Conference Wrapup: SVP 2013, Los Angeles

Authors: Brianna and Kelsey

We’ve just returned from our third time at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting, and our first as graduate students. What a wonderful, exhausting, exciting experience! SVP is always a great meeting, and it gets more fun every year. The first year or two were much more stressful because we didn’t know many people (more thoughts on conference-going as an undergrad in a future post), so it was nice to relax a little more. This was also the first time we really looked forward to reconnecting with our undergrad friends and mentors, the UO Paleontology crew. It was a bit like an early, very scientific Thanksgiving.

Instead of trying to sum up the whole conference, we’re planning to share a few highlights: our favorite talks and posters, how our presentations went, things we really enjoyed about this year’s venue, and a few bits we think could be improved in the future.

Favorite talks
Brianna: It’s tough to choose. One that really impressed me was Paul Koch’s investigation of network structure in Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions. He argued that extinctions have two main components- external factors, which trigger extinction, and internal factors, which are system properties that allow the effects of those triggers to operate. This second component is often overlooked, so he (and coauthors Pires and Guimaraes) set about investigating whether Pleistocene assemblages were in some intrinsic way more likely to collapse. They compared megafaunas from modern Africa and Pleistocene North and South America, looking at networks of relationships between animals. They modeled the probability of two animals interacting as a function of predator-prey body mass ratios. Essentially, the model specified that every time a large predator runs into a prey animal, it’s going to be bad for the prey; every time an animal runs into a conspecific, it’s going to be bad (because intraspecific competition); every time a smaller predator runs into a prey animal larger than itself, nothing happens, and so on.

They then examined the stability of these community matrices and found that modern Africa is no less susceptible to perturbation than the fossil assemblages. However, they did find that the probability of stability decreased with predator richness and increased with the average body mass of the prey. Koch suggested that large predators have a wide diet breadth, increasing connectivity in the web, whereas large prey are more controlled by bottom-up effects (temperature, food availability, etc) and thus decrease connectivity. In a tightly connected web with strong interactions, effects propagate faster, like motion that comes from hitting a tightly stretched sheet of fabric as opposed to a loosely draped one. Pleistocene North America had many large predators (sabertooth cats, cave lions, dire wolves, regular wolves, bears of several sorts…), so perhaps this contributed to the demise of our megafauna. A complex talk with much more nuance in methods and conclusions than I’ve described here, but very cool.

Other talks I really enjoyed: Tseng on skull morphology convergence both within and between bone-crackers and bamboo-eaters, Miller’s investigation of how well a death assemblage captures community ecology of the living assemblage, and Holroyd’s eye-opening talk on identification bias in collections, where she pointed out that specimens can only get studied and published if they are identified. She also quantified the probability of “losing” a specimen via lack of identification.

Kelsey: There were too many mind-expanding talks to cover here, but some of the ones that bent my world a bit (in a good way) were the ones that looked at the historical and identification biases of data sets. Pat Holroyd’s talk was nicely complimented by Matt Mihlbachler’s look at Cope’s rule as a product of historical collection bias. Specifically, brontotheres initially appeared to consistently increase in size throughout the Cenozoic. Matt pointed out that this conclusion was reasonable during Cope’s era, because this is what the available data were saying. However, greater sampling has shown there are multiple lineages that dwarf or just never increase in size over time. Compound this with the multiple migration events between the Americas and Eurasia and you’re looking at a much more complicated, nuanced relationship between the evolution of body size in lineages and time.

This is the vibe I got from many of the phylogenetic and systematic talks as well. It’s as if we are realizing that many of the “ground rules” of paleontology are not as solid as we thought. Now we are looking through the cracks and finding some very interesting mysteries. Perhaps it has always been this way and it’s my own assumptions that are beginning to crack.

Favorite posters
Brianna: I think my favorite was Poster #1 on the very first day, by Sadleir and colleagues. It was a reconstruction of body mass and related characteristics in an ornithischian dinosaur where the analysis drew on information from a gastrolith that stayed with the fossil through preservation. From a new CT-scanning algorithm originally designed for distinguishing metal-metal surfaces (led to much clearer imaging of the rock-rock bits, as fossils are!) to an interesting argument for massive tail muscles in this particular dino (perhaps needed to counterbalance gastrolith position, and supported by tail vertebral morphology). Had a great discussion with the author and am really interested to see where that project goes.

I also had a great time getting the poster-talks from current undergrad students in the UO Paleontology group. They were just revving their research engines as Kelsey and I left, and it reminds me of the fun and anxious times we had at our first conference. Plus, they are doing really cool work and I enjoyed hearing detail about their projects for the first time. Warm fuzzies all around.

Kelsey: I’m a sucker for bone histology, so I found myself discussing bone growth and function a great deal. This is a nice connection for me to the dinosaur world. There is an unfortunate schism between the “Mammal People” and “Dino People” (with neoaves falling somewhere in the middle and fish people partying on the side), and it’s easy to stay with your own crew. Hopefully I can find more connections in the future.

I also enjoyed the less-finished project posters, where I could really talk to the presenters about the structure of their future projects and why the label on the y-axis of their graph was missing. We’ve all been there…

Our presentations
Brianna: I gave a talk titled, “Identifying isolated postcrania using discriminant analysis.” In plainer language, that’s: “How to use some pretty simple data analysis to figure out what kind of horse/camel/whatever those ankle/toe/hand/foot bones belong to.” You know, the ones that are sitting all unloved in drawers in your museum. This was my first big conference talk, so while I usually do well with public speaking, I was a bit of an adrenaline-rushed mess for the two hours before I spoke. Happily, my nerves settled as soon as I started presenting and the whole thing went very well. My time slot was in the morning session on the first day of the conference and it was great to get the stress out of the way. I got some excellent feedback and ideas after the talk, including some fun new collaborations.

