Palaeontology meeting in Dublin

Every year towards the end of December, fossil enthusiasts and researchers gather to take part in the Palaeontological Association (PalAss) Annual Meeting.

This past December, the meeting was held in UCD, Dublin, Ireland.

Below is my account of the talks and events that took place, which was just published in the PalAss Newsletter.

“Dublin gave palaeontologists a warm winter’s welcome on Sunday 16th December, as they descended on the halls of UCD. After a welcome address given by Stephen Daly, Head of UCD’s School of Geological Sciences, the conference kicked off with a thematic symposium dedicated to “Taphonomy and the Fidelity of the Fossil Record.”

Firstly, Derek Briggs opened our eyes to the limits of the fossil record and delighted us with beautiful examples of soft tissue preservation. Next, Alan Channing made the case that in hot spring environments taphonomic filtering is replaced by ecological and ecophysiological filtering. He was followed by Susan Kidwell, who spoke about the use of death assemblages in evaluating modern ecosystems. She concluded that it is a great time for taphonomy and palaeoecology, which have promising applications in conservation biology.

Icebreaker Reception at UCD

Icebreaker Reception at UCD

After a short break, Maria McNamara took us on her whistle-stop tour of colour in the fossil record. Through her experiments and many striking images of colour in insects and theropods, she cautioned that more taphonomic experiments are needed to study how colour alters during fossilization. Next, Rob Sansom spoke about how decay affects the position of organisms in phylogenetic trees and made the case for a careful revision of phylogenetic placements. The symposium was concluded by Clive Trueman’s talk on the tissue chemical records of animal behaviour: he explored how new developments in isotope ecology may help palaeoecologists understand the behaviour of past organisms and ultimately bridge the gap between the fields of modern ecology and palaeoecology.

The take home message from the symposium was that much remains to be done in the field of taphonomy and exciting research lies ahead.

Following the symposium, delegates packed the lecture theatre in occasion of the annual address, delivered by Chris Stringer and entitled “New views on the origin of our species.” After reminding us what it means to be humans in terms of shared behaviours such as using tools and modern technology, he took us through the different ideas developed to explain where we originated. Modern genomic-scale studies have shown that Homo sapiens doesn’t have a purely African origin, but there is a small, but significant signal of introgression from archaic modern humans into early modern humans. In fact, it appears that we interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans, as well as another archaic source. This fascinating address certainly reminded us that our genome is a patchwork and it paved the way for much discussion during the icebreaker reception, hosted by Fáilte Ireland. Colleagues, friends, seasoned researchers and students all mingled by the Christmas tree in the Astra Hall of UCD.

Monday morning’s presentations kicked off in style with the wonderful Cambrian arthropods! Greg Edgecombe started the session by shedding new light on the neuroanatomy of exceptionally preserved arthropods. Allison Daley’s talk on Anomalocaris from the Burgess Shale presented new information on the morphology of anomalocaritids. And how could one forget the photos she showed us of her beloved soft toy Anomalocaris? Next, a foray into the lesser known but equally fascinating Sidneya by Martin Stein. This was followed by Martin Smith’s reinvestigation of Nemalothallus, a carbonaceous fossil previously reported to be an early-Palaeozoic land plant. Exceptional preservation of cuticle from the Silurian of Gotland allows the fossils to be interpreted as extinct coralline red algae. Finally, Lea Devaere taught us about an early Cambrian microfauna from Southern France and Thomas Harvey took us through his fascinating array of Small Carbonaceous Fossils (SCFs) from the Middle to Late Cambrian of Canada.

Following a short break, the next sessions were parallel and topics ranged from the palynology of the 2004 tsunami deposits of Thailand, to amber deposits to plant biodiversity reconstructions from pollen assemblages. Sarah Gabbott spoke about lampreys and hagfish, in the context of the evolution of visual systems. She presented new data from analysis of fossil cyclostomes, suggesting that the ancestral vertebrate had a functional visual system. In the same session, Mark Purnell captured everyone’s attention with his experimental decay of velvet worms, speaking of the rates of decay in different parts of the lobopod body and how they relate to phylogenetic analysis. Christian Klug showed us beautiful examples of soft-part preservation in Cretaceous ammonites, including stomach, oesophagus, crop, jaws, radulae and other more enigmatic structures. He noted that fossil lagerstätte have great potential for more soft tissues. So exciting times lie ahead!

