Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Crowdsourced TetZooCon 2015 report

TetZooCon 2015 back in November was a great success and a lot of fun, I only regret I wasn't able to stay 'till the end. Naturally, Pygmy Elephants was on sale throughout the day at a discount. (Extra links will be added to this post shortly.)

The venue was the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes, which must have London's most spectacular view from a Gent's toilet's window, even on a very rainy day like the day of TetZooCon.

First on was TetZoo instigator Darren Naish, on "The Evolution of Sea Monsters", and some of ridiculous lengths cryptozoologists have gone to in order to try to fit a vast range of one-off sightings into known zoology, often including hypothetical loosely species based on the fossil record but given a bizarre (and evidence-free) evolutionary spin in an attempt to accommodate them (clumsily) into known zoology.

I particularly liked Naish's "cryptozoological pyramid of inferences":

I was on next, speaking on, you guessed it, pygmy elephants. I'll leave the audience - both in the room and monitoring it via Twitter - to summarise my talk.

This included Loxodonta pumilio, an alleged pygmy elephant species, a specimen of which was once on show at Bronx Zoo. Although when he died and his remains went the American Museum of Natural History in New York a century ago, they were pretty convinced he was a bog-standard juvenile forest elephant.

"Congo", as Bronx Zoo's "pygmy elephant" specimen was known, is regarded as the best evidence for a pygmy elephant in uncritical internet regurgitation circles, but few realise that he was an infant at the time. The talk was an opportunity to show some rarely seen "before" and "after" photos that make "Congo" seem less like a pygmy after all...

It's always interesting to see what engages the punters most, and at TetZooCon it seemed to be:

World Wildlife Fund Malaysia accidentally upgrading its Borneo (Asian) elephants to "pygmy elephents" in a press release (more on this here.):

(Paleo-artist Jon Conway is co-instigator of TetZooCon.)

The discussion of how much smaller Borneo elephants are than mainland Asian elephants prompted a virtual exchange with Dr Victoria Herridge, the Natural History Museum's discoverer of Mammathus creticus (and more recently another Mediterranean pygmy elephant), as well as the presenter of Mammoth Autopsy. It ended with a virtual wave to me from Tori.

The revelation that miniature, fist-sized "pygmy elephant" talismans change hands in Thailand and Burma for a lot of money, and their extraordinary source, caused a lot of excitement:

As did the assertion, put about by British big game hunter WR Foran and others, that perfidious French ivory hunters invented the whole "pygmy elephant" thing as a scam to circumvent regulations banning the shooting of juvenile elephants, by claiming that they'd just shot adult (made-up) pygmies instead:

Punters also found the idea of fossil Mediterranean pygmy elephants having litters particularly cool. In answer to a question, I explained that the Spignallo Cave site in Sicily yielded lots of pygmy elephant skeletons, of which many were juveniles or infants. This suggests a high level of infant mortality, and the bit about pygmy elephants having litters of several young was speculation based on this. (Modern African elephants have only one calf at a time, with a gestation period of almost two years. There's a life reconstruction of a juvenile Elephas falconeri here and a "fossil pygmy elephant identification chart" here.)

One of the audience identified with the Sicilian fossil pygmy elephant Elephas falconeri (aka Paleoloxodon falconeri) in particular, as he was from Sicily too (or at least from Italy). (Although his photo actually shows the pygmy stegodon Stegadon floriensis on the left, from Indonesia. Elephas falconeri is here.)

There was also Twitter chatter about "hoaxes involving young", particularly those perpetrated by circus manager PT Barnum, and Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey's Circus, who had several dodgy pygmy elephants in their menagerie:

The bit about forest elephant females, from their late teens upwards, adopting the orphaned infants who had lost their mothers to poachers after they had weaned also provoked responses. This is in the Dzanga Clearing study of forest elephant behaviour, carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Central African Republic, which lasted well over a decade. Orphan savannah elephant infants, by contrast, invariably don't survive. (It's thought that a 1982 photo from Congo Brazzaville of a herd of small elephants, with young, is in fact a herd of infants orphaned by poaching and adopted by teenage females. You'll have to read Pygmy Elephants for more information, it includes a reproduction of the 1982 photos of the Congo-Brazzaville alleged pygmy elephant herd.)

There followed Jessica Lawrence-Wujek's talk on why Ichthyosaurs are the coolest reptiles of the Mesozoic. The more you study Ichthyosaurs, the more bizarre they get, particularly their paddles. These started life as the fingers of a limb, but these seem to have sprouted more and more bits out of the sides of what used to be digits as they evolved. They were creatures of the "shallow seas" - seas of around 100 feet deep at the most, but their big eyes suggest they may have been diving further into the dark depths of the Mesozoic waters.

Urban birder David Lindo described how his "Great British Bird" competition elected the robin as Britain's favourite bird - appropriate, as robins behave differently in the UK than on the European mainland. On the Continent, they're forest birds that follow deer or bison, waiting for the to churn up the bugs they feed on. Only in Britain are they garden birds that look to human gardeners to turn up bugs for them. He described the awkward silence in a North American bird hide when he shouted excitedly about seeing a particular type of rare tit. "We call it a titmouse or a chicadee", a North American birder eventually told him.

Vicky Coules recounted The Future is Wild, an After Man-style animated series about the animals that inherit the Earth after we leave (in spaceships to go to a nicer planet, apparently, at the behest of the American network funding it.) Elephantine megasquid colonise the land looking very much like HP Lovecraft's Cthulu. An elephant seal-like giant flightless gannet colonised the frozen regions. Mammals are consigned to history, the last one being a hamster-like "pog" kept as food by seed-gathering spiders. The future Earth includes an Antarctic rain forest, which reminded me of the "Strontium Dog" story from 1980s 2000AD sci-fi comic in which mutant bounty hunters land in an Antarctic rainforest (the result of human-made climate change) and encounter fauna including "monkey-gators".

There then followed the paleoart session on which Naish, Conway and Mark Witton (they all know their pterosaurs!) led us in an illuminating life reconstruction exercise. We were given deliberately badly done cast of one of the Solnhofen pterodactyl casts (one of the people on my table had actually been to Solnhofen) and asked to draw it as a bird, a bat, a reptile or whatever the features suggested. My hopping moorhen with teeth that couldn't fold its wings fully and that had vestiges of fingers used as sort of whiskers to detect wind direction didn't make the top five. Then I had to dash off on Mystery Animals of Suffolk business, I very much regret.

Both Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs and the Scientific American TetZoo blog have excellent reports on TetZooCon 2015.