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59th Annual Meeting of the Palaeontological Association, Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales, UK, 14-17 December 2015

Article from: Newsletter No. 91
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The 59th Annual Meeting was held in Cardiff, the Welsh capital providing an excellent setting for the Meeting which, as usual, was a highlight in the PalAss calendar.  The infectious enthusiasm of each speaker, combined with the vast diversity of research presented, made this both an extremely enjoyable and a highly informative conference.  For those who wanted to get stuck-in early, this year delegates were given the opportunity to attend a pre-meeting workshop – a training course on the SPIERS software suite run by Russell Garwood, Mark Sutton and Imran Rahman.  Funded by the Software Sustainability Institute, this was an excellent chance for the 25 attendees to get to grips with SPIERS, a free software package used to process and analyse tomographic datasets.  Delegates left the session with the skills required to analyse their own data, having learnt how to prepare a dataset, create, manipulate and view a three-dimensional model, and effectively display results for publication.

The meeting formally began with a welcome from Richard Bevins, Keeper of Natural Sciences at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, which was followed by a symposium centred on the theme of “Palaeobiotic Interactions”.  With presentations focused on topics including fossil lichens, Devonian forests and ancient methane seeps, there was plenty to promote discussion during the coffee break, and to whet people’s appetite for the following days’ talks.  Paul Taylor was the first to speak, stating that “encrusting palaeocommunities offer largely unexplored possibilities for studying competition in the geological past”.  Here he discussed the way in which unequivocally in vivo symbiotic relationships between fossilized sclerobionts could be used to shed light on competition and symbioses in the geological past.  Paul Wright followed with a talk about the interactions between burrowing organisms and diagenesis, suggesting a link between the diversification of boring biota and a lowering of the zone of secondary carbonate precipitation.  A later talk, given by Elizabeth Harper and entitled ‘Something ate my fossil: from anecdote to hypothesis testing’, addressed the issue of how to convert “interesting fossils with an interesting story to tell into a source of plentiful robust data”.  While patterns of marine predation formed the focus of this talk, the questions it raised – for instance, how can we effectively combine modern and palaeontological data? – have far-reaching implications across the field of palaeontology.

The Symposium was followed by an icebreaker drinks reception, held in the impressive surroundings of the National Museum’s Main Hall.  This provided an excellent chance for a catch-up with old acquaintances over a glass of wine, as well as an opportunity for introductions.  In addition, the location of this event allowed delegates to explore the Evolution of Wales galleries, catch a glimpse of the ‘new Welsh dinosaur’, and have a wander through the temporary exhibition Reading the Rocks: The Remarkable Maps of William Smith.

The second day of the Annual Meeting saw the beginning of the oral research presentations and poster sessions.  Mark Williams began proceedings with an engaging and thought-provoking talk about the ‘Anthropocene biosphere’, examining mankind’s influence on the Earth, and discussing the concept of the technosphere – a system incorporating humans and their technological developments.  A morning of further stimulating talks followed, and with topics ranging from sexual dimorphism in Stegosaurus mjosi to ancient spiders and the question ‘how big is a genus?’, there was something to satisfy all interests.  In addition, images of three-dimensionally preserved Early Jurassic fossils from the Strawberry Bank Lagerstätte were a particular highlight.

The first part of the afternoon saw a set of parallel talks, where delegates could choose between discussions of crocodylomorph phylogeny, the diversification of Mesozoic marine reptiles, and the preservation of Cambrian neural tissue, to name but a few.  Fortunately, no tricky decisions were required later in the day, with all attendees gathering together for the remainder of the day’s talks.  Two of these presentations, given by Sarah Baker and Brittany Robson, shared the topic of ‘wildfire’, discussing changes in wildfire activity during the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event, and the global record of wildfire occurrence during the early Palaeogene, respectively.

