23 February 2014

Conference Review: NAPC 2014

Conditions in what locals routinely assured
me was the coldest Florida winter in ages
The first Olympics I followed closely were the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer.  The games happened to coincide with a school break and a meeting my dad had in Colorado, so I was in the enviable position of being on vacation, skiing during the day, and watching the Olympics in the evening.  As a 12/13 year old (the games happened to encompass my birthday that year, making the whole thing seem even more exciting) I was a terrible judge of my own abilities and talents, so I started scheming ways to become a Winter Olympian.  The fact that my skiing was, to put it delicately, not of quite the same caliber as that of the athletes I was watching on TV was not completely lost on me, so somehow I got it into my head that bobsled was the sport that would make me famous (this despite the fact that I hadn't been on a sled of any kind in years).  Since then, I've come to accept that, until clumsiness becomes an Olympic sport (please make this happen, IOC, because I have no doubt I would contribute a truly legendary performance), a medal of any color is not likely to be in my future.  Fortunately, the world of paleontology has its major quadrennial events as well, giving all of us who have chosen fossils for their vocation rather than skis, skates, or sleds a chance to stand on a podium in front of peers from across the globe.  One of these was held last week in Gainesville, Florida, where the 10th North American Paleontological Convention was convened.  This year's conference overlapped with the waning days of the Sochi Games and, since I am consequently brimming with Olympic Spirit, let us imagine for a moment that for the purposes of my review a hypothetical paleontological governing body has, for some hilariously misguided reason, given me the authority to hand out medals to the three aspects of the conference that I felt were most deserving.  If you would approach the podium, please...

The State of Florida (Bronze)
Sunset with gator, Lake Alice
With all the development that has occurred in parts of Florida and a general lack of topography, it's easy to overlook the fact that the Sunshine State remains one of the great natural areas in North America.  Florida wildlife is truly spectacular, which makes it a perfect place for a convention of natural scientists.  The host hotel was buzzed by flocks of ibis, vultures, and sandhill cranes, while the pond just across the street was home to a little blue heron that seemed to be very fond of displaying its fish-spearing prowess.  I made a couple of trips further into the UF campus, to Lake Alice, where nature puts on such a great show around sunset that you can't help but wonder why anyone ever bothered to build Disney World.  Large flocks of waterfowl roost at the lake and return to their trees at dusk, just as the healthy population of alligators (and a few massive soft-shelled turtles) move to within a few feet of shore.  The University maintains a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats nearby, and while watching them emerge from the bat houses is spectacular in and of itself, the local red-tailed hawks have figured out that the colony represents a chiropteran smörgåsbord, and the aerial show put on by the raptors and their evasive prey is "red in tooth and claw" nature at its finest.  The fossil record of the state is no less impressive.  The planners of NAPC took advantage of this by running several field trips to sites throughout the state.  I was only able to go on one of these, to a phosphate mine east of Tampa that was rich in shark and ray teeth, dugong ribs, and even a few scattered horses molars.  From what I heard of the other trips, they were equally productive, underscoring just how many fossils you can find when you work in a state composed entirely of sedimentary rocks.  Of course, the classic allure of Florida is its climate, which was, for the most part, a wonderful distraction from the record-cold temperatures that we've been enduring in much of the country.  Ironically, though, it's weather that hurt Florida in the final reckoning, as many flights down were delayed or cancelled due to snow in neighboring states and those of us that stuck around for a few days after the conference were treated to a spectacular and delay-inducing thunderstorm system (that, for the first time, allowed me to experience the pure terror of a zero-second delay between lightning bolt and thunderclap).  However, even the arrival and departure chaos had a silver lining, at least for me.  My flight down was cancelled and I was rerouted to Tampa, which gave me the opportunity to drive up the Gulf Coast past Crystal River, home of the largest concentration of manatees in the world and a display of cooperative hunting of mullet by dolphins and pelicans that made Gainesville's hawks look like amateurs.  As far as the delay in my return to Iowa, well, any day not spent in the snow is a worthwhile one in my book.

