Thursday, February 20, 2014

Blogiversary Isn't a Real Word

Apparently, as of today, I've spent the past year not blogging nearly as much as I'd like, but infinitely more than I did before. I could make this post a retrospective of the topics I've covered, but all of my previous work is readily available for perusal. Instead, I'll use this space to cover an event that took place seven months ago, because this way I kill two birds with one stone. For any of my readers that attended the Dino Shindig in Ekalaka, Montana, this will be a nice flashback. For everybody else, prepare to have your minds blown. (I may be overselling the magnitude of the event and/or the quality of my writing, but I'll claim artistic license.)

For those who are unaware, Ekalaka is a pleasant little town in southeastern Montana that barely qualifies as a map dot. It has two places to eat, one bar, two motels, and a small grocery store. (I still get a chuckle when I think about the one restaurant I frequented being called RB's. Feel free to let that soak in. I would be remiss if I didn't also note that the building was previously occupied by a propane distributor.) Ekalaka is also home to the Carter County Museum, which is curated by Nate Carroll, who was largely responsible for the Shindig event.

Ekalaka's real claim to fame though is the nearby Hell Creek Formation and the many fossils that have been or will be discovered there. This of course was the reason the Dino Shindig was even possible, as paleontologists from around the country were planning to be in the area for field season and agreed to give presentations.

In honor of the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film, here's a raccoon stuck in a fence.

I decided to attend the Shindig because of the timing. It took place on 26-27 July 2013, and as 25 July was my thirtieth birthday, I felt that driving across the state to learn more about dinosaurs and see a dig site was a great way to celebrate. I managed to book a room at the Midway Motel and reserve my spot on the actual dig roughly a month in advance, so I was ready to rock with plenty of time to spare. Needless to say, the trip was worth the wait. (This is another artistic license thing, as "Needless to say" is really a paradoxical statement. But I digress...)

I arrived in Ekalaka later in the evening on my birthday so I could get settled in for the two days of excitement. After I got everything into my room, I took a brief walk about town and wound up hanging out at the bar for a while. (They have a wi-fi hotspot there. I'm one of those hardcore types who spends time at these places playing Words with Friends and drinking Coca-Cola.) After successfully wasting what remained of my evening, I retired to my room.

The talks started early that next day. (I was in summer mode, so early is relative. I think I had to wake up at 7am. Poor me...) I managed to find the building where this was all going down after some aimed meandering and I arrived in plenty of time to get a good seat. I even had a chance to b.s.with none other than Dr. Thomas Holtz about social media's ability to fast-track new information. (In case anyone is curious, this article about Osama bin Laden's demise was my contribution.)

They seemed to have a lot of fun making signs for the event. Good thing too, or else I might still be lost.

I definitely enjoyed the talks from that day. I won't go into much detail, as deciphering my notes is tough enough the next day, let alone seven months after the fact. (Here's a link to them for the truly dedicated. Warning: I write in cursive, because I am a classy dude.) Seven speakers presented that day, and they all brought something interesting to the table.

First to the plate was Scott Williams from the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois. His talk centered on the Hell Creek Formation and the different discoveries he had been a part of there. He also introduced what seemed to be a theme at the event with his mention of "Nanotyrannus".

Dr. Joseph Peterson from University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh was next. He gave an informative talk on "dino sores" and pathology. He discussed healed snout lesions on T. rex specimens and the implication of intraspecific combat while touching on taphonomy (what happens to a specimen during fossilization) and using living animals as a model for dinosaur behavior. (Since science is about fancy terms, I'll call this utilizing the extant phylogenetic bracket.) The most valuable part of Dr. Peterson's presentation may have been this quote: "Paleopathologies answer the how but not the why."

I'm arbitrarily placing photos of Ekalaka as spacers. Welcome to the town's only gas station.

Following Dr. Peterson was Dr. Mark Goodwin from the University of California-Berkeley to discuss pachycephalosaurs. This seemed an appropriate order since Dr. Goodwin's subject was directly related to a recently published paper co-authored by Dr. Peterson. (As a matter of fact, at least one of Dr. Goodwin's presentation images was pulled directly from that paper.) The main topic of this talk was the plausibility of headbutting pachycephalosaurs. Dr. Peterson's research produced pathological evidence that it may have occurred, and Dr. Goodwin addressed the issue with histological evidence that it would have ended poorly for the animals. (Apparently that dome on their heads was too squishy to be much help. My thoughts? I imagine they may have done some headbutting, but not ritualistically. I would equate the behavior to my punching a windshield once or football players leading with the crown of their helmet on a tackle.) The extant phylogenetic bracket made another appearance here, with the behavior of crested birds presented as evidence against headbutting pachys. Dr. Goodwin also addressed ontological changes in pachycephalosaurs and the idea that some named genera are actually juvenile growth stages of Pachycephalosaurus. (I'll save that discussion for another blog post. Those domeheads were fascinating creatures.)

I feel as though this post needs an intermission. Enjoy!