The talks were followed by the PalAss AGM and Annual Address, which this year was given by John Hutchinson of the Royal Veterinary College.  Based in the ‘Structure and Motion Laboratory’, Professor Hutchinson specializes in evolutionary biomechanics, examining the way in which large animals move, and how such locomotion may have evolved.  His talk, entitled ‘Computer modelling and simulation of extinct organisms: its utility and limitations for reconstructing the evolution of locomotor behaviour’, gave a fascinating introduction into his line of research.  With tongue-in-cheek talk of a fire-breathing Tyrannosaurus rex (such traits cannot be detected in the fossil record, so how do we know they didn’t exist?), the audience was quickly captivated.  Hutchinson discussed the methodology employed during his research, stressing that an understanding of anatomy is the foundation for biomechanics, and that the importance of extant taxa should not be underestimated.  Through comparison with modern analogues, Hutchinson and his team have been able to assess the running capabilities of T. rex – as it turns out, the infamous dinosaur’s ankle muscles were simply too small to sustain rapid running.

The day concluded with the Annual Dinner, which took place in the grand surroundings of Cardiff City Hall.  Beginning with a drinks reception in the festively decorated Marble Hall, this was a wonderful chance to discuss the day’s events.  An excellent meal (finished off with mince pies, of course!) and picturesque setting made this a highly enjoyable evening, although there wasn’t time to relax too much with the PalAss 2015 Annual Meeting Intra-Dinner Quiz to complete!

A true highlight of the evening was the presentation of awards.  This year the recipient of the Mary Anning Award – for which those who are not professionally employed in palaeontology are eligible – was Lutz Koch, a retired school teacher who has devoted much time to the natural sciences, and is the author of numerous palaeontological texts.  The Hodson Award for an early-career palaeontologist went to Roger Benson, recognising his already exceptional contribution to the field of vertebrate palaeontology, which includes a “phenomenal publication record”.  The President’s Medal – open to mid-career palaeontologists – was presented to Graham Budd, recognized as “one of palaeontology’s most accomplished and capable practitioners”, and an expert in the fields of arthropod palaeobiology and evolutionary theory.  The Lapworth Medal, the highest award of the Palaeontological Association, was presented to Jennifer Clack, recognising her outstanding lifetime contribution to palaeontology.  Author of the acclaimed text ‘Gaining Ground’, in addition to numerous landmark papers, Professor Clack has made a phenomenal contribution to her field, and is a worthy recipient of this prestigious award.  The Best Paper Prize 2015 for Palaeontology was awarded to Steven Holland and Mark Patzkowskyn for “The Stratigraphy of Mass Extinctions”, while the prize for Papers in Palaeontology went to Leonid Popov, Lars Holmer, Nigel Hughes, Mansoureh Ghobodi Pour and Paul Myrow for “Himalayan Cambrian Brachiopods”.  Finally, Life Membership of the Association was awarded to Tim Palmer, who has served as Council member, Editor, Treasurer and Executive Officer of the PalAss, and has played a crucial role in its success.

The third day began with a poster session, where delegates could view over 70 posters, and enjoy a Welsh cake at the same time.  This was followed by two sessions of parallel talks, which included presentations on Ediacaran acanthomorphs by Peter Adamson, ‘Near-stasis in the long-term diversification of Mesozoic tetrapods’ by Roger Benson, and the trilobite genus Lichas by Sofia Pereira.  Particularly exciting was the chance to see an anatomically correct model of Psittacosaurus (complete with colouration and ornamentation!), used by Jakob Vinther and colleagues to determine the habitat of this small ceratopsian dinosaur.  Utilizing the exceptional preservation of a specimen from the Chinese Jehol biota, the animal’s pigmentation was determined from preserved melanosomes, and used to reconstruct its pattern of counter-shading.  Then, in a novel approach, grey-scale models of Psittacosaurus were subjected to different light conditions in order to determine the environment in which the dinosaur would be most effectively camouflaged.  The morning session ended with a short talk by Jesper Milan – ‘Rock Fossils on Tour’ – which gave a fun overview of an exhibition aimed at making palaeontology accessible to a wider audience – by linking fossils to heavy metal and rock music!  (See Newsletter 90 for more information.)

