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TetZoomCon 2020

I’ve been a fan of the Tetzooniverse for the past few years and have been reading through the incredible amount of amazing science writing that Darren Naish has posted on the various versions of Tetzoo (link to the current version, here). There was one aspect of the Tetzooniverse that I could never join in on: a conference in the UK of like-minded people. I live in Ontario and the trip would simply be too expensive. Enter 2020, a year where people aren’t allowed to travel at all, and I have finally obtained that elusive entrance into my first ever Tetzoocon, called for obvious reasons this year: Tetzoomcon! (the event took place in December 2020, so yes it has taken me 8 months to write up the blogpost about it…)

The virtual meeting of zoology enthusiasts from across the globe (I believe there were almost 400 participants online) ran smoothly and was overseen by Darren Naish, John Conway (Paleoartist and co-host of the Tetzoo Podcast, see his art and other information here), and Sharon Hill (science writer and researcher from Pennsylvania, see her website here). After the introduction and explanation of how the Zoom platform would be used to host the zoological conference, we moved onto a series of talks produced by a varied list of presenters on a varied list of topics.

My Copy of Tetrapod Zoology Book One, a compilation of articles from Tetzoo’s first year of blogging.

The Presentations

The first presenter was Rebecca Wragg Sykes (website here), with her talk titled “Re-imagining Neanderthals: From Archaeology to Palaeoart”. I’m not particularly interested in Hominids because of their close similarity to Humans; I find the creatures more different from Humans to be generally more fascinating. The talk was quite interesting though, in that Rebecca investigated the changing perspectives on Neanderthals through history and in particular through the medium of artistic depictions. She demonstrated the racism that occurred when artists of the past portrayed Neanderthals as exaggerated racial stereotypes of specific races that were deemed “primitive”. After examining the fossil evidence of such a physical appearance, the portrayals were shown to be following a racial agenda rather than depicting Neanderthals as they would have appeared. (For a parallel perspective on the issue of racism in Paleoart, and an excellent overview of the topic, see this blogpost by Mark Witton).

Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ recent book: Kindred.

Next up was Natalia Jagielska (website here) with her presentation: “The Rise & Demise of Non-Pterodactyloid Pterosaurs”. Natalia’s enthusiasm and humorous slides (featuring her own wonderful illustrations which you really should check out) made this an incredibly engaging talk. She essentially went over the history of Pterosaur research (briefly) and dove into the history of Pterosaur groups through the Mesozoic.

RJ Palmer (website here) presented a talk called “Paleoart as Creature Design” which was filled with interesting visuals, including some of his own paleoart and graphics. His entire presentation was done in PhotoShop, which was pretty interesting. He moved from art-piece to art-piece as he described some of his methods of artistry. One of his projects I have encountered is the game Saurian. Saurian is a fascinating video game project, which seeks to reconstruct the Hell Creek Formation as a virtual landscape. The Hell Creek Formation is a famous geological formation that includes a variety of creatures, including the most famous dinosaur of all: Tyrannosaurus rex. As a player, you tour the landscape as one of several species of playable dinosaurs. The game seeks to be as close to reality as possible, with paleontological data being incorporated into the game’s design.

There is a book for the game coming out (in October) detailing the Hell Creek formation, filled with concept art and paleoart (which are kind of the same thing in this instance?)… I want it…

After these first three presentations, there was an hour-long break which included breakout sessions for those who wished to participate. These breakout sessions were neat. The way it worked was that you were placed in a randomized chatroom with up to 9 other people. In my first chatroom it was me and one other person at first, and then later on Sharon Hill (who was one of the coordinators for the event) joined in for part of the time. It was a great opportunity to meet some of the other people who wanted to spend their Saturday in front of their computers to tune in to a Zoological conference. My username was “norfolknaturalist” and because Tetzoo is UK-based it was confused for Norfolk in the UK, which was fine. I explained that I actually lived in Ontario and we chatted about the sorts of creatures we encounter in our respective areas. The person other than Sharon Hill was from the UK and Sharon hailed from Pennsylvania. So between us, we covered a substantial distance around the globe. 

The second chatroom (the hour-long break was split in two randomized-participant chat sessions) was filled with aspiring paleoartists. It was neat to hear them talk about the various projects they were working on or species they were interested in (Spinosaurus came up a lot because of the papers which had come out recently shedding more and more light on the possible appearance of this mysterious carnivorous dinosaur). I didn’t have much to contribute (and there were more people in this one) but like I said it was interesting to tune in.

