For my shame, I had never been to Ireland prior to last week. That’s so crap that I became pretty determined to attend the 56th SVPCA, hosted by the National Museum of Ireland at Dublin, and I’m glad I did. You know, because of the giant deer, hornbills and pliosaurs [montage here shows specimens from the (currently closed) National Museum of Ireland (Natural History). The middle skeleton is a Notoryctes]…
Here I’m going to do a very speedy review of most (but far from all) of the presentations given at the meeting. There was a reasonable amount of non-tetrapod stuff that I won’t, of course, be covering, but by the end of the first day we were into crurotarsan archosaurs and that’s where I’ll begin… specifically, with Julia Desojo’s review of the taxonomy of Brazilian rauisuchians. Prestosuchus chiniquensis has a pretty horrible taxonomic history but is valid, being diagnosed by characters in the mandible, scapulocoracoid and pelvis. ‘P’. loricatus is also valid but requires a new genus and is not close to P. chiniquensis. Procerosuchus is a juvenile P. chiniquensis, Rhadinosuchus is a juvenile proterochampsid, and Hoplitosuchus is based on indeterminate scraps that could be from just about anything.
Marco Brandalise de Andrade spoke about goniopholidids, focusing on a new specimen referred to Goniopholis simus from the Intermarine Member of the Purbeck Limestone Group. Goniopholidid specimens from around the world have been referred to Goniopholis but it looks unlikely that many of them really belong there and a big taxonomic revision is still needed. Goniopholidids were pretty much the first crocodyliforms to (at least superficially) resemble the extant crocodilians we’re familiar with.
Two speakers looked at pterosaurs. One was me: the talk was basically an attempt to present the azhdarchid research to a conference audience, though I had initially planned to focus more on the avian analogues Mark and I looked at during our research. I still remain surprised that so little work has been done on the functional morphology of hornbills, storks, herons, pelicans and so on. We might still have questions about azhdarchids before we properly understand them (quite why the neck was so stiff and straight remains unknown, for example), but we have a long way to go before we’ve properly documented the functional morphology and behaviour of their extant analogues [slide from the talk shown here]. The second pterosaur talk was given by Dave Unwin, and it concerned the new lonchodectid currently (I believe) in press and soon to appear. Without giving the game away, I will say that Dave provided strong support for the terrestrial foraging lifestyle that Mark and I have envisioned for azhdarchids: the big deal is that this way of life might be even more widespread within pterodactyloids than has hitherto been realised. More on this soon. It’s worth noting here that the pterosaur research community is currently in shock following the recent arrest of one of our colleagues. The charges are about as serious as they could be.
Moving now to dinosaurs… let me say to begin with that this was certainly not a dinosaur-themed meeting. Ornithischians essentially had no presence and sauropodomorphs were only really the subject of one talk: Koen Stein’s on the bone histology of Magyarosaurus. This work confirms that small Magyarosaurus individuals are indeed adult, with an almost completely remodelled cortex. A large bone argued by Le Loeuff (2005) to be a big adult of Magyarosaurus and to therefore undermine the dwarfism hypothesis has a distinct histology compared to dwarf M. dacus and was identified as representing a distinct taxon.
Moving now to theropods, Christophe Hendrickx showed how spinosaurid quadrates from Morocco appeared to represent two taxa, their morphological details showing that the jaw rami expanded laterally when the jaw opened. As in pelicans and ornithocheiroid pterosaurs, this is presumably an adaptation allowing large prey items to be swallowed. Eric Buffetaut discussed a new avian vertebra discovered in Upper Paleocene sediments of the Paris basin. Representing an ostrich-sized animal, it is very distinct from the palaeognath Remiornis and the anseriform Gastornis, meaning that – strange as it might seem – Paleocene Paris was home to three highly distinct, gigantic flightless birds. Gareth Dyke looked at egg size across birds and how it related to altriciality and precociality. Bent Lindow spoke about the avian assemblage from the Eocene Lillebaelt Clay Formation of Denmark: it includes a pelagornithid, lithornithids, and a bizarre new taxon with a massive, hook-tipped bill. It looked vaguely like some sort of weird musophagid, but nobody yet knows what it is. Finally on theropods, Dave Waterhouse gave an overview of the psittaciform fossil record: essentially the talk version of Waterhouse (2006) [adjacent image is a pretty pointless photo of people milling around outside the venue. Dave Unwin is on the left. Dave Waterhouse and Adam Smith are in there too].
