And if I bumped you with my dinosaur tail I apologize. Although I may have not cut as dashing a figure as Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing, if you are going to a conference talking about megafauna- you better learn to live with megafauna. I was just a little surprised there was not more costumes. I mean come on a conference about dinosaurs, mammoths, and other beasties on Halloween and you don't put on a costume?!?
But now I want to talk about what made the event so special and why I would go again in a heart-beat. The people. The students, teachers, artists, writers, researchers, bloggers, and simply just fans of paleontology are a special lot and really made the show. Meeting people from around the world and recognizing a common passion and interest automatically forms a bond that circumnavigates differences in nation, state, sex, economic status or race that was really something special. It also was fun to rub shoulders with the big luminaries in the paleo world and chat them up.
And now to the presentations themselves, what was revealed? Well, I don't want to talk about them right now. They have an embargo policy on them, no photo/video allowed and I am sure you can scour the interwebz if you want the big reveal about Deinocheirus and Brain Switek, the CNN of paleontology, already covered the fighting dino/nanotyrannosaur debacle public vs private debate succinctly. So you can go bugger off if you want to hear stuff about the presentations. I might talk about some of them later but something else is on my mind.
No instead I want to get up on that soapbox, and talk about the role paleontology can play in social/environmental issues and how this potential social role paleontology can play was for the most part largely ignored by both the Society and the presenters at this event. While the Society has made valiant efforts towards education, supporting evolutionary thought and denouncing intelligent design/religious encroachment into public school system (i.e. Louisiana), and probably most noticeably weighed in on making fossils available to the public rather than private hands for research- there was scant mention towards environmental/conservation outreach or crosstalk at the convention. Yes, but this is a conference about dead things, and we only concern ourselves with dead things. And this attitude, which is a a minority one in my opinion, but still ubiquitous enough to be addressed is one I encountered several times at the convention. I don't get it. If you love paleo why should you not love animals whether they are alive or dead? But here is my ultimate point: paleontology offers perhaps the most salient insight into the current extinction crisis we are experiencing right now real time. There is no taphonomic bias going on with this one, no need to send an undergrad out to collect data from the exposure, the data is unequivocal, damning and right in your face with this current extinction crisis. But I only concern myself with dead things. Well don't worry you will have plenty more dead study subjects in the immediate future. Now I recognize that the society has a public statement regarding climate change/and they have addressed the extinction/biodiversity issue in past conventions. But the current extinction crisis, in my biased view (remember I like living animals too), is such a large scale and pressing issue that the society should present it as an ongoing discussion at all society meetings. Have a panel with various top tier people and engage in an open debate regarding the role of paleontology in conservation. Do the same for how to combat non-scientific thinking, or how to win over fence sitters on the creationist/evolution narrative. What I am arguing is that if the society has certain mandates that they claim to uphold and you gather an audience together in one spot who may have a preferential attitude towards upholding those same ideals- then you should weaponize these people with the ability to convey and transmit these ideas to society at large. In this way a person leaving the convention will have not only learned all that is currently known about placodont phylogeny but they also know how to dismantle the arguments of a creationist- if not to change the mind of the creationist (usually impossible) but to win over the fence sitters.
And here is where I want to shift focus from the society but to the attendees of the conference. And yes I myself do not escape the harsh gaze of Sauron's eye on this one. We often use paleontology as an escape from the real world. Let's face it imagining what an an Ordovician sea was like is a lot more fun than doing tax returns. This is fine as long as you know what you are doing. I'm not telling you to stop studying, following, or engaging in paleo professionally or avocationally just as much as I am not telling someone to stop playing fantasy football, life often does suck and this other stuff is way cooler. What I am suggesting is that unlike the person playing fantasy football you actually have useful knowledge in your head that can be applied for use in the world, if not for the few jobs in paleontology, then for other greater social/environmental roles. But unlike the fantasy football player this knowledge was accrued at the expense of yourself, the state, your parents, your family or society at large. Not everyone has the chance to immerse in arcane subjects for years at a time. My question now is what do you do with this burden of knowledge?
And finally where was the effort towards any sorts of awareness of extant vertebrates in southern California and even in Los Angelees? The relict population of mountain lions not living more than 20 miles from the convention in the Santa Monica mountains hemmed in by freeways and urban sprawl?
|Cougar with deer killed. Santa Monica mountains|
Or how about the strange and mysterious deepsea oarfish suddenly washing up on our beaches in the last several months and the potential for interesting taphonomic processes going on there?
|Oarfish washed up on Catalina CA|
The growing prominence of historical ecology, bridging the gap between conservation, history, paleontology and archeology? The lost fauna of California subsequent with western man's arrival including, most famously the grizzly bear but also in many parts of the state jaguar, wolf, beaver, desert bighorn, elk, pronghorn antelope and ringtail? That large tracts of the LA Basin where the convention was held were, contrary to the popular image of desert scrub, consisting largely of gallery forests of riparian vegetation and wetland? Southern Steelhead? Or that the California Grizzly actually was more common in the oak savanna/chaparral communities which dominate in southern California than the redwood forest or high sierra of more northerly areas in the state? Or the great white shark nurseries along the nearby Malibu beaches? The Channel Islands? Blue footed boobies and southern caracaras making range shifts into California? Wind machines and solar panels devastating desert bird/migratory birds in California? The new legless lizards found at LAX?!?
There should have been at least a nod to the several very interesting sagas going on right now with extant vertebrates in California. Perhaps just a local naturalist, LA zoo people, animal trainers, a birder, local marine mammal scientists: you know people who actually deal with live animals? Just a booth or two?
There was one speech about leatherback sea turtles that successfully bridged the gap with due appreciation of modern leatherbacks. But even here it was not conveyed that the leatherback sea turtle is the state marine reptile of California (and our only one). And admittedly I could not see every talk so I probably missed a lot of stuff that gave a local flavor to the convention- there was also an interesting one on grizzly competitive exclusion of coyotes at marine mammal carcasses I missed. My point is that a more distinct Californian flavor could have been conveyed. And if you leaved the convention not aware that the Leatherback sea turtle is the CA state marine reptile there was a failure on some level in my opinion.
And finally I have to take issue with the societies lack of outreach to high school kids and the public in general. Give some passes away to high achieving high school kids that have interest in this stuff. For heavens sake you are in Los Angeles county, there are loads of high schools around with low tax bases! Don't charge the parents who chaperon them or at least give them a price break. And how about the role of the citizen scientist in paleontology? Again I think an opportunity is missed when you gather together a lot of like minded individuals and discussion on these subjects is not allowed a venue.
I realize I may sound a little over critical in some of my views, but like I said earlier I would go again in a heartbeat and it was a blast. But scientific conferences, just like science itself, should be held up to the highest scrutiny for the benefit of all. And I am biased because they should give bloggers a price cut. Because we promote this stuff. And we do it for free.
|Yes that is an elephant bird egg if you were wondering|
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