Dinosaur Croutons and ?Feathered Pterosaurs

SVPCA began with a bang (metaphorically… we’re all professionals here) as scores of palaeontologists excitedly oozed between the dioramas for the ice breaker at Dinosaur Isle. Hugs and handshakes were in abundance as the buffet decreased in size and people greeted old friends. As the evening wore on, a correlation appeared between the number of empty wine bottles and the abundance of new friendships sprouting. For many, the first order of the day had actually been covering bones (and themselves to an extent) in plaster jackets and learning how to soak toilet roll without over wetting it (scientists are nothing if not exact) as part of the SPPC conference. But that is an exciting story for next month.

Looking closely, these delegates don’t seem to be grouped by taxonomic specialism, nor their own biogeography- proving palaeontologists are clearly very good at networking. © Image courtesy of Darren Naish.

The three subsequent days of talks were filled to the brim with boundless academic excellence as the palaeo-community; from the early career-ers to the upper echelons of palaeo-based Mount Olympus, bowled us over with what they’d been working on of late. My favourite set of talks (outside of the marine reptiles which auto-win for taxonomic superiority) was those that addressed both sides of the debate as to whether some pterosaurs had feathers. When I started going to SVPCA as an undergrad I remember the feathered-tail-end of the dinosaur/bird debate was still cropping up, despite China having dutifully churned out feathered dinosaur after feathered dinosaur for the previous decade or so. The acceptance of feathered dinosaurs is something we take for granted nowadays. (We’re talking the early 2000s version of this debate by the way… I wasn’t around in the 1970s, or the 1860s…). Whatever the outcome for the defendants on either side of the feathered fence, personally I’m just delighted to be witnessing another fantastic journey of discovery that mercilessly screws up everything we think we know. That’s science!

It was my honour this year to help judge the Student Prizes, which was a tougher job than I had imagined. Not just because they were all of such a high standard that it was hard to narrow the field, but also because they had been cunningly spread throughout each day meaning we had to maintain a status of high alert, all day every day, without a moment to switch off. Somehow the judges gallantly came through however, and after much debate and discussion, the very deserving winners of the Student Prizes were selected:

Best Talk

Winner: Valentina Rossi for ‘Probing melanosome chemistry using experiments and fossils’

Second Place: Carolina Karoullas for ‘Humeral head shape: A predictor for avian flight capability?’

Best Poster

Winner: Joao V. Leite for ‘Metacarpus morphospace occupation in non-avian dinosaurs’

Second Place: Thomas J. Raven for ‘A revision of British Wealden Group ankylosaurs (Dinosauria: Ornithischia)’

Technically, Tom lost points for boldly announcing he preferred Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings, however my fellow judges overruled my proposal of this as a criterion and awarded him second place nonetheless. We were so impressed by all of the talks that we decided to make up a third place position of Highly Commended, which was awarded to Robert Smyth for ‘How many spinosaur taxa are there in the Kem Kem beds of Morocco?’ Sadly as we had somewhat invented this prize it was more ‘kudos than kash’, but we hope he still feels pretty pleased with himself. The round of applause was certainly just as loud.

On the left: Winner of the Best Student Talk prize; Valentina Rossi from University College Cork. On the right: Winner of the Best Student Poster prize; Joao V. Leite from Natural History Museum London. © Images courtesy of Shaun Smith.

Another incredible part of the conference was the abundance and quality of stands, ranging from 2 and 3D art, to displays of fossil collections from local collectors. Not being distracted by the roar of Merlin engines as Spitfires flew by wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be (being a plane geek), but only due to the incredible finds on display by collectors and preparators such as Mick Green. Mick’s brain is a rich mine of knowledge on the geology and paleontology of the Isle of Wight. Many of the fossils he has prepped, such as the rebbachisaur material in the image below, are just exquisite.

Local collector and preparator Mick Green, discussing his incredible fossils with Steve Sweetman and Don Henderson. © Image courtesy of Nigel Larkin.

The auction took place on the Thursday evening. The indefatigable Jeff Liston gave the room cheek ache (facial) with his quick-witted sardonic humour, seducing the delegates into parting with their cash for valuable collectors’ items such as Dinosaur Isle fold up frisbees, sparkly shot glasses, and genuine Mission Jurassic tea towels, sorry I mean bandannas. Also weighing the table of auction goodies down were gorgeous reprints old enough to have that fantastic historical-paper smell, a fossil or two, and text book upon text book as the delegates used the auction to swap the contents of their offices whilst ensuring the bursary coffers were suitably bolstered for some lucky few to be able to attend next year via the Jones-Fenleigh Fund. Many of the plastic dinosaur models looking for new homes were speciated, the vast majority belonging to the little known genus Madeinchinasaurus*. I myself came away with a fantastic, if rather large, Therizinosaurus which I was quickly told upon its unpacking from my suitcase would ‘look better on my desk at work’. The cheek.

A packed table of merchandise up for grabs thanks to the generosity (and humour) of delegates. © Image courtesy of Martin Munt.

After several days of terrific talks, admiring artworks, never-ending networking and, of course, fondling fossils, we finished with the conference dinner. The last night was tinged with sadness that the week was over though alcohol soothed most souls, the most hardy of which, continued to be soothed until we were kicked out of the 60s bar at 2am. Fortunately a hearty conference dinner of dinosaur-shaped croutons and a plate of banana-meringue-custard desert had previously lined the stomachs sufficiently and whether it be before or after another day of fossiling along the Cretaceous coastline, everyone seems to have made it off the island in one piece, thus drawing to a close the 2019 SVPCA. Except for those that live there. Who presumably closed it where they were.

The unequivocal highlight of the conference dinner was the dinosaur croutons. © Image courtesy of Stu Pond.


A happy group of conference delegates. © Image courtesy of Cindy Howells.

* I take no responsibility for that joke, that’s all Dr Liston

Written by Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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