Once again, it’s been a while, but I have some decent excuses this time. For most of them you’ll just have to wait a little while to get explanations, but this one’s pretty cool, because last month I attended my first official academic conference and it was great.
The International Symposium on Paleohistology is held every two years, and true to its name it really is international – past venues range from Barcelona to Bonn, and they’ll be in Cape Town next. But this year, they ended up in Trenton, at the New Jersey State Museum. Somehow. But since it was basically right next door from both my university and my hometown, I really had no excuse but to go. And it basically shaped the entire previous year – my summer research project initially came to life this past September as a potential foray into Devonian paleohistology, and I was signed up to attend months in advance. (SVP, on the other hand…) And then just like that, it was gone as soon as it arrived.
There’s a lot to say.
Day -1: Hello, New York
I was already putting myself to work two days before the main conference actually started. New York University was kind enough to host a series of methodology-based workshops for attendees, revolving around thin sectioning technique and microscopy. So at 5am on a Saturday I set off for 30th Street Station, en route to the city.
Not only did I and a small group of others have the opportunity to work with some very cool and very expensive equipment to create thin sections of modern and fossil bones, but we also go to take our samples home with us. I don’t have decent pictures of them for some reason, but rest assured I now have resin blocks and microscope slides filled with random cow and hadrosaur bits laying around my dorm room. As it should be.
Day 0: Princeton
Official lodging for the conference was in Princeton. Because it was so close to my hometown, I was able to make other arrangements, but that didn’t stop me from attending the opening reception at Princeton University.
Princeton is an old haunt of mine – I’ve got friends near there, I’ve visited often, and I’ve gone to many a hockey game at Baker Rink during the chilly New Jersey winters. But I never really considered the academics that much. I knew that the university had a significant history in the field, and that they used to have a geology museum of some kind, but for whatever reason I was under the assumption that the departments had been gutted and the museum specimens donated to other institutions or put in storage.
As I discovered, that was not the case.
As a matter of fact Princeton seems to have a thriving geology department that has recently been integrated with environmental science and similar curricula (I wonder where they got the idea from). And Guyot Hall, home to their museum, is still filled with exhibits in a delightfully retro aesthetic. Their Allosaurus centerpiece (pictured above) is old enough that it used to have the old name Antrodemus, and it looks the part, too.
Everyone who showed up got their goodie bags – and whoever was in charge of filling them knew their audience, because the free bottle of PaleoBond was a highlight of the entire week. That, and the lanyards with built-in USB drives. Which I still can’t believe. Whoever came up with that idea should get millions in royalties.
Day 1: A Tale of Teeth
Initially, I was pretty much flying solo for ISPH – but two colleagues from the lab got their registration costs funded, so all three of us set out to Trenton for the first day of talks.
Greg Erickson of bite force mechanics fame started the day off with a keynote discussion on hadrosauroid dental batteries, among other things. It turns out they’re among the most histologically complex teeth currently known. (A special highlight: a slide on Archard’s wear modeling titled only “Science?”)
The first session was all focused on ontogeny and development:
- Oscar Cambra-Moo talked about identifying human rib age classes through histomorphology
- Holger Petermann aged three Anchisaurus specimens based on lines of arrested growth and other skeletal features
- Daniel Barta took a look at the basal ornithopod Haya and found that we don’t actually have any adults yet so we may have to reconsider their diagnostic characteristics
- Eli Amson schooled the audience on xenarthran forelimbs (those’d be sloths, armadillos, and anteaters for the uninitiated) and found that a high degree of anisotropy in the humeri was generally consistent with a more restricted range of movement
- Sophie Sanchez presented some life history data on the tristichopterid fish Hyneria based on histology via synchrotron, also this is exceptionally relevant to my current research and my lab managers are literally coauthors so I feel all warm and happy inside
- After a generous 90 minute lunch break Megan Whitney brought us back with some cute baby emus and started a discussion about the so called “hatching line” purportedly seen in long bone thin sections of dinosaurs extinct and extant, which led directly into…
- Mateusz Wosik’s work on ostriches and hadrosaurs which specifically names this line as the “neonatal signal”, defined as a dark, parallel-fibered zone corresponding with a significant reduction in vascular canal size, and more importantly you can sometimes see raccoon faces in there
- Edina Prondvai sought to identify precocial or altricial habits in a variety of “dinobird” taxa (read: basal avialans), and found that there was a much greater range of intraspecimen variability than one might expect (and it didn’t help that the Jeholornis in the study turned out to be half fake)
- Jennifer Botha-Brink dove straight into prozostrodontian cynodonts from Brazil, a lot of which went a bit over my head because mammals aren’t quite my thing (a line of my notes literally reads “cynodonts, how do they work”), but being able to thin section these tiny bones is really impressive
- Carmen Nacarino-Meneses returned to the idea of birth being histologically visible, and found a corresponding non-cyclical cortex growth mark in young horses that had not yet remodeled their bones
I took the opportunity to score some of the sweet chocolate chip cookies the organizing committee provided before heading back to the next session on dental tissues. And this is where things got really interesting.