I’m really fond of this work. One bit of it will come out soon as a paper in Palaeo Electronica with my former advisor Edward Davis; I’m currently writing the second paper, which deals more specifically with the stuff I talked about at SVP. Both will get the blog post treatment when finished, but if you’re interested, shoot me an email (bmchorse at fas dot harvard dot edu) and I will happily explain how you, too, can get IDs on your postcranial fossils.

Kelsey: This was year #2 for presenting a poster on osteopathology in Rhinocerotidae, and never have I been more grateful to present an updated study. I’ve been looking at population-level osteopathology in rhinos from 50 mya to the present, a project that has motivated me to learn the intricacies of pathology, bone growth, large mammal evolution, and systematics. Being able to display my constellation of data and questions led to at least six firework moments (what some would call eureka moments) during my two hour poster session. This year I also kept a notepad and pen nearby so I could write every suggestion down. Paper, here I come!

Good things about the meeting!
The welcome reception at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County was really, really lovely. Everyone got to wander around the exhibits before eating some impressively tasty food. The dueling T. rex and Triceratops in the main atrium are beautiful, the brand new Dinosaur Hall is spectacular, and Brianna particularly enjoyed some very skeptical looking mammals:

Skeptical zebra and tiger at the NHM Los Angeles
Skeptical striped mammals are not impressed.

What else did the Society do well this year?

They added a family room for the first time, which is an important step in making the meeting more friendly to those of its members traveling with children.

The awards ceremony was quite enjoyable as well, particularly because it came complete with a tour through several films portraying paleontologists (including The Ghost of Slumber Mountain, The Lost World, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Bringing Up Baby, Lost Horizon, Lake Placid, and, of course, Jurassic Park ).  The food was also wonderful, though the vegetarian option ordered by our labmate was literally just white rice with steamed vegetables. That needs some definite work, though props for the gluten-free option, which Kelsey reports was delicious.

The costume contest at the student round table was also amazing (did you all get to see the two-man Quetzalcoatlus costume?) and we almost wish it could happen every year.

Finally, the coffee quality and tea selection in the mornings leveled-up from last year. These are important details for scientists with varying severity of jet lag and sleep deprivation.

Things the meeting could improve…
Speaking of all those things the meeting did nicely, we have suggestions for even more improvement on a few of them. We’ll do this in a nice numbered list.

  1. Offer childcare. Yes, it’s probably a pain to deal with; yes, liability and stuff; we get it. But not having available childcare (it doesn’t even have to be free!) can be a problem for many would-be participants. This is not something we have personal experience with, because neither of us has reproduced, but you can read more about it in many other places. Plenty of other conferences do it (e.g., Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, American Political Science Association , American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology…), and SVP should too.
  2. Free wifi for conference attendees. People have been begging SVP for this for years, and still nothing! Heard much unhappiness about this, verbally and online, during the conference this year.  We’re pretty sure that offering free wifi would drastically increase the number of people live-blogging and live-tweeting the conference, thus increasing visibility for the Society itself. 3G was only an option for a few people who are from the US, have smartphones, and weren’t worried about a data cap; it’s not good enough. This post has many curated links about live-tweeting and conferences, if you’re interested.
  3. Can you keep the coffee out all morning, please? Remember what we said earlier about sleepy scientists? You already bring it out at 7:30am and again at 10am – just leave it out til lunchtime. Or better yet, leave it out until the poster session starts at 4:15. It’s one of those keep everyone happy, keep everyone awake things. We are such sad pandas when we straggle down at 8:30 and the coffee/tea has been whisked away.

    Might as well have two cups, it's disappearing soon...from flickr user chichacha

  4. Give some serious consideration to venue with respect to pricing. We acknowledge there are probably many, many interests to balance when selecting a conference hotel, but please add this one. SVP 2013 was in the middle of the financial district in Los Angeles, meaning a very expensive hotel and limited (+ expensive) dining nearby. This is hard on students! And postdocs! And anyone without a lot of extra cash!
    Consider, for example, booking two smaller hotels together next time (maybe even with some cheaper hotels available nearby – the Raleigh meeting last year had lots of nearby, inexpensive choices). This would let you put it in a friendlier place, with affordable options for everyone. You can still have all the sessions in one hotel; it’s not like walking across the street is that much different than trying to navigate the Halo-level-like maze of the Westin Bonaventure in LA.
  5. On the expensive note: you know you’ll make more money at the bar in poster sessions and whatnot if we don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for the alcohol, right? We don’t know if the pricing was SVP or the hotel, but man, it was bad enough we didn’t even want to bully our coauthors into buying us a drink.

Criticisms aside (which we hope are constructive – and yes, we’ll be sending an email to relevant committees, as soon as we figure out who they are), this was a well-run conference that we enjoyed. As we said, SVP is an excellent time every year and it’s well worth going.

We really enjoyed live-tweeting some talks and posters this year, thanks to our phones. There weren’t many people doing so – again, see wifi situation – so we got to feel useful! Getting to experience little bites via tweet of talks we weren’t attending was really nice, so we hope we were able to provide a similar function to others for the sessions we attended. It’s a bit difficult sometimes because in the really interesting and complex ones, you want to take notes, but you can’t take notes if you’re tweeting. We tried to strike a balance. Meeting a bunch of people at the tweetup was great, too.

In all it was a most excellent conference (not least because the two halves of fossilosophy were reunited for five days!), and we are looking forward to the next one. We’ll both be at SICB in January, Kelsey will be at NAPC in Febuary, and we are definitely looking forward to SVP 2014 in Berlin, Germany!

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