Every autumn, the annual ritual begins.
Nearly two-thousand vertebrate paleontologists descend on one unsuspecting city, ready to learn and lead in the field of ancient, fossilized animals with backbones.
And pretty regularly, I used to partake in that special time – when I had the means and the time to do so.
My career has taken many twists and turns, but my formal training has always been in vertebrate paleontology. My passion for science, for inquiry and ancient life, kept bringing me back to this field. And, after a four year hiatus finishing my Master’s and working as a high school anatomy teacher, I was able to return to meet with new friends and old at the Dallas meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The benefits of an academic conference like the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, or SVP as it’s affectionately known, are multi-fold. Although the conferences can be pricey to attend, they pay back in the form of networking, reconnecting with old friends and colleagues, sharing research in the forms of academic talks and posters, and engaging in scientific outreach with the local community. From field trips that help ancient rocks unfold their stories like a book, to workshops on how to communicate your research to the public, and from women in paleontology to student academic poster prizes for prowess, there is something at SVP that will appeal to every flavor of vertebrate paleontologist.
A Day in the Field
This was the first SVP where I was able to join one of the pre-conference field trips. This trip focused on the archosaur (dinosaur, crocodilian, bird) sites of metro-Dallas, including a trip to Dinosaur Valley State Park, the Arlington Archosaur Site, and a really neat dig site that focused on sauropods – the long-necked dinosaurs. The trip was led by Jim Farlow, Thomas Adams, Chris Noto, and Chris Strganac.
Above, Dr. Jim Farlow, a fossil track expert, leads the way as our intrepid crew starts to sweep the sediments of the Paluxy River! There are probably a couple of photos of me doing the same thing, floating about someplace. Have we mentioned that we love Dinosaur Valley State Park? Not to mention, tracks have followed me since I was an undergraduate, working with Dr. Margery Coombs at UMass Amherst. She was the recipient of this year’s award for Honorary Member, in recognition of her contributions to the study of fossil mammals.
Here’s our entire crew at the end of our field trip to a number of archosaur sites in Texas. You can find out all about our field trip at Victoria Arbour’s blog, right here! *waves* Hi, Victoria!
Of course, no field trip would be complete without an obligatory coprolite, much like the ones on which I conducted my Master’s research with Dr. Karen Chin. Unlike my tyrannosauroid poop, however, the fragment above was likely from a herbivore – it’s filled with plant bits.
Open Access Research
This year was also a hallmark year for open access in vertebrate paleontology research, meaning more people now have access to paleontological research papers than ever before. And, with the permission of various academic speakers in the daily conference research talks, members of SVP were able to live-Tweet snippets about the cutting edge research going on in the field.
Through a collaboration with the open access journal Public Library of Science, or PLOS, this trend is set to continue. Right now we are discussing the best ways to ethically and courteously share information at conferences like SVP, and where the future of open access is leading the way through vertebrate paleontology.
K-12 Education in Paleontology
An exciting thing I’d like to mention is that yours truly was able to give a small workshop to K-12 educators on methods to incorporate vertebrate paleontology research into their classrooms, through digital specimens that are available online. The talk was a lot of fun, and in talking with other paleontologists and educators it was clear that there is an interest and a need for more research-based projects in our classrooms.
We’ve already highlighted the work being done by our friends at Past Time, an interactive podcast and outreach program that once Skyped in to talk to my own former students in my classroom. And, I touched on last year’s SVP meeting in Berlin. But every year the envelope gets pushed a bit further, and the ways in which we understand ancient vertebrate life on our planet become more multifaceted. Not to mention, our ways of sharing this information with others.
During the SVP meeting, nostalgic items are auctioned for fun, and museum-quality specimens are bid on by museum representatives – like this ancient giant crocodilian, won for the Witte Museum by the venerable and pretty darn hilarious Dr. Thomas Adams.
This little green pterodactyloid is exactly like the little guy I had when I was a kid! I didn’t bid on him, but instead I won a cute crocheted trilobite and a t-shirt from last year’s meeting in Berlin.
To round out the auction session there’s a fantastic live auction, during which this year’s auctioneers dressed up like the crew from the movie Jurassic World. Unfortunately my phone had died by that point in the night, but every year this is one of the best parts of the SVP auctions. Perhaps the mystery will only entice more young, budding paleontologists to attend…!
Incredible New Paleontology Research
One of my favorite topics this year had to do with a great new study conducted by researchers at Bonn University in Germany, taking slices of dinosaur egg and purifying them to analyze what color compounds were still present. The verdict? It appears that some carnivorous dinosaurs, such as oviraptorosaurs, had blue-green eggs.
Another study undertaken by my new friend and colleague, Gabriel Santos of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, who took a look at an ancient animal known as Desmostylus (=Vanderhoofius). The skull he studied of this enigmatic hippo-like creature was missing its molar teeth. Was this the first instance of an elderly desmostylid?
The derpiest of all fossil mammals – desmostylids are really fascinating creatures.
…And in conclusion!
The meeting was fantastic fun, a whirlwind of auctions and academia, field trips and forging new friendships. See what I did there? Anyway I’m so glad to be back in contact with my paleontology family, and I’m looking forward to next year in Salt Lake City!
Have you attended a conference before? How about an academic conference? Friends and colleagues from SVP – it was great to see you!