- Julia Audije-Gil reviewed a Cretaceous Lagerstätten in Spain and found iron precipitating between the growth lines of crocodile teeth, which has some interesting preservational implications for the site
- Mike D’Emic reaffirmed to everyone in the room that Majungasaurus was Really Freakin’ Weird, and it turns out its tooth replacement rates are more similar to ornithischians than anything else. Also, he went over van Ebner lines, which really do reflect daily dentine deposition because the alternative is ridiculously implausible and would take too long
- Yara Haridy gave a great presentation on Opisthodontosaurus teeth, and it turns out that while it may appear to have acrodont dentition, extant taxa skew our interpretation of what that term really means, and this guy actually grew replacement teeth in the soft tissue of the jaws, leaving remnants of old teeth visible in layers in the alveolar bone
- Aaron LeBlanc was up next and talked mosasaur teeth, where upon examination it turns out that the different tooth attachment structures seen in squamates, archosaurs, and mammals may actually be homologous. Also, mushroom jokes
- Guillem Orlandi-Oliveras gave us a rundown on the many species of Hipparion, and how the small size seen in a few morphotypes is likely a consequence of a fast life history influenced by ecological and dietary pressures
- And finally, Barbara Grandstaff talked about this fish called Cylindracanthus that we still know next to nothing about even after slicing it into bits, and still somehow made it one of the most entertaining and insightful presentations during the entire day.
One down, two more to go.
Day 2: Bottled Sunshine
Our opening keynote lecture for Tuesday was by Phil Manning, who gave an updated and expanded version of his talk on synchrotrons, fossil imaging, and “chemical ghosts”. Let it be stated on the record that I love this man and his work to death. As I was saying to my friends and colleagues afterwards, the guy’s a total powerhouse and publishes on absolutely everything. He was still in the field trenching out giant sauropods the previous morning before flying over to Jersey for the day, and he would be back at it the next day. (He then proceeded to be interviewed by a podcast over the phone in the middle of the dig, then fly to Stanford to do some synchrotron work, and as I write this post he’s in a cave somewhere looking for subfossil mammals. I rest my case about the powerhouse thing.)
We were able to catch up with him and Peter Dodson later in the day and had some good discussions. If you weren’t aware, Manning likes to give out little tidbits and secrets peppered throughout his presentations, but he and his team are working on stuff that I legitimately can’t even mention offhand because of paperwork and press releases. All I can say is that from a perspective of education, outreach, and data collection, I am so incredibly excited about the announcement within the next few months, which at the bare minimum will necessitate literal decades of future research.