Welcome back! The next speaker was Dr. Thomas Carr from Carthage College, discussing Tyrannosaurus ontogeny. His presentation centered around his system for identifying the various growth stages using various features of the skulls and how this essentially proved that the most famous "Nanotyrannus" specimen was merely a juvenile T. rex. The highlight of his talk was a surprisingly funny story. I don't remember the location or what he found, but Dr. Carr was walking along when he saw something. As he said, "Hey that looks like [insert item description here], but that can't be what it is, because all I find is crap." (I know I'm representing this as a quote, but I'm honestly using a facsimile of what I remember him saying. I'm calling it close enough.)

After Dr. Carr, it was Dr. Jack Horner's turn. (I think lunch may have been in between, but I don't see much point in discussing it. Okay, fine. They had a big barbecue outside the museum with lots of family-oriented activities. That's it, so now I'm moving on.) Dr. Horner presented on Triceratops, parsimony, and "unified frames of reference to space and time". He defined parsimony as the simplest answer and used that along with his frames of reference (geography, taphos, stratigraphy, ontogeny, and phylogeny) to discuss the ongoing debate regarding Torosaurus and Triceratops. (I hear a lot of chatter on this from both sides. It's always fun when smart people debate using valid points. This does not apply to the Bill Nye/Ken Ham creationism debate. The Science Guy would have been better off talking to a wall.)

This was the promotional sign attached to the side of the museum. I thought the design was pretty interesting. (Also appropriate, yet unintentional placement of a picture of a wall.)

Following Dr. Horner was Dr. Tyler Lyson, who thought he should talk about turtles at something called "Dino Shindig". He said a lot of interesting things, but I'll sum it all up with one interesting quote. "Slow & steady survives the major extinction events." I would say more, but Dr. Lyson's talk was rather technical and I don't feel like writing about turtles.

The final speaker of the event was that Dr. Holtz guy I mentioned before. For anyone that has attended one of his presentations, you can imagine it was quite the spectacle. (For anyone who has not, here's a video from his presentation titled "The Life and Times of Tyrannosaurus rex", given at the Burke Museum in Seattle.) This talk was even blessed with a title: The West and the End of Dinosaurs. Dr. Holtz said a lot of interesting stuff, and I wrote most of it down. Sadly there's so much that I'm just going to share his best quotes so I don't sprain my fingers.

"There are ten types of people; nine types of stupid people and people that love dinosaurs."

After discussing stratigraphy and phylogeny reducing the number of species during a period of time: "Diversity declined during the middle of a talk!"

Finally, easily the quote of the day as far as I'm concerned: "No one's gonna come to a conference on dinosaurs and expect ornithology."

Dr. Holtz and me after all of the events for the day had concluded. Since you're wondering, my tee shirt says, "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!" It's not easy looking serious while wearing that.

After the presentations, there was a small auction. They sold off some casts of a T. rex claw, some signed tee shirts, donated memorabilia, and a hammer engraved by all of the presenters. The hammer easily outpaced the other items in the bidding, going for over $500, which may have actually exceeded the combined total from the rest of the lot. (One highlight was watching Nate try to auction. His dad did a good job of having his back.)

I wasn't leaving the auction empty handed. Had to outbid Dr. Holtz for this.

As I was famished from all of the sitting I did during these presentations, it was truly a blessing that next up was a pancake supper. (On a serious note, lunch was actually a bit of a letdown for me.) Unfortunately, I had packed some books for Dr.'s Holtz and Horner to sign while I was there, but they were still in my motel room. As I can be surprisingly dedicated when a cause suits my fancy, I braved the long hike back to gather my roughly 25 pounds of hardcover dinosaur literature and march back for some food. (I also stopped in at the previously mentioned grocery store and bought some Sharpies.)

The speakers from L to R: Scott Williams, Dr. Mark Goodwin, Dr. Tyler Lyson, Dr. Jack Horner, Dr. Thomas Carr, Dr. Joseph Peterson, Dr. Thomas Holtz. (That tree is a total buzzkill for the shot.)

The pancake supper did not disappoint. The eggs and ham offered as side dishes were probably the highlight for me, aside from having a table to myself in the back. The extra space came in handy when Dr. Holtz came back to sign my books. This was also when he told me the etymology of the term "thyreophoran" and how it relates to the thyroid gland. Getting Dr. Horner's signature on my books proved a little more difficult as I had to wait him out while he talked to several people. Luckily, I had plenty of time, as the final event of the day wasn't for a couple of hours.

To close things out, the bar in town hosted a dance with a live band. I'm not really into those things, but I went anyway. Social events where you don't know anyone can be fun when you'll talk to everyone. At the very least, it was a big improvement over sitting alone in my motel room. I did meet some interesting people from a lot of places, and the bartenders did a good job of keeping my coffee cup full. (Alcohol just isn't my thing.) After closing down the bar, I headed back to get some shuteye, because I had a long, busy day ahead of me.

Notes: I'll post about the remainder of the Shindig soon. There's a lot to share and I wish I'd done it months ago.

I actually started this on the anniversary of my first post, but I'm finishing it a bit late. I'm counting it anyway.

Twitter handle: Dr. Tyler Lyson - @DiggingDinos

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