The afternoon saw the last session of parallel talks.  For those wishing to continue their dinosaur education, a talk by Femke Holwerda was on offer, exploring the ontogeny of Patagosaurus.  There was also plenty to satisfy the interests of invertebrate palaeontologists, including a presentation on the relationship between solemyoids and ctenodontids by John Cope, a talk on the Cambrian “muscle worm” by Allison Daley, and a venture into the world of a “weird and wonderful” bryozoan with Eckart Håkansson.  Following this, delegates gathered together for the conclusion of the Conference.  This began with the final four oral presentations – which included an enthusiastic presentation on the conservation of Chesapeake Bay oysters by Rowan Lockwood – and ended with the announcements of the President’s awards for the best poster and oral presentations.  These went to Christopher Nedza for his excellent poster on “Testing hypotheses of niche partitioning in isolated fossil mammal teeth based on quantitative 3D dental microwear texture analysis”, and Jack Oyston for his engaging talk entitled “What limits the morphological disparity of clades?”.

For those wanting to get ‘up close and personal’ with some real fossils – and see the beautiful Welsh countryside – a field-trip was organized for the fourth day of the Conference.  The first stop on the itinerary was an old quarry at Little Cwm Dowlais Farm, south west of Usk.  Here, delegates learnt about the Much Wenlock Limestone Formation, clearly exposed at this site.  In fact, the quarry represents the most complete section through this formation, where 0.5 m of Lower Elton Formation calcareous mudstones overlay 9.4 m of limestone.  Making the most of the unseasonably warm, dry weather, the attendees quickly got to work with their geological hammers, uncovering numerous brachiopods, in addition to corals and a putative bryozoan.  Amongst the brachiopods known from this site are Atrypa reticularis, Microsphaeridiorhynchus nucula and Leptostrophia filosa.  The second exposure to be visited was located in a nearby quarry, this time at Cilwrgi Farm.  A biohermal mound is exposed on the quarry floor, and although the dry weather didn’t last, the enthusiasm of the group wasn’t dampened as they hunted for fossils including rugosan and tabulate corals, bryozoans (e.g. Fenestella), trilobites (e.g. Warburgella stokesii and Dalmanites) and pelmatozoans.  On a grey day in December, it was hard to imagine that the limestones were once part of a shallow tidal environment, teeming with marine life!

The third and final stop of the day was the Big Pit National Coal Museum at Blaenavon, Torfaen.  Part of the Blaenavon UNESCO World Heritage Site, Big Pit was a working coal mine from 1860 to 1980, and now offers the public a rare insight into the world of mining.  Upon arrival, the group enjoyed a wonderful hot lunch (very welcome after the very wet walk to the restaurant!), kindly provided by the staff in the original Miner’s Canteen in the Pithead Bath.  After lunch there was time for a quick wander round the site, before the highlight of our visit – the chance to descend 90 m underground for a guided tour of the pit!  An ex-miner himself, our guide had plenty of anecdotes to keep us entertained in the dark, damp tunnels of the mine, and it was extraordinary to see where so many men and boys worked for so many years.  Indeed, the visit was particularly poignant given its timing – one day before the closure of the last deep coal mine in the United Kingdom.  In the maze of tunnels we were shown where the pit ponies lived, and were given the chance to experience true ‘pitch dark’ by turning off the lamps on our hard hats.  Once back above ground there was just time for some souvenir shopping before getting on the coach back to Cardiff.  However, no account of the field-trip would be complete without mention of the amazing efforts of our coach driver, who managed to manoeuvre his way down countless narrow country lanes with admirable skill and perseverance!  Thank you – it was much appreciated by all.

On behalf of all 270 delegates (coming from 16 different countries!), I would like to thank the organizers of PalAss 2015 – Caroline Buttler, Lesley Cherns and Lucy McCobb – for a brilliant Conference (diolch yn fawr iawn!).  Now we can all look forward to Lyon 2016, which promises to be another wonderful conference … with some delicious French cuisine.

Author Information

Fiona Jones - University of Oxford

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