The next presentation after the breakout chat sessions was done by Anjali Goswami and was titled: “Digitising vertebrates: or how a mammalogist stopped being impressed by birds and learned to love salamanders.” Anjali’s presentation was very intense and data-driven. She basically explained how she and her team at The Goswami Lab had compiled digital models of many different vertebrate skulls, and how they compared across the tree of life. There were many intriguing graphs and charts depicting the various comparisons and datasets. I will admit I didn’t understand all of this presentation, but it was intriguing nonetheless and it was interesting to hear how the studies of skull shape led Anjali to appreciate the diversity of Salamanders (Caudata) (again, I didn’t understand this presentation perfectly, so I may be getting this wrong, but it seems that Salamanders change their skull shapes more readily than birds over evolutionary time).

The final presentation of the day was David Lindo’s “Missing: Without Action” which was about recently extinct (or not quite extinct) birds. David Lindo is known as The Urban Birder, as he is a writer and presenter with a focus on getting people to take note of the birds in cities. David’s presentation was emotional, because he told stories of bird species which have gone extinct because of human influence, and he conveyed well the tragedy of such events, the true sense of loss when an entire species disappears and will never return. He injected some hope into the discussion, by recounting stories of bird species that were thought extinct and were rediscovered through sporadic sightings. With this idea, he hinted at the possibility that not all “extinct” species are necessarily gone forever. There could be holdouts at the range edges, or in places that people have missed.

Big Cats in Britain

The Big Cats in Britain event was different in form to the other presentations. Most of the presentations were given in the form of single-person lectures with slideshows or variations (see my discussion of Rob’s Photoshop setup). The Big Cats in Britain event was set up as a conversation between several presenters with some pictures thrown up on the screen for discussion as well. I will admit to being not particularly interested in this subject, mostly because I don’t live in the UK. I thought that Darren’s introduction was nice, giving a broad overview of the subject and explaining how the Big Cat Sighting Phenomenon isn’t limited to the UK, and is an interesting subject worthy of exploration, whatever your views on the veracity of the claims are. Darren has taken this tack for Cryptozoology time and again, and reading through his various articles on the subject on the Tetrapod Zoology Blog certainly changed some of my own views on cryptids. Basically, the argument is that whether a cryptid is “real” or not, scientists can still learn a lot about the scientific method, observation bias, and human psychology from anecdotal (or other) evidence of cryptids. Furthermore, Darren has demonstrated in the past how “mainstream” zoologists have engaged in what might be termed Cryptozoology by seeking animals at the root of anecdotal stories or hearsay, which have turned out to be species new to science.

The Big Cats in Britain presentation proper just wasn’t that interesting to me however, but that’s one person’s opinion.

Paleoart Workshop

When first purchasing a ticket for TetzoomCon I was hesitant to join the Paleoart Workshop, mostly because… I’m not a Paleoartist, nor an artist of any kind. I was assured by Darren Naish on Twitter that the Paleoart workshop would be great for anyone interested in Paleoart and not just Paleoartists, so I went ahead and added that to my Tetzoomcon ticket. Boy am I glad I did. 

Basically the way the Paleoart workshop worked was that the attendees were split off into small groups (I think all were less than 10 people) and grouped with a Paleoartist. The list of artists that were leading the groups was a highlight reel of amazingly talented people, many of whom I recognized because of owning the two books Dinosaur Art I and II. (not a comprehensive list, but some names that I recognized before the event: Bob Nicholls, Mark Witton, Steve White, Gabriel Ugueto, and Luis V. Rey).

I was assigned to a group led by Luis Rey which turned out to be a perfect fit for me. Many of the sessions involved the artists working through the creation of an artpiece with the attendees creating alongside them. Luis Rey instead asked each person in turn why they were interested in Paleoart and went through relevant slides of a presentation and discussed the areas of interest of each of us. That was really neat. Luis Rey is a highly influential Paleoartist. His reconstructions are extreme, dynamic and colourful, to the point of being almost comic-book style. I believe this is because his style is reacting against the dumpy, dull reconstructions that had prevailed for so long in dinosaur art. He wanted to show that dinosaurs were vibrant and exciting creatures full of personality. My answer to his question: “Why are you interested in Paleoart?” was “I’m interested in seeing creatures and ecosystems that I can no longer see”. This is my draw to Paleoart, I’m not particularly drawn to the artistic side of reconstructions but rather the naturalistic portrayal of scenes from another time, creatures that used to live and walk on the Earth. I love being able to see visions of animals that no longer exist, animals I can’t observe with my own eyes, but that can be reconstructed from the latest science.