The University of Florida (Silver)
The Hall of Florida Fossils
I heard from a few people that the UF paleo program saw NAPC as their coming-out party that would establish them as major players on the paleontology scene, both nationally and globally.  I found this a little puzzling, as I'd already thought of them in this light for some time, but if this was their goal, they certainly succeeded.  The opening event of the conference was held in the Florida Museum of Natural History and while it was under-attended due to delayed flights, the museum is an especially sparkly jewel in UF's crown.  I am perhaps a bit biased, as the the exhibits heavily feature Neogene mammals, but I can think of few other places that so effectively combine classic, specimen-heavy displays with interpretation that puts those specimens in context and makes them valuable educational tools (this is even more true of the other exhibit halls, which seamlessly combined ecology and anthropology).  At the end of the conference the vertebrate paleontology collections staff at the museum were kind enough to let me in on short notice to photograph cat humeri, in which they are exceptionally rich.  In fact, they seem to be exceptionally rich in many types of fossils, from gators to ground sloths.  Not only that, but for a collection as massive as UF's, the specimens are remarkably well-curated and organized, making it a pleasure to work there and an even more valuable resource for those of us who conduct collections-based research.  In between the ice breaker and my collections visit, this meeting did nothing to alter my opinion that NAPC is the best-run conference in paleontology.  Everything from the snacks provided to the registration process had clearly been well thought-out and was efficiently executed.  When the aforementioned snowstorm along the East Coast reared its ugly head, the conference organizers rolled with the punches and accommodated presenters that missed their time slots as well as (or, in fact, better than) could be expected.  No conference is perfect, and in this case the one flaw was the host hotel, which was isolated from the rest of Gainesville and was operated by staff that were either incompetent or possibly just inflexible.  Like a fine Turkish rug, though, no conference should ever be completely perfect, and in any case NAPC can hardly be blamed for the hotel's shortcomings.  On the off-chance that any of the organizers read this blog, let me just offer a hearty 'well done.'  The 2009 NAPC in Cincinnati set the bar very high, and you met their challenge admirably.

