Saturday, 26 May 2012

Progressive Palaeontology, Cambridge 2012

The last three days were the Progressive Palaeontology conference in Cambridge, which I attended. As a first conference, it's a great one to go to. It's designed mainly for graduate students, meaning the pressure is taken off a bit. It's mainly attended by students from the UK, but there were a few from Europe as well (Poland and Germany). ProgPal started out on Wednesday with a nice reception in the Sedgwick Museum, followed by the presentations and posters on Thursday, and a field trip to some fossil localities on Friday.

Presentation day started out with a talk from Professor Simon Conway-Morris which was pretty interesting. He discussed his belief that palaeontology is not a dying science, but is in fact just at the beginning of it's "life". Good news for us young'uns! The presentations consisted of a wide variety of topics ranging from the possible first biomineraliser in the Ediacaran (by one of my fellow Bristol MSc student Peter Adamson), to fish, to dinosaurs and biomechanics to climate change. Surprisingly, not a single talk on anything related to mammal palaeontology, but most other groups were touched upon. All of the talks were amazing, but a few stood out to me. I was impressed by the undergraduate student from the University of Glasgow who had the guts to get up in front of everyone and talk about her dissertation project on identifying some possible theropod limb bones from Africa. Definitely give her props for showing up to a conference among a bunch of grad students. My favourite presentation was "Ichthyosaur ontogeny and sexual dimorphism", if not because it was started with "One thing I've learned is that if you put sex in the title of a talk, people will show up", but because it was really interesting (Sam Bennett - Royal Holloway). Top presentation went to a talk on Teleost superiority (John Clarke - University of Oxford), while the runners up were "Surface ocean productivity across the Eocene/Oligocene transition" (Katy Prentice - Imperial College London) and "The Jurassic beetroot stone: an old pink and white puzzle revisited" (Holly Barden - University of Manchester). Top poster went to Edine Pape (University of Bristol represent!) on the Evolution of the actinopterygian dermal skeleton, while the runner up was Alex Dunhill (also UoB) on the Phanerozoic of Great Britain. Some interesting stats showed that UoB made up about a quarter of the entire delegation, even more than Cambridge. Slowly starting to realise how big UoB is in terms of UK palaeontology.

Something that isn't really clear to me is how the judging was done for both the posters and presentations. I was told that it's at least somewhat random by people other than the organisers, but then the organisers said that they read through each poster and they were discussed. I think that Edine's poster was awesome and it should have won, but I was curious about the judging since I didn't speak to anyone from the committee about my poster. I'm still a bit confused about how it worked, but oh well!

Next ProgPal will be next year, and it might be in Portsmouth, which would be cool since there are a bunch of pterosaur workers there. Next up on the conference list is SVPCA, which I'm hoping to present some of my findings at. That would be my first ever presentation and I'm nervous already!

Edit: I forgot to talk about the field trip in my first post! In the morning, we went to a working quarry called Kings Dyke, which is a Jurassic marine deposit. It is kind of shaley/clay, very fine grained and very fragile fossils mostly. In it there are tons and tons of belemnites, some ammonites, and bivalves. We did find one pretty nice fish scale, but that was about it. The belemnites were best preserved while the ammonites kind of crumbled in your hand... After lunch, we headed off to a reservoir near Yaxley where we could collect fossils from the water bank. More marine fossils, but here we found crinoids, some more shells, and really tiny ammonites that were preserved really well. Pretty cool!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Tarbosaurus Auctioned Off

Just a bit of an update on the illegally collected Tarbosaurus skeleton that was on auction at Heritage Auctions in the US.