Mike Howe presented a new and exciting project, which aims to create an online database of type fossils held by several major museums, with high resolution photographs and 3D scans (for more information see http://gb3dtypefossils.blogspot.co.uk/).

The afternoon sessions included talks by Neil Davies on the relationship between terrestrialization of plants and animals and Palaeozoic diversification of alluvial sedimentary facies. He made the case that changes in geomorphology, in particular expanding alluvial niches, played a significant role in driving terrestrialization of early continental life. With Jan Rasmussen’s talk, we delved into time series analysis in distal shelf environments in the Middle Ordovician of Baltica. In a parallel session, Paul Taylor’s talk critically re-examined the claim that the oldest bryozoan may coincide with the oldest pennatulacean. Many more talks entertained the delegates before a short coffee break and the final session of the day.

Dinner at the Old Jameson Distillery

Dinner at the Old Jameson Distillery

What better topic to kick off the next session than dinosaur trackways? Peter Falkingham explained how computer simulations cab be used to reconstruct foot motion. Next up, Carys Bennett had us all spellbound with her pelagic trilobite eyes and the potential of oxygen isotopes from their calcitic lenses as a palaeotemperature proxy. Graeme Llyod later spoke of a new method for dating phylogenetic trees that helps bridge the molecular-fossil gap.

Soren Hemmingsen and Micheal Benton concluded the session by launching the first issue of Virtual Palaeontology, freely available online and dedicated to the origins of biodiversity.

Delegates then made their way to the Old Jameson Distillery for the Annual Dinner. Following on from a drinks reception, delegates were treated to the Jameson whiskey tour, topped off with a complimentary tasting of the famous spirit. After a delicious meal, PalAss president Micheal Benton presented the annual awards. The Hodson Award went to Jakob Vinther, a young researcher who has established himself as a global leader in the study of coloration in dinosaur and fossil birds and in the uses of fossils in reconstructing the pattern of character evolution in bilaterian phyla.

Harry Dowsett was the recipient of the President’s Medal, awarded for his contribution to palaeoclimate studies and to the field of Neogene foram evolution. And, as Mike Benton noted, personally identifying over 1 million foraminifera certainly deserves a prize!

This year the Mary Anning Award finally went to a woman, the first time since it was established in 2002: the recipient was Alice Rasmussen, who passionately collected, curated and prepared fossils, as well as planning fossil exhibitions and writing popular guidebooks. Her collections provided material for more than ten publications and a PhD thesis.

The Lapworth Medal, the association’s highest award for lifelong achievement and a contribution to science at the highest international level, went to Euan Clarkson, who made major contributions in four areas, namely vision in trilobites, the conodont animal, Carboniferous arthropods, and the evolution of Early Palaeozoic marine faunas.

Sleepy-eyed delegates made their way to the poster session early on Tuesday morning. Pastries and coffee, together with aesthetically pleasing posters, worked well in reviving and awakening the spirit. For example,

The Poster Prize went to Emma Locatelli for her poster on crab taphonomy and the prize for Best Talk went to Nicholas Longrich for his insight into how snakes and lizards (Squamata) were affected by the Cretaceous-Palaeogene mass extinction. Through careful revision of fossil squamates from the Maastrichthian and Palaeocene of western North America, he showed that the end-Cretaceous mass extinction was far more severe than previously believed. In addition, post-extinction recovery was prolonged, thereby underscoring the role of mass-extinctions in driving diversification.

Andrew Knoll’s lecture was superb. He reminded us about the value of an interdisciplinary approach in answering key questions in the history of life.

What a fitting end to an excellent conference. But the fun didn’t have to end here: some delegates took the opportunity to attend the British Sedimentological Research Group (BSRG) annual meeting, kicking off that very evening in UCD.

Sincere thanks are due to Paddy Orr, all the organizers and the volunteers.

Forgive the dinosaur reference, but the meeting was a roaring success!”

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