After the Paleoart Workshop, there was an afterparty where people could move around through various chatrooms to talk with people who had attended the event, including the presenters and Paleoartists. I was in a chatroom with Darren Naish himself, who was talking about some of the Paleoart pieces he had with him in his office. One of them was the painting of Attenborosaurus by Mark Witton. I awkwardly held up the mug I was drinking from because it features the very same painting. The art is done by Mark Witton (who is likely my favourite Paleoartist for his realistic portrayal of past natural history), and the species depicted is named after Sir David Attenborough… what’s not to love?

All in all, the event was great and I was so glad that I was able to attend despite being an ocean away from the UK. The next Tetzoomcon event is coming up soon, on September 3, 2021, and I’m hoping to tune in then too. Hopefully if I do, I will write up my thoughts and overview of the event faster than I did for the 2020 event…

For previous Tetzoo-related posts, see these two book reviews of books by Mark Witton:

Book Review: The Paleoartist’s Handbook, by Mark Witton

Book Review: Pterosaurs, by Mark Witton

And see these two posts focused on Tetrapods:

Natural Curiosities, Part 1: Emu Feathers

Swimming Squirrels

And for Nature Observations, Photos and Natural History facts, follow me on Instagram at norfolknaturalist.

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Life: What is it?

I’m going to do something a little bit different with this post. I’ve done a few “Species Profiles” in the past (the Introduced Pine Sawfly and the Eastern Band-Winged Hoverfly), and in those I’ve offered a brief overview of the groups those species belong to before focusing in on the species itself. In future, I’d like to zoom in on a species from a distance. Since all living things, from bacteria to Blue Whales, are part of one huge family tree (species have formed out of species) then all of life is related to a greater or lesser extent. So to start my scope as far out as I can, I’m going to begin with the broadest category of all: Life itself.

What are Living Things? You might be surprised to find that it’s actually quite complicated and difficult to draw lines around living and nonliving things. We can intuitively classify large animals (and by this I mean animals that can be seen without aid of a microscope) as living things. They eat, move and reproduce under their own power. Plants and Fungi are similarly easy to class as alive (though some life stages of Plants and Fungi lie on the border, such as seeds or spores). Although Plants and Fungi don’t behave in easily visible ways in our timescale, they still perform the same functions as Animals: reproducing, metabolizing and growing.

So maybe there isn’t a simple definition for life, but Living Things are still easily distinguishable because of a general sense. It’s just common sense that an Elephant is alive and a rock is not. If we bring the scale downward from the living organisms we can see with our own eyes into the rabbithole of microscopy we find that things are (as always) far more complicated. The simplest and perhaps most relevant example to bring confusion to our general sense of what is alive and what is not is… a virus.

I remember the first time I recognized the difference between a bacterial and a viral infection. The major difference from a patient’s point of view is that Bacteria can be treated (ie. killed) by anti-biotics. Anti-biotics literally means “anti-life”. Because Bacteria are alive they can be targeted by anti-biotic medicine. A viral infection is immune to anti-biotics. Viruses are not killed by “anti-life”. This is because they are supposedly not living. This is where the defining border of Life and not Life gets very very fuzzy.

Viruses come in many shapes and sizes and they affect animals and plants in a myriad of ways, but the reason they do any of that is because they exhibit behaviours which enable them to adapt and react to their surroundings in order to reproduce more of their kind. The description I just offered seems to suggest that Viruses are alive. It really depends on where you draw your lines. My Biology textbook from University states that “the characteristics of life that a virus possesses are based on its ability to infect living cells” (Russell et. al. 2010). So, no living cell, no life. A virus contains some portion of DNA or RNA (the information-coding substance that tells cells what proteins to make and how to make them), and sometimes a protein capsule or container. Again, from my Biology textbook: “They essentially highjack the machinery and metabolism of a living cell in order to reproduce. For this reason, most scientists do not consider a virus alive” (Russell et. al. 2010).

