Society of Vertebrate Paleontology – Berlin 2014

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What is the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology?

And why would a society of vertebrate paleontologists meet in Berlin?

svp berlin

There are many reasons why Berlin, Germany and the Museum für Naturkunde are perfect locations for a gathering of academic paleontologists.

First, a reminder for our readers: paleontologists are scientists who study the ancient record of life on Earth. They are different from their academic cousins, archaeologists, in that paleontologists are not quite so heavily involved in the study of human remains.

Paleontologists carry the weight of Earth’s deep past on their shoulders, and if it isn’t human, but was once a living thing, then they’re the ones responsible for bringing the fossils of those once-living things to life.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

While Jurassic Park may not be a reality any time soon, this annual meeting is nevertheless the place where cutting edge vertebrate paleontology research is presented and discussed among peers in fossil academia.

Vertebrate paleontologists are an even more specific breed of scientist. They study ancient animals with backbones, or vertebrae.

Yes, that includes dinosaurs, but the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s (SVP) annual meeting provides a forum for science communication through research posters, talks and symposia on a huge array of extinct vertebrate animals.

Some of the academic paleontologists at SVP study mammals, some study amphibians, some are experts in crocodilians. There are gorgonopsian gurus and pelycosaur professors, tenured pterosaur experts.

There are even doctors of dinosaur dung. (I’m looking at you, Dr. Karen Chin! She was my advisor in graduate school, and yes, our lab had a great sense of humor.)

This year’s meeting in Berlin was a tough one for many paleontologists to attend, due to the high cost of visiting Europe. Those who were in attendance were treated to all that Berlin has to offer, and some of the most famous specimens in paleontology.

Museum für Naturkunde

Museum fur Naturkunde. Image (c) Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Image (c) Museum fur Naturkunde
Berlin’s premier science museum is also historically significant. The building houses over a dozen major science exhibits that span paleontology, geology, astronomy and the life sciences, including the major hall shown above, which displays the incredible long-necked sauropod dinosaurs of East Africa.
During World War II the museum building was partially destroyed as Allied planes bombed Berlin, and many scientifically important specimens in their superb old mammal hall were shattered to pieces. The sail-backed carnivorous dinosaur Spinosaurus was also lost to science during the bombings, though recent discoveries have finally shed light on this incredibly fascinating creature.
Today the museum is a part of Germany’s historical register, and its collections are a huge part of the museum’s research mission.
The museum's exterior. Image (c) Museum fur Naturkunde
The museum’s exterior. Image (c) Museum fur Naturkunde
Museum fur Naturkunde
Animal taxidermy at the Museum fur Naturkunde. Image (c) Museum fur Naturkunde

 Archaeopteryx lithographica – An ancient bird and an amazing fossil animal

Image (c) Robert Gay
Image (c) Robert Gay

One of the most exciting reasons to visit Berlin, as a geek, a paleontologist and a science enthusiast, is to visit the famous Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica. This feathered dinosaur is one of the most famous fossils in the world, and sparked the first conjecture that birds and dinosaurs were closely related. In fact, birds are dinosaurs, but that is a topic for another post!

My Archaeopteryx tattoo.
My Archaeopteryx tattoo.

This specimen has also inspired yours truly to emblazon this emblem of change, impermanence, and the dinosaur-bird connection onto her back for all eternity. The wings do flap when I move my shoulders!

Someday, Jessi and I will make our way to Berlin to view this fantastic specimen. Until then, we will live vicariously through our paleontologist friends and colleagues.

Unparalleled Scientific Research

Every year, the SVP annual meeting hosts field trips to scope out the geology and paleontology of the local areas. This year the attractions spanned from the Jurassic Solnhofen limestones famous for the Archaeopteryx specimens, to the Eocene-aged Messel Pit site that wonderfully preserves the tropical world of Germany just after the extinction of most of the dinosaurs (except for birds, of course).

