Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Progressive Palaeontology Conference - #ProgPal15

Not actually us, but I'd like to think we
looked like this (Image GETTY)
ProgPal began in a beer garden – well, for some of us at least. Just around the corner from the University of Bristol’s new metal and glass-clad Life Sciences Building, approximately twenty early-career palaeontologists were soaking in the generous April sunshine sipping cold drinks. We were fretting over upcoming talks and last minute poster collections, but excited by the days ahead.

Progressive Palaeontology is often the first conference palaeontologists actively participate in, myself included. It is supported by the Palaeontological Association, but organised and run by postgraduate students at a different host University each year. Bristol’s organising committee, headed by Joe Keating and Benjamin Moon (of University Challenge fame), had put together a great three day line-up. We read through the abstracts and schedule in our registration packs while the cider fizzed.

The first event was an evening icebreaker in the spectacular Sky Lounge. You know you’ve spoiled your faculty when their common room has a name like that. Perched on top of the Life Sciences Building with the city shimmering in the heat below, the Sky Lounge was the perfect place for us to rub shoulders. Out on the balcony (yes, you heard me, balcony) we even spotted a hot air balloon. There were ales and snacks for all, with the party continuing at other locations into the night.

The Life Science Building at Bristol Uni, with glass Sky Lounge on top.
Article on the building here.

Inevitably, some participants were less than in prime physical and mental condition the next morning. We arrived clutching our poster tubes like science guns, ready to fire them up on poster-boards before being ushered into the lecture theatre. Professor Mike Benton opened proceedings, then the talks got underway. 

No one envies the person who has to go first. Steve Zhang, one of our Bristol MSci’s, had to break the sessions in with a talk about tooth microwear in Chinese proboscideans. He did a great job, talking us through distribution patterns for species such as Stegodon and their subsequent replacement by modern Elephas, before explaining how Principle Component Analysis (PCA) could distinguish grazers from browsers. Hot on his heels another Bristol MSci, Suresh Singh, explained his research exploring mandible shape in Canids using 3D morphometrics.

From here we travelled through time to different parts of the world, looking at almost every animal group and using every investigative method in Palaeo-science. ProgPal veteran Jon Tennant talked about “the coolest archosaurs”, Crocodyliformes, and their extinction and diversity through the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary. He declared it was “not a good time to be a crocodile”, with around 85% of terrestrial taxa going extinct. Elspeth Wallace took a different approach to crocs, examining tooth and skull morphology to ask how three species of these dino-munchers could have coexisted in the Hell Creek Formation.

"The coolest archosaurs" according to @protohedgehog

Because ProgPal is run and attended mainly by young upcoming palaeontologists, the atmosphere is relaxed. Many attendees have only just begun their careers in research, and have come to talk about the topics they are exploring and questions they want to answer, rather than presenting results and arguments. There were also some speakers who tackled the issue of data-bias during their talks, including Cormac Kinsella in his session on the macroevolution of Triassic tetropods, and Kara Ludwig’s literature-based cynodont research. It was refreshing and comforting to know that other researchers stress about these issues, and to hear ways in which they combat bias.

The diversity of interests was reflected in sessions such as David Carpenter’s exploration of O2 levels during Romer’s Gap. He is examining charcoal deposits in sedimentary rock produced in naturally occurring wildfires. This charcoal has a higher reflectance than the surrounding rocks, and this reflectance directly correlates with the temperature of the fire that produced it. He reasons that examining this barbecued fossil record can shed light on environmental conditions during a poorly understood portion of life on earth. 

Wild fires of the Carboniferous (Image from here). For more info on
charcoal in the fossil record, listen to this palaeocast.

I’d chickened out of a talk, which I now regret, but my fellow MSc Palaeobiology student, Rob Brocklehurst, took to the stage with the “sexiest fish heads” of 2015, talking about his biomechanical exploration of biting versus suction-feeding in fish. Richard Dearden’s fishy supertree was a sight to behold, while Hermoine Beckett introduced me to the wonders of the tripod fish: where Aulopiform meets War of the Worlds. She works on fish that were collected from English chalk beds that used to be mined by hand. Tragically, due to mining mechanisation, few specimens are recovered today.

Bathypterois grallator. Watch the Tripod fish on youtube.

I’ve put many snotty tissues through the washing machine, but never a polychaete worm. Orla B Enright’s video of her worm-washing experiments outlined a novel way to explore the potential depositional environments of the Burgess Shale biota. With the audience still smiling over this idea, James Flemming took to the stage with dire warnings of spiders, followed by mentioning the guaranteed giggle of penis worms. Audience suitably stirred, he treated us to an exploration of colour vision in ecdysozoa.

A break allowed those presenting posters to man the helm and answer questions. I enjoyed the chance not only to discuss my own work on carnivore ankle bones and what they can tell us about locomotion in extinct taxa, but share fantastic conversations on subjects ranging from Japanese spiders to Neolithic human osteology. The youngest attendee was a student from a secondary school in Somerset. The teacher attending with him asked me to talk them through my poster; it was great fun to stretch my public science communication skills again.

Who is this giant crazy woman? A chance to chat about my ongoing research.

During the poster session there was also much talk about Virginia Harvey’s presentation about her research on cave deposits in the Cayman Islands. She outlined the tragic human-caused extinction of all native mammal fauna. Cave palaeontology is exciting stuff, and not a bad part of the world to work in either. She wasn’t the only one working on material from exotic parts of the world: we had Palaeozoic terranes of Japan (Christopher Stocker), Estonia’s acritarch microfossils (Heda Agic), and the small-shelly fossils of the Neptune mountain range of Antarctica (Lewis Bassett-Butt). The coverage was global.

My favourite talk of the day had to be Joao Muchagata Duarte’s. He presented seven theories to explain the strange bony growth in the skull of the extinct whale Globicetus, a Ziphid similar in appearance to today’s beaked whales, to which it is related. However, Globicetus’s lump of bone is plonked directly in front of the melon, exactly where it would surely have obstructed echolocation signals. It was too soft for effective head-butting, so what was it for? Joao favours the possibility of sexual display, and is about to embark on research to test this theory. 
Globicetus a stunning oddity of the extinct whale world. What's with the
knobbly head? (Image from here)

And here the day ended for me in a long bus ride across Bristol, wrapped in theories about all the things I'd heard. For others it moved on to the pub, then dinner and an auction. The following day some delegates also joined a field trip to several local fossil sites. I have food for thought for weeks to come, and can't wait for the next conference.

#ProgPal15 - the delegates! Well done everyone, it was a great conference!

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