For an alternative view of viruses, here is a quote from a book dedicated to Viruses: “they [Viruses] are highly evolved biological entities with an organismal biology that is complex and interwoven with the biology of their hosting species”(Hurst 2000). In this book, Viral Ecology, the editor also recommends placing viruses within a fourth biological Domain of Life (the other three Domains are Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya). He proposes that this Domain be called Akamara which means roughly “without chamber”, describing the fact that organisms within this Domain are non-cellular.

I’m not sure where I sit on the issue of whether viruses should be considered Living or non-Living. The more I learn about them, the more complicated the questions and answers are. I think that intuitively I wouldn’t want to define Life by its components such as possessing a cell, but I also see the value in having strict definitions for labels even labels as amorphous as Life. The point I wanted to make with this diversion into Viruses is that Life is actually hard to define or describe and place within limits, even if on a larger scale it’s intuitively simple.

I don’t think I’ll really be delving into Viral Biology on my blog anyway as I personally prefer learning about organisms I can more easily observe, but it is a fascinating aspect and background for my interests in living things in general.

Next up… Animals, Plants, Fungi. They have to be easy to divide and define right?

References:

Hurst, Christon J. ed. Viral Ecology, 2000.

Russell et. al. Biology: Exploring the Diversity of Life, First Canadian Edition, 2010.

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Swimming Squirrels

We tend to think of animals as “set in their ways”, following the pattern of their species and not varying in their behaviour or ecology on an individual basis. In fact, every species is made up of individuals. And once you start to think about it, of course this is the case.

People are often surprised to hear of diet variation, when wild animals feed upon substances that seem to go against their “pattern”. Crocodiles and Alligators will consume fruit, and could even act as seed dispersal agents (Grigg and Kirshner, 2015). White-tailed deer will eat nestling birds if they happen upon them. Chickadees will feed on dead mammals.

A recent observation reported in The Canadian Field Naturalist journal represents another of these striking behaviours that stands out because it is atypical for the species as a whole. The species concerned is one that many people are very familiar with: the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). There are already accounts of various Squirrel species hunting and feeding on other vertebrate animals, including birds and even other Grey Squirrels (ie. Cannibalism) (Squirrels as Predators, Callahan 1993). Perhaps more surprising is the recent report of hunting an animal that is outside of its normal environment: namely, a fish. In Guelph, Ontario, a Squirrel was seen to dive from a branch headfirst into a shallow portion of a river. After being underwater for a few seconds “the squirrel swam back to the snag with a fish 3-5 cm long in its mouth” (Sutton et. al. 2020). After feeding on the fish briefly, the Squirrel moved out of view into the woods.

There is so much out there to explore, in your own backyard or neighborhood. Animals are individuals, doing individual things. They are not programmed automatons following rigid beahavioural patterns. Even an animal as familiar and commonplace as the Eastern Grey Squirrel can surprise us if we take the time to pay attention.

Eastern Grey Squirrel at Waterford Ponds, Ontario.

References:

Callahan, J. R. Squirrels as Predators. The Great Basin Naturalist, vol. 53, no. 2, 1993, pp. 137–144. 

Sutton, A. O., M. Fuirst, and K. Bill. 2020. Into the drink: observation of a novel hunting technique employed by an Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Canadian Field-Naturalist 134(1): 42-44.

Grigg, Gordon and Kirshner, David. Biology and Evolution of Crocodylians, 2015.

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Welcome to my new Nature Blog

If you’re interested in the living things that inhabit this world with us, then you’ve come to the right place. I’ve always found it fascinating that there are so many different kinds of creatures, living out lives in different ways to us humans. In some cases, it’s difficult to believe that we share the same planet, let alone the same backyard. There are countless species that surprise and delight in your own neighbourhood, and there are many more around the world. I’d like to explore this diversity, and try to share my own excitement about these creatures, whether they are insects, fungi, plants, birds, mammals, or any of the other species that crawl, fly, swim, run or grow across the planet.

To do this, I’m planning on producing posts detailing a specific species or group of species to get a taste of what sort of creatures are out there. I will also occasionally post about my own observations (and photos) of species that I’ve encountered in my own travels in Southern Ontario. Another thing I’d like to do is review books that are relevant to learning about nature, as I have a personal library stocked with some great books about the diversity and wonder of life.

I hope that when you visit this blog you learn a little something, gain a greater appreciation for living things, and get inspired to pay a little more attention to the world of nature that’s all around us.