By Tom Dill, DPS Member
I was fortunate to be able to attend the 75th meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Dallas recently. I have attended many geological and petroleum conventions, but this was still very exciting and different from other meetings. There were too many great posters and oral presentations, and so many great people that I met, that it is impossible to summarize here. Here are a few quick personal observations, which I will put as a series of recommendations to a young person considering a career in paleontology.
Almost everyone loves dinosaurs, the charismatic megafauna of the Mesozoic. But there are interesting species, problems, and projects in other vertebrate families also. Love rodents? So apparently do a LOT of SVP members. One explained to me that rodents are indicative of vegetation and hence climate, and their teeth are not only diagnostic but abundant. In many cases they are collected by sampling ant hills. There were several posters on bats, and lots of oral presentations on birds. Snakes, turtles, and crocodiles got their due. And of course marine reptiles. There was a large contingent of mammal enthusiasts, be it for horses, mammoths, or what have you. Pick your favorite vertebrate. The science is moving forward in all of them.
You might think that paleontologists don't need much math. But many of the presentations involved lots of statistics. To prove that you have a new species, you need to prove it is different than other species. And since the number of specimens are few, and there is always some variation in any species, statistics are needed. Some of the talks involved statistics new to me and sent me scrambling for new math books.
A lot of researchers are using isotopes of carbon and oxygen in bones to answer questions about ancient animals. Want to know what a creature ate? How deep it dove in the ocean? What the average temperature in the area was like? Perhaps someday this can be used to definitely determine which dinosaurs were warm or cold blooded, or somewhere in-between. A lot of scientific advancement involves getting your hands of the latest analytical gadgets and using them on old problems. The instruments keep getting better and better, requiring smaller samples and making accurate measurements of elements and isotopes thought impossible a few years ago. Get your hands on one of those gadgets, and start analyzing.
I enjoyed several presentations on bone histology, and was impressed with how much can be learned from the microstructure of bone. Growth rates, diseases, the ever-present question of warm vs cold blooded. Slicing some bone might have the answers.
It seemed that everyone was working with 3D scanning of bones, either with laser or with 3D photography. It appears that vertebrate paleontologists are loving this technology, and some have already shared the 3D scans with the public. You don't need a 3D printer to enjoy the object, since the 3D scan can be manipulated and examined in detail in a modern web browser.
As in all the sciences, it appears that vertebrate paleontology is becoming more collaborative. Most of the oral and poster presentations had multiple authors, because the complexity of the projects required contributions from multiple disciplines. A project might involve a specialist in bone histology, a geochemist, a stratigrapher, a sedimentologist, and a geochronologist. From four different universities on three different continents. I suspect that many of these working relationships were forged at meetings like the SVP. One benefit of sharing the credit with your co-authors is that you have someone to explain your poster while you go and look at the posters of others.
This is science, not industry. Geological and petroleum conventions usually have companies that line up to provide free coffee, snacks, buffet lunches, coffee mugs, pens, and all other manner of free bric-a-brac. Even massages and shoe shines. Pure science attracts less money. Bring a sack lunch and pick up a coffee on the way to the convention. One benefit is that the dress code is less formal, with everything from business casual to loud Hawaiian shirts to field clothes.
The quality of many of the oral presentations was outstanding. The SVP group has moved lightyears beyond bullet points, making clean and interesting slide shows with animation and movies and enough stuff to keep me awake even though I forgot to bring a coffee from outside. Many of the speakers were truly impressive, giving relaxed but passionate talks, moving out from behind the podium and really engaging the audience. TED seems to have had an effect on SVP presentations.
Don't feel bad if your abstract for an oral presentation was rejected, and you were offered a poster session instead. Most scientific conferences are emphasizing poster sessions, for good reasons. Poster sessions are cheaper to produce, and can accommodate many more presentations. They give the audience more control to choose what to see, how long to spend, to browse briefly or deeply study every detail of every graph, and to ask questions of the authors when they are present at pre-appointed times. And it appears that posters can be printed on just about anything, including stretchy fabrics. I will expect to see them on t-shirts at the next meeting. And can virtual posters, interactive digital presentations on large computer monitors, be far behind?
There were a number of teams that used various techniques to scan and measure trackways and fossil sites. One young woman (an undergrad, no less!) used photogrammetric techniques to make a 3D photo scan of an ichthyosaur fossil site in Nevada, easily mapping all the bones and the small faults that have sliced up the fossil bed. Then she presented on a laser scan of the site, including video of flying in and out of the building protecting the fossils! The measurements are accurate to a few millimeters, so that if this technique is repeated over time, movements of unstable portions of the bone bed will be detected and can be reinforced in time. The Bureau of Land Management gave away a photo scale (OK, there were some nice giveaways from the booths) that includes instructions for proper photography of dinosaur tracksites to enable creation of 3D images. It is a virtual small world, after all.
One of the great things about the SVP meeting was seeing and chatting with a lot of famous paleontologists. And they apparently like chatting with amateurs, also. And with each other. The students (most of the attendees) loved to assemble in large groups. Old friendships are renewed, new friends are made, results discussed, and ideas tossed around. Oops, I just missed a talk I wanted to hear.
In summary, the SVP meeting was a heck of a lot of fun. And as for learning new research in vertebrate paleontology, it was like drinking from a fire hose. Stay thirsty, my friends.
- Tom Dill