On that bombshell, onto the first session of the day on biomechanics:
- Alida Bailleul showed us evidence of avian-style cranial kinesis in Tyrannosaurus, based on preserved cartilage implying the presence of synovial joints
- Jordi Estefa explained how a salamander-like posture isn’t really a good model to reconstruct stem amniotes, and made a convincing case based on humerus morphology that we should really be using echidnas instead
- Lucas Legendre gave us a whirlwind overview of aardvark long bone histology, and suggested that their high-energy digging lifestyle can be seen within ontogenetic changes. Also the man wrapped up with a relevant set of Louis C.K. gifs and I have nothing but respect
- We moved right into a short session on practical methodology where the chief preparator at the Yale Peabody Museum Marilyn Fox gave us some best practices and things to look out for
- Alexandra Houssaye went over the methods she used for quantitative 3D analysis of mammal bone, and reaffirmed to everyone that R is The Best Program
After lunch at the local BBQ (when a native Texan compliments the food you know it’s good), we moved onto physiology:
- Tim Bromage showed us some cool pictures of Spinosaurus bone showing osteons and preserved collagen fibers, work that I think is especially useful given the hoo-ha about the genus in recent years (out-of-context quote of the day: “we need more birds”)
- Maïtena Dumont noted a decrease in cortical vascularity percentage with development and bone remodeling among sauropod dinosaurs, which was work done via synchrotron
- Zachary Boles (one of our own colleagues) talked about turtle types within the Late Cretaceous of New Jersey, and showed that habitat and probable life history could be determined based on shell histology
- Rodrigo Pellegrini brought out some samples of the New Jersey crocodyliform Hyposaurus and gave us a sneak peek into the preliminary histological work being done on a wonderfully intact specimen
The next session was a special one focused around archaeology, so at that point our group went off to explore the New Jersey State Museum. Somehow, the week of the conference was the first time I’d ever set foot in the place, despite living in the state for all of my life. It was well worth it.
Day 3: Family
Then came Wednesday, the third and final day of talks. Peter Dodson kicked things off with the first of two keynotes. Since he’s “admittedly not a histologist” he decided to give a half-historical half-philosophical talk regarding the way in which we view the world – specifically through lenses, both literal and metaphorical. He also made a brief note which stuck out to me about academic lineages – how we can all trace our mentors back to the days of Cope & Marsh and beyond, and how that history is still being written.
Then we broke out for the poster sessions, where presenters from all three days were in attendance. I noticed there were quite a few focusing on medullary bone – turns out it’s a lot more difficult to properly identify than previously assumed.
After lunch we reconvened for the second keynote by Allison Tumarkin-Deratzian, who gave an overview of paleohistological work in the Philadelphia area. UPenn, Temple, and Drexel were all represented, and many of those mentioned were even in the audience. It was nice to realize the existence of such a tight-knit community, a community which I am now a part of, whose history is still being written.
A short session on phylogeny followed:
- John Rensenberger showed the audience how to compare total cell cytoplasm and surface area in a variety of taxa using only some thin section images and a quick primer in Photoshop
- Donald Davesne talked about the repeated evolution of acellular bone in teleost fish, and how he was able to identify which families secondarily evolved cellular bone
And then from there, we were off to Asbury Park for the closing festivities.
The organizers were able to get dinner covered for the entire conference at a fairly fancy restaurant overlooking the waves. And at the end of the night – I’m still not sure if this is an ISPH tradition or what – seemingly out of nowhere, people started throwing paper airplanes back and forth, and pretty soon the room was filled with them flying past our heads.
In that single and surreal moment after three full days of thoughts and theories and opportunity, there could have been no better way to end it.
Epilogue: Farewell from New York
Or, at least, that was originally supposed to be the end.
Wayne Callahan, one of the organizers, is a longtime volunteer at the AMNH in New York, and was able to score some vouchers for any attendees who wanted them. So that Friday, I was once again setting off for 30th Street Station, en route once again to the city, this time with a friend.
The AMNH is one of my favorite places in the world. It has been for over a decade, and I expect it will remain so for a long time. I’ve been there enough times that the familiar setting might start to become tired and weary – but it never does. As museums tend to do, it continues to surprise and amaze.
I was here last in December, and that was also my first time seeing the new titanosaur on display. It takes a lot to impress me these days, but this one was on the verge of crisis-inducing, to say the least. And it’s just as impressive the second time around.
We arrived at the museum bright and early to beat the inevitable crowds and ensure we would be inside at 10am on the dot – and that was the right decision, because when we arrived on the fourth floor there was barely a soul in sight. The room was empty and quiet, save for the echoes of an ancient behemoth, a tremendous ghost that lived on in the hearts and minds of the Earth’s new self-proclaimed kings.
That was the end of the week, and the beginning of a lifetime.