As for synapsids, coverage of both non-mammals and mammals was pretty good. We had an excellent review talk on bat phylogeny and evolution by Emma Teeling (sometimes referred to by the press as ‘bat woman’ [evidence]). Tom Kemp showed how chiniquodontid eucynodonts had a mammal-like cerebellum but a brain that was otherwise tiny and very unlike the mammalian brain. Ian Corfe looked at dental complexity in tritylodontids and other ‘high fibre plant feeders’. Tritylodontids and several other complex-toothed Mesozoic tetrapod clades (including rhynchosaurs and multituberculates) may have processed plant materials similar in fibre content to modern bamboos. Pam Gill compared the lower jaws of the contemporaneous basal mammaliaforms Morganucodon and Kuehneotherium. Robert Asher discussed the search for morphological synapomorphies that might unite afrotherians. It seems that delayed eruption of the adult dentition is a shared feature of the clade: Wilhelm Leche had noted as early as 1907 that tenrecs and golden moles retained their deciduous teeth until very late in their lives, as is well known for hyraxes (they still have milk teeth at age 6, despite only living for about 12 years), sirenians and elephants. In addition to testicondy and an increased number of thoracolumbar vertebrae, it is looking like we have another morphological synapomorphy for Afrotheria then (Asher & Lehmann 2008).
In an admittedly radical departure from the normal sequence of talks at these sorts of meetings, Mesozoic marine reptiles came last. This is because the decision was made to place emphasis on the excellent Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni holotype specimen owned by the National Museum of Ireland (Natural History) [skull shown here, from The Plesiosaur Directory]. I imagine that Mike A. Taylor, who had to leave the meeting long before the end of the last day, was not too happy about this.
Anyway, Richard Forrest discussed the rich record of bite marks known from plesiosaurs. These suggest the presence of distinct attack modes in the Lower, Middle and Upper Jurassic, perhaps indicating different predation styles among rhomaleosaurs, Liopleurodon (Middle Jurassic) and Pliosaurus (Upper Jurassic). Les Noè reviewed the tortuous taxonomic history of Eurycleidus arcuatus from the uppermost Triassic or lowermost Jurassic of Street, Somerset. Adam Stuart Smith examined the possibility that plesiosaurs (or, some plesiosaurs anyway) may have had a caudal fin. The Yorkshire holotype of Rhomaleosaurus zetlandicus includes a complete tail: the distal-most caudals are laterally compressed (unlike the others) and associated with a subtle kink in the caudal sequence. Could this be evidence for a caudal fin? We also had talks earlier on in the meeting about pachypleurosaurs and nothosauroids, both of which need coverage here on Tet Zoo at some stage.
While that’s certainly not a complete summary, it does cover most of the highlights. Among the posters, my favourites included Jenny Clack and Jozef Klembara’s on the chroniosuchids, a Permo-Triassic group posited by these authors to be basal embolomeres (or, at least, close to embolomeres) and to have lived like semi-aquatic crocodilians.
After the talks we went into the field: to Ballybetagh Bog in Co. Wicklow, a famous Megaloceros locality. Before that we stopped off at the Beggars Bush store which is where, among other things, lots of those Megaloceros are kept. I’ve seen many Megaloceros fossils, but I’ve never got to handle them, and it was great to actually pick up some of those antlers and see what they felt like. For their size, I didn’t think they were that heavy, actually: about what you’d expect if you took, say, a fallow deer antler and super-sized it. I’m still slightly peeved that Megaloceros is consistently being depicted as like a big, shaggy red deer when cave art shows that this giant, highly cursorial animal had a dark shoulder hump, and was mostly light-coloured with horizontal striping on the neck and running along the body (Geist 1999).
And, finally, with the meeting finished, Emma-Louise Nicholls and I took the opportunity to look round Dublin Zoo (Emma works on sharks, but I still tolerate her company). Dating back to 1833, the zoo appears to have down-sized a bit in recent decades, but still has a pretty reasonable collection, and firsts for me included Arctic fox Vulpes (or Alopex) lagopus and (how relevant) Abyssinian or Northern ground hornbill Bucorvus abyssinicus. I was saddened to hear the story of Linda the hippo, who died in 2002 after swallowing a tennis ball thrown into her enclosure by a kind and thoughtful person. Her death left her 14-month-old baby orphaned. After leaving the zoo I ended up touring the whole city. I walked much of the Liffey, visited the Guinness brewery, the U2 recording studio, the Grand Canal, and Colin Farrell’s apartment. Earlier on in the meeting, and in homage to an episode of Father Ted, I successful got lost inside the labyrinthine depths of the city’s Marks & Spencer. Anyway.. as per usual I owe a substantial debt of thanks to those who helped me out in attending this meeting, or provided bed and board, moral support, or alcohol. Special thanks to Gareth, Julia, Leo and Kaz, but also to Paolo, Remmert, Steve Sweetman and Yas. Thank you, thank you all.
Refs – –
Asher, R. J. & Lehmann, T. 2008. Dental eruption in afrotherian mammals. BMC Biology 2008, 6:14 doi:10.1186/1741-7007-6-14
Geist, V. 1999. Deer of the World. Swan Hill Press, Shrewsbury.
Le Loeuff, J. 2005. Romanian late cretaceous dinosaurs: big dwarfs or small giants? Historical Biology 17, 15-17.
Waterhouse, D. M. 2006. Parrots in a nutshell: the fossil record of Psittaciformes (Aves). Historical Biology 18, 223-234.