Research topics this year included determining the color of feathered dinosaurs–who knew we would ever find out what color dinosaurs were?–to skull adaptations in ancient dogs, new flying reptiles from Brazil, growth patterns in ancient fish, and the diversification of strange, clawed herbivorous mammals called chalicotheres.

A special series of symposia focused on Archaeopteryx and its scientific importance, and there are poster sessions for fossil preparators to share their knowledge about the proper cleaning and housing of vertebrate fossils.

If you’re interested in a little light reading, the entire journal of abstracts is available online for free.

Education and Outreach

One of the absolute best, and most recent, additions to the SVP meetings is the Education and Outreach poster session.

As writers for Outbound Adventurer, Jessi and I love sharing our passion for museums, education, and science outreach. We’ve written about paleontology digs in the U.S., and sponsored specific museum partners just for the joy of gushing about how important museums are to well-rounded and unbridled education.

Education and Outreach sessions provide a fantastic forum for scientists and educators alike to share their knowledge in experiential education, museum science, and paleontology outreach.

This year the Education and Outreach topics focused really strongly on bringing museums to the public, whether or not the public can get to a physical museum itself.

This feat is accomplished in many ways; through outreach fossil kits that bring museums to the classroom, paleontology field programs for high school students, interactive digital museum programs about the extinct Dodo bird, virtual field trips to museums, and utilizing podcasts to “flip” the classroom–sending lecture talks home with kids and thereby providing more time in class for concept discussion.

I’m also really pleased to be a co-author on one of those posters. Here’s a link to the research I’ve conducted in collaboration with Andy Farke of The Webb Schools and Robert Gay of Mission Heights Preparatory School. We’ve been looking closely at how digital fossil scans can be utilized for research projects in the classroom, and that’s a big focus of our brand new sister site, Outbound Edventurer, which we will be officially announcing shortly. But, you heard it first, here!

Social Media and Press Coverage

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting was covered this year by a number of outlets, so if you’re keen on learning more, please check out this archive of live reddit posts between paleontologists and the public.

Freelance science writer Brian Switek also provides a super look via the fantastic source called Dinologue at some of the goings-on at SVP, including interviews with paleontology researchers. He has a great blog called Laelaps which we have featured in the past.

The hashtag #2014SVP helped amateur paleontologists, educators, and researchers alike follow the events of SVP in Berlin on Twitter and Facebook.

giraffatitan - brian switek
Image (c) Brian Switek

Until next year in Dallas, SVP! Have you ever visited the Museum für Naturkunde? What is your favorite gathering of geekery? Get in touch with us, we’d love to hear your thoughts!

 Weekend Wanderlust, hosted by Outbound Adventurer

It's Dinovember, and we're celebrating with the Art of Archaeopteryx
How to Drive in Ireland: Making the most of an Irish road trip
  • Wait, did I really not leave a comment on this post despite promoting it in Twitter? Silly me! And I’m the first one to comment? I don’t understand why. Your posts are so interesting and funny, and well written to boot!

    I’ve never really been that interested in paleontology, but by accident visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History on the #NationalFossilDay and started looking at fossils more carefully and with greater interest. Thanks for writing a post about what’s of interest to paleontologists in Berlin, since I’d like to go to Berlin again some time, and I have not been to the Museum fur Naturkunde before.

    Love the tattoo photo as well! 😉

    • Ah, thank you so much for the RT, Jolanta, and for your kind words!

      Your blog is amazing, and I love the national park/museum slant! Gah, we need to geek out about this stuff together, more!

  • I can’t believe you don’t have any comments on this post yet! It’s smart and funny at the same time, and I nearly gasped when I saw your tattoo. A paleontologist with a tattoo! Wow. 🙂 No, I’m serious. I think it’s very cool.

    I’ve recently taken some pictures of fossils at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and after a chat with the curator on duty I’ve decided that paleontology is, after all, quite interesting, though I doubt I will ever remember all the time periods and names of the dinosaurs. But I do like looking at the fossils.

    Keep writing!