Ok so despite there being a Temporary Restraining Order against the auction of the Tarbosaurus skeleton, Heritage Auctions went along with the auction yesterday. The lawyer who got the restraining order was present at the auction and when he tried to protest, called the judge who gave the order, he was ushered out and asked to leave. Apparently they have no interest in not only following Mongolian law, but also American law. They have said that the sale of the skeleton is "contingent upon resolution of a court hearing", but we'll see. For more details on the auction, see Brian Switek's blog

Also, the Daily Mail has released some information about how the fossil came to be in the US. Apparently it was collected in 2005 by a private fossil collector in England, and then partially put together in the UK, then it was shipped to the US where it was finished. However, none of these details have been officially confirmed, but the article can be found here.

(I tried to add this update to the bottom of my previous post, but Blogger hates me and it didn't want to work, so I had to write a new post)

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Illegal fossils from Mongolia

So I know a number of people are doing their own posts about the illegal fossil trade that comes out of Mongolia, but I thought I'd give my two cents. In case you haven't heard, there is a Tarbosaurus bataar (referred to as Tyrannosaurus bataar) skeleton going on auction in the U.S. tomorrow. Now for those of you who aren't palaeontologists, you may ask "who cares?" Well in short - all palaeontologists care, and really, everyone else should too.
Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton on auction by Heritage Auctions

Mongolia has very strict laws on fossil exports. Basically, you can't legally export any fossils that come from Mongolia. Now this has been made very clear by a number of palaeontologists who have done work in Mongolia. The auction house selling the skeleton claims that there is no way to know where the skeleton comes from, but they do say that it's from the Gobi Desert. Ok technically, that could mean it's from China, but lets face it, that's not likely. And even if it did, it would be against Chinese law too! That skeleton came from Mongolia, and if it did, there's no way it was exported to the U.S. legally.

How does this happen? Fossil poaching. There are some locals that know how much money they can get for these fossils. After a fossil is uncovered by a scientist but can't be removed for whatever reason, the poachers remove it before the palaeontologist can return to collect it (usually from one year to the next). This has been well documented and has happened to several palaeontologists, including Dr. Michael Ryan (read about it here). So again, you ask, why do we care? Well several reasons really. The main reason is that usually what happens is that these fossils that are obtained illegally get lost to science. They often go to private collectors and it sits in their basement gathering dust. Most palaeontologists aren't interested in fossils that are obtained illegally, so even if it comes to their attention, it doesn't get studied. But what about this specimen? It's going on auction so surely an institution could buy it? Sure it's possible, but again, if it's illegally collected, most scientific institutions will shy away from it. If it is proven to be illegally collected, then they've just wasted a lot of money on something they will have to return to Mongolia. That is, if they even have the money to collect it. Museums these days don't have a lot of extra money hanging around to buy things like this. If it sells, this skeleton could go for around $1 000 000, which is a lot of cash! The other reason it's bad is that it encourages people to do it more. If no one buys these fossils, the poaching will decrease since they can't make any  money off of it. This way, it just encourages the ones responsible. Quite often these poachers destroy specimens to get what they want. They may  hack off bones to get as much as they can from a difficult to remove specimen, or they blast them to pieces trying to remove them. So many fossils get destroyed by this.

Now the president of Heritage Auctions, where the skeleton is set to go on auction tomorrow, has responded with a fairly stupid response. On a petition site to stop the auction, he has said this:

From Greg Rohan, President 
Heritage Auctions
The opening statement in this petition is false and reckless. There is no evidence that we have seen regarding where the fossils were collected, or that they were collected illegally.We appreciate your concerns relating to the Tarbosaurus but it is our conclusion that no impropriety exists with regards to its sale at auction. You should all be aware that this auction has been publicicized broadly for 4 weeks and the Mongolian Governments request issued today, less than 48 hours before the auction is unreasonable and inappropriate.We have no reason to believe that any laws enforced by the United States have been violated and we are unaware that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia. Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is obviously quite a bit older than that. Further, we are not aware of any treaty between the United States and Mongolia which would prevent the import into the United States and are equally unaware of any prohibition of export, particularly since Mongolia has not produced any factual or legal document supporting a possible claim.We have asked Mongolia if they had failed to tell us of a known prohibition preventing auction, and so far they have not.  
Our consignor is an individial with a good reputation and he has warrantied in writing to us that he holds clear title to the specimen.
All I can say is: what?! Ok, maybe there isn't direct evidence as to where it was collected or that it they were collected illegally, but if you're unaware of  "that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia", then you obviously haven't done your homework. AND you have a whole load of palaeontologists that have been working under these laws for years telling you that you are wrong. You obviously aren't trying to fix things. Furthermore, what does the age of the country have to do with anything?? Since when does the age of the country affect whether you can remove fossils? Does that mean that anyone has access to things like fossil fuels all over the world because the country is younger than the fuel is, so the laws don't affect it? I don't think so. Fine, you didn't realise it was illegal in the first place, but now you have clearly been told there is a problem, so do the right thing and take it off the market. 
Dr Mark Norell, curator at the AMNH has issued a letter regarding the fossil, and can be read here, along with another summary of the auction. Many other well known palaeontologists are spreading the word and urging for this auction to stop, including Dr Mike Taylor, Dr David Weishampel, Dr Kevin Padian, and many many more. 
Even if you are not a palaeontologist, I urge you to sign the petition. It may not help, but it certainly can't hurt. The more people that do it, the better. If you support science, and like looking at fossils, please sign it. The petition can be found at
And now my ranting for the day is done. But seriously, sign it. 

Apparently a temporary restraining order has been issued by a judge in Texas to prevent the sale of the Tarbosaurus skeleton. A lawyer was hired on behalf of the Mongolian president and they were able to at least temporarily halt the auction. Unfortunately, it is only for the one skeleton, not the other several fossils that are from Mongolia at all. Read Brian Switek's blog here to see the press release. What happens from this will be extremely important in the future of sales of illegally smuggled Mongolian fossils.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Who am I? Why am I doing this?

Just a quick introduction about me and the blog. I did my BSc at the University of Alberta in Canada under the supervision of Phil Currie. I was looking at variation of skull morphology in Centrosaurus apertus. It was great fun, but I wasn't sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life looking at ceratopsians (although they are pretty cool). On a trip to France, I had a chance to go to a small palaeontology museum  in Esperaza. Although this museum is quite small compared to what I'm used to (the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta), they had something I had never seen before: a complete skeletal replica of Quetzalcoatlus standing at full height. At that moment, standing in front of this huge, strange animal skeleton, I was hooked. I decided pterosaurs were the coolest thing ever and I wanted to study them. Deciding on a location for a postgrad was difficult, since my fiancĂ© was also looking for a postgrad position (in physics, totally unrelated to palaeo). After narrowing it down to three institutions, we decided on Bristol. So far it has been fantastic. Instead of choosing an advertised project for my MSc (which is what we were supposed to do and everyone else did), I contacted Colin Palmer, who is working on pterosaur flight mechanics at UoB, and he designed a project for me. I'm currently looking at basically every CT scan that has ever been done on ornithocheirids (which isn't actually that many) and trying to estimate the skeletal weight. So far, the project is going very well, despite being about a month behind the rest of the program because of a family emergency. I'm currently working on my first attempt at a publication, which I hope will be submitted soon. Eventually, when I have time, I still plan on submitting my undergraduate work on Centrosaurus for publication, but of course my pterosaur work takes precedent! I have been accepted to a PhD next year at the University of Bristol, and I'm looking forward to that for sure.

This blog will mostly be on pterosaurs, my work, and other people's work, but I will occasionally post on dinosaurs, fossils, general palaeontology, etc. I'm mostly interested in functional and biomechanical aspects of pterosaurs, but I'm also interested in their evolution, so I'll occasionally talk about the too. Basically my goal is to start discussing palaeontological things with other palaeontologists, and get some non-experts interested too!

Hope you all enjoy!
Quetzalcoatlus skeletal mount at Le Musee des Dinosaures in Esperaza, France