My Fellow Paleontologists (Gold)
Paleontologists in their element
Probably the greatest thing about NAPC is that, unlike certain conferences (I'm looking pointedly at you, SVP), it embraces the diversity of backgrounds and interests among its attendees.  Instead of shoehorning presenters into sessions based on the organisms they study, NAPC is organized by the overarching questions being asked by paleontologists and by the methods they use to answer those questions.  This allows you to interact with people whose work might be related to your own but that you might not normally ever encounter, fulfilling the most important function of a conference: to get lots of paleontologists together to share ideas, collaborate, and advance the science.  I always attend fewer talks at conferences than I should, but here are a few highlights of what was being presented this year:
  • I was fortunate enough to be selected for a session on large-scale bias and fidelity of the fossil record, a crucially important topic to understand because of its implications for conservation paleobiology, an emerging discipline that focuses on using the fossil record to predict future ecological change.  The keynote talk in the session, by Matthew Kosnik, showed that due to mixing of sediments at sites along the Great Barrier Reef, interpreting changes through time in "normal" marine communities may not be as straightforward as it might seem.  I followed Josh Miller's talk on comparing live and dead assemblages in Amboseli National Park, Kenya just as I often used to follow his solos back in high school when we played in the same jazz band.  Josh is an even better taphonomist than a trumpeter, which is saying something, and his talk was one of the highlights of NAPC.  His findings suggest that the traditional view that body size is a huge, if not dominant, determining factor in the preservation of fossils mammals is not necessarily true.  In fact, the least well-preserved taxa in his sample were not small mammals as might be expected, but rather cavity-dwelling predators that are active at unusual times during the day, suggesting that when we think about bias in the fossil record we should be thinking in more nuanced ecological terms.
  • Rebecca Terry (bizarrely, another graduate of the same fairly small high school as Josh and myself) spoke on small mammal communities in the Great Basin.  Because most of the small mammals present in the Pleistocene are extant today, they are often the focus of conservation paleobiological studies of change through time.  However, Rebecca suggests that in fact a major ecological restructuring took place in the Great Basin characterized by the preponderance of generalist taxa that may reflect the influence of humans in the area and that underscores the importance of remembering that conditions in the past- including the very recent past - are not always perfect analogs for those of the present and future.
  • Both Felisa Smith and Jonathan Marcot spoke on mammal body size, a topic near and dear to me.  Smith used body size as an example of an ecological trait that can be studied across large spatial and temporal scales through what she referred to as a "macroscope."  Marcot provided a great example of a case study in macroscopic analysis by looking at body size through time in several groups of ungulates and found a roughly synchronous increase in body size in the vicinity of the Oligo-Miocene, suggesting the importance of environmental factors in driving body mass.
  • Of all the sessions at NAPC, none was more interesting to me than the one focusing on the evolution and grasslands and grazers and that that neatly integrated talks by researchers working on vertebrates, plants, soils, and geological processes.  The recurring theme in this session was that one of the oldest "just-so" stories in paleontology is wrong.  Many herbivorous mammals have high-crowned (hypsodont) teeth, and this was long assumed to be an adaptation to eating grass, which contains large amounts of silica in its blades and consequently wears down teeth faster than would a diet of leaves.  Paleontologists have been poking holes in this scenario for years, but the flood gates have really opened recently.  Several talks by Caroline Strömberg and her colleagues detailed the timing of grassland appearance in the Americas and showed that there is no correlation with the evolution of hypsodonty.  Sam Hopkins showed that herbivorous rodents and lagomorphs evolved hypsodonty well before ungulates, suggesting that a grazing diet alone cannot account for high-crowned teeth.  Deborah Rook and Richard Madden both looked at mechanisms by which grit, likely an important factor in the evolution of hypsodonty, could be introduced into grassland environments, and Brian Beatty (standing in for Matt Mihlbachler) addressed the phylogenetic and ecological factors that should be taken into account when studying tooth wear in herbivores.  Another perspective on hypsodonty was provided by Nick Famoso (presenting in the "Blizzard Session"), who showed that within horses there seems to be no connection between hyposdonty and enamel complexity.
  • The grassland session ended with a talk by Lars Werdelin who, along with Mikael Fortelius, is developing a project that will look at the top-down influence of predators in their ecosystems through time.  Several major changes have taken place in predator guilds through the Cenozoic, such as the replacement of creodonts by carnivores in North America and the arrival of placental mammals, including carnivores, in South America but studies of how such events have effected other mammals within paleocommunities are lacking.  Teasing apart biological interactions such as predation from other potential causal factors can be difficult, but if anyone is up to the task it would be Werdelin and Fortelius and I am enormously excited to see what happens as this project unfolds.
  • Probably the most cutting-edge session focused on the use of 3-D imaging in paleontology.  Several talks in this session fell towards the implementation end of the spectrum, about which I am not really able to comment intelligently, but both Aaron Wood and Dave Polly provided really interesting examples of how 3-D scans can augment paleoecological analyses.
This isn't an exhaustive list of the presentations I saw, let alone of everything that was presented at NAPC, and in the interest of limiting this post to a reasonable length I have gone into criminally little detail on them (my apologies to all of these researchers whose work I have turned into short blurbs that do not come close to doing their work justice).  I won't even scratched the surface of all the excellent conversations, both academic and otherwise, that I had with other paleontologists (though I must give a tip of my cap to Caitlin Syme, whose talk I really wish I'd seen, as purely through speaking with her she accomplished the monumental task of convincing me that Mesozoic taphonomy can actually be relevant to what I do and that categorizing preservational environments is much more gloriously complex than I'd given it credit for).  The best way for me to sum it all up is that conferences like NAPC are what make life as a paleontologist worthwhile.  There's a lot of really exciting research going on out there and finding ways in which your work can help build up our understanding of life on Earth in the past, present, and future is thrilling and a very effective way of recharging one's academic batteries.

At this point, my Olympics analogy founders a bit because traditionally this is where a national anthem would be played, and of course there is no anthem for paleontologists...or is there?

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