to Ken Noriega and Tony Marino of WesternU’s College of Veterinary Medicine for their guidance, assistance, and expertise. Jessie covered this dissection as an Instagram story, here–I believe you have to be signed in to see it. Update: Jessie added a regular stream post, with lots of features labeled, here. I’ll probably have more to say about this pig and its bits in the future. Stay tuned!

For more hemisected heads and skulls, see: