I have a lot on at the moment, so getting this finished wasn’t easy – but I managed it. Here we are with the rest of my recollections from ‘Dinosaurs (and other extinct saurians) – A Historical Perspective’, held at Burlington House (home of the Geological Society of London) on May 6th and 7th (part I here). This time round we look at the second day of talks, as well as the posters and whatever else I can think to write about…
So, the day kicked off with Phil Currie’s talk on the history of dinosaur hunting in Asia. Yes, Phil Currie. After talking about the AMNH expeditions of the 1920s, Phil discussed the Chinese excavations of the 1930s and 40s, the USSR expeditions of the 1940s (in one year they removed more than a hundred tons of dinosaur bones), the Sino-Soviet expeditions of 1959 and 1960, the Polish expeditions of 1963-1971, and others. A lot of stuff, a lot of dinosaurs! Darren Tanke was up next, with ‘Lost en route to England: the 1916 sinking of the SS Mount Temple and her Canadian dinosaur cargo’. Darren has gathered a huge amount of information about the SS Mount Temple, its history, and what happened to it on December 6th 1916. It was a story involving banana shipments, U-boats, examination of old photos, archaeology of Canadian dig sites, and lost dinosaur fossils. Geoff Tresise and Alan Bowden spoke about changing views on Chirotherium trackways, and on the sorts of environments the trackways are preserved in.
Christopher Ries discussed Gerhard Heilmann’s (1859-1946) ideas and achievements: an incredibly gifted natural history artist, Heilmann produced outstanding drawings and paintings of living animals, and also designed coins and notes. He struggled with religion and eventually rejected it (he even had a go at reconstructing angels, as you can see from the adjacent photo), and corresponded with several experts as he became increasingly interested in avian origins, developing his ideas in parallel with those of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. We were then back to pterosaurs, with David Unwin examining the question ‘Are we making progress?’. The answer was a resounding yes, with agreement now reached on most of the major issues once deemed problematical in pterosaur research (cough pteroid orientation cough), and with awesome new discoveries in the Lower Cretaceous of China and elsewhere helping to fill in at least some of the gaps in pterosaur evolutionary history. Octávio Mateus then spoke about the history of dinosaur work in Portugal: one interesting snippet was that Upper Jurassic dinosaur tracks from Cabo Espichel, exposed on a vertical cliff face, were interpreted in the 15th century as having been made by the donkey that carried the Virgin Mary (cue picture of Mary riding on the back of a dinosaur, I kid you not). Vanda Santos and Luís Rodrigues also covered this story on their poster. At the end of Octávio’s talk, Peter Wellnhofer expressed his opinion that the cf. Archaeopteryx teeth described from Guimarota by Weigert (1995) cannot really be from Archaeopteryx because they possess serrations.
Peter Wellnhofer summarised the Archaeopteryx story, finishing with a brief discussion of his new book on the subject (he had a copy with him). I learnt in discussion that an English version is planned, and will appear not too far in the future. Cevdet Kosemen (with John Conway) gave a great talk on ‘Visualising pterosaurs’, although actually it was on ‘pterosaurs through the ages’ I suppose. With excellent new reconstructions (and not the same old boring ones we all know so well), they discussed Newman’s marsupial bats, Wagler’s aquatic flippered Pterodactylus, the scaly-skinned reptilian pterosaurs of the early 20th century, and, finally, different modern renditions of pterosaurs. Of course the biggest surprise (for most people in the audience) was Pterodactylus as imagined by Dave Peters: a flamboyant, bipedally walking lizard with ultra-narrow wings, elaborate cranial and dorsal crests, and a long tail [Kosemen and Conway depiction of such shown here]. Few people outside of pterosaur research are familiar with Dave’s view of pterosaurs (for a little more on this issue go here), and there was an appropriate amount of gasping and swooning from some quarters of the audience. Kosemen and Conway also displayed a poster that showcased these different models. Attila Ösi discussed three Solnhofen pterosaur specimens stored in Hungarian collections. One is the supposedly lost ‘Pester Exemplar’ holotype of Pterodactylus micronyx Meyer, 1859. Donated to the Budapest University by Archduchess Maria Anna (1738-1789) in 1781, it therefore predates Collini’s 1784 description of P. antiquus.
In the final talk session of the entire meeting, Jean Le Loeuff looked at Mathurin Méheut’s artwork (in 1943 Méheut produced a fairly surreal painting titled Les Diplodocus), and Allison Ksiazkiewicz spoke about… about.. well, I’m not entirely sure, but it was something to do with how viewers interpret the gaze of ancient animals as depicted in artwork. And, in the very last talk of the conference, Jeff Liston provided an outstanding overview of how the dinosaur renaissance was depicted in the comics and books of the 1970s. A 1977 story from 2000 A.D., ‘Flesh’, has Late Cretaceous theropods ganging up on villainous humans who have come back in time to harvest herbivorous dinosaurs. Led by the matriarchal tyrannosaur Old One Eye, a coalition of tyrannosaurs and spinosaurs co-operated: where else could you hear the line ‘From the north came the furry tyrannosaurs’? Important is that the story incorporated Deinonychus. So agile, furry dinosaurs had infiltrated popular culture pretty soon after Bakker’s early articles (Bakker 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975). Halstead’s The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs (a formative volume for my young self) included a lot of this new stuff (even if Halstead himself strongly disagreed with it), with the excellent paintings of Giovanni Caselli depicting such things as a furry Sordes, an agile Deinonychus, and even a running tyrannosaur (Halstead 1975). At least some sci-fi stories of the 1970s pre-empted ‘Jurassic Park’ in just about all of the key details.
So that’s it for the talks. There were also quite a few posters at the meeting. Dick Moody and I displayed one on the contributions of Alan Charig (1927-1997), John Sibbick and colleagues had one on reconstructing Baryonyx, and there were many others. Niels Bonde’s poster, on new anatomical details gleaned from some of the Archaeopteryx specimens, included the startling news that the London Archaeopteryx might possess an alula: it is reported that reviewers and editors have been hostile to this idea and hence have prevented its publication. Niels also contends that the vertebral and pelvic pneumatisation reported previously (Christiansen & Bonde 2000), and later called into question (O’Connor 2006), is indeed genuine.
On the Thursday morning, a select elite set out from London and headed to the Isle of Wight, where brilliant weather (a bit too brilliant I think) provided us with excellent viewing conditions for our coastal excursion. We looked at the iguanodontian tracks at Hanover Point, at exposed plant debris beds, and at some neat land slips, but didn’t find any tetrapod fossils. More interesting were the water buffalo, llamas and helmeted guinea-fowl that inhabit the island… I’m not joking! And on the Friday we visited Dinosaur Isle Museum: I had hoped to give a sort of guided tour, but this proved simply impossible because of the constant chorus of loud animal noises made by the museum’s overhead system. It’s a neat museum for Wealden dinosaurs: the holotypes of Neovenator [shown below] and Eotyrannus are on display, as is the Barnes High brachiosaur, ‘Angloposeidon’, an awesome Goniopholis specimen, and much else [image above shows the so-called 'pink iggy']. For some reason they have a display of replica primate skulls and an exhibition on Paul Sereno, both of which look totally out of place.
All in all, the entire conference ran smoothly and was a great success. I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it, and everyone else I spoke to said likewise. We were supported, not only by the Geological Society’s History of Geology Group, but also by the Dinosaur Society (which does still exist) and some oil companies. It was a neat social gathering, and special thanks to those who attended after hearing about the meeting here at Tet Zoo. Thanks also to the kind individuals who provided me with bed and board, and to Dick Moody and the other organisers for making it all happen.
Yikes, have to be up in three hours…
Refs – –
Bakker, R. T. 1968. The superiority of dinosaurs. Discovery 3 (2), 11-22.
– . 1971. Dinosaur physiology and the origin of mammals. Evolution 25, 636-658.
– . 1972. Anatomical and ecological evidence of endothermy in dinosaurs. Nature 238, 81-85.
– . 1975. Dinosaur renaissance. Scientific American 232 (4), 58-78.
Christiansen, P. & Bonde, N. 2000. Axial and appendicular pneumaticity in Archaeopteryx. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 267, 2501-2505.
Halstead, L. B. 1975. The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs. Peter Lowe, London.
O’Connor, P. 2006. Postcranial pneumaticity: an evaluation of soft-tissue influences on the postcranial skeleton and the reconstruction of pulmonary anatomy in archosaurs. Journal of Morphology 267, 1199-1226.
Weigert, A. 1995. Isolated teeth of cf. Archaeopteryx sp. from the Upper Jurassic of the coalmine Guimarota (Portugal). Neues Jahrbuch fur Geologie und Paläontologie, Monatshefte 1995, 562-576.