Palaeontological Association Annual Meeting: An Insider’s Perspective

Members of the Palaeontological Association gathered in Leeds, United Kingdom, for an annual reunion. With talks and posters to satisfy every palaeo-taste, it was a meeting to remember.

The icebreaker reception of the conference at the University of Leeds. Image Credit: Author

The icebreaker reception of the conference at the University of Leeds. Image Credit: Author

You might have had a childish fascination with dinosaurs, or your interest may have been piqued when you first came across a curious fossil shell in a rock. Either way, it is my belief that there is a dormant palaeontologist hidden in each of us. What better way to unearth this buried passion than at a palaeontological gathering?

The 58th annual meeting of the Palaeontological Association took place at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, from Dec. 16-19. Since its initial development, the meeting has grown in size and reputation, and now attracts hundreds of attendees from the breadth of the international scientific community. This year was no exception.

On the first day, I made my way to the university, nervously grasping the USB key containing my presentation on ammonoids, extinct relatives of squid and cuttlefish. Soon enough, I was immersed in a flurry of talks, and I allowed my nerves to settle as I met old friends and we chatted about our latest projects.

With 70 talks and 100 posters, there was plenty to interest experienced researchers and inspire budding palaeontologists alike. Events kicked off with a symposium titled “The photosynthesis revolution: how plants and photosynthetic micro-organisms have bioengineered the planet.” Already, attendees were introduced to major themes running through palaeontology, such as the limits of the fossil record, the use of modern analogs to understand extinct organisms and how geochemical evidence can enrich palaeontology.

Poster session. Image Credit: Author

Poster session. Image Credit: Author

Topics ranged from cyanobacteria and the Great Oxidation Event, to phytoplankton in the fossil record, the spread of vegetation on land, the ecophysiology of early land plants, and the rise of angiosperms.

“Photosynthesis, of course, is what makes the world go round,” said Nick Butterfield, a professor at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, during opening remarks on Proterozoic oceans. Butterfield, who studies the early diversification of eukaryotic life, went on to explore the idea of one-off evolutionary milestones termed evolutionary singularities such as the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis. He spoke of the fossil record of cyanobacteria, noting that “the oxidation of water is as close as you get to magic in the natural sciences: Cyanobacteria are the only guys that did it.”

Lucky attendees were treated to ’Palaeo-ale‘ during one of the poster sessions. Image Credit: Author

Lucky attendees were treated to ’Palaeo-ale‘ during one of the poster sessions. Image Credit: Author

Shortly afterwards, David Beerling, a professor at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, gave a fascinating talk on trees and forests and their role as geoengineers of past and future global climates. In particular, he explored different ways of artificially accelerating the sequestration of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions, such as enhanced weathering through the distribution of pulverized silicate rocks over tropical land. Simulations show that this could help mitigate climate change as well as protect coral reefs from ocean acidification.

The annual address, given by Alan Haywood, professor of Palaeoclimate Modelling at the University of Leeds, was called “Understanding ancient earth climates and environments using models and data.” The address emphasized the importance of integrating data in models and served as a clear introduction to models, challenging common misconceptions and also introducing some new modelling approaches. For instance, he spoke about using climate models such as FAMOUS to produce a time series, rather than a snapshot of climate in time.

The second day of palaeontological fun, which consisted of plenary oral sessions and poster sessions, kicked off with the theme of mass extinctions. Topics ranged from the role of microbial anaerobic respiration in the end-Permian mass extinction to new data on the K-Pg (Cretaceous-Palaeogene) mass extinction using fauna from Antarctica.

Dr. Nick Longrich, a palaeontologist at the University of Bath, introduced us to the fossil record of an intriguing group of burrowing lizards known as worm lizards in the context of the K-Pg mass extinction (which occurred 66 million years ago). He explored the idea that the radiation and dispersal of this group was driven by the mass extinction. It turns out that morphological and molecular analysis of living worm lizards coupled with data from the fossil record support this notion. But how did exactly they disperse? “Perhaps they were carried across oceans in soil (contained) in tree roots (after the mass extinction),” suggested Longrich.

Talks on fossil wood, vertebrate evolution, the dietary evolution of whales, the palaeoecology of brachiopods, turtle diversity and the Cambrian diversity explosion were just a few of the topics covered in the next sessions, prior to the annual dinner.

The Leeds City Museum provided a picturesque setting for a dinner and prize ceremony, during which Professor Richard Fortey of the Natural History Museum, London, was the recipient of the Lapworth Medal, honoring his outstanding contribution to the field of palaeontology. As well as in scientific circles, Fortey is famous for his popular science books, such as “Trilobite,” and for his work on TV and other media which popularized fossils and inspired many a generation of palaeontologists, some of whom were in attendance during the ceremony and took the opportunity to meet and congratulate their hero.

Richard Fortey with his medal at the annual dinner. Image Credit: Author

Richard Fortey with his medal at the annual dinner. Image Credit: Author

The third and final day of the conference saw the attendees split into two parallel sessions. Topics such as the latest techniques to study the enigmatic Ediacaran fauna (e.g., spatial analysis of bedding surfaces), ammonoids from Iran and their use in biostratigraphy, early ray-fin evolution in fish, dinosaur body size, barnacle evolution and fossil crustaceans were all presented.

But the meeting was not quite over yet: those attending the fieldtrip gathered the next day, on an icy cold winter’s morning, to depart for the North York Moors, United Kingdom, where Upper Jurassic outcrops awaited. The attendees were able to visit three inactive quarries, with fossils such as meter-scale reef structures, mollusks, echinoids, gastropods and corals. To the delight of many, there also was occasion for some fossil hunting.

As the sun set on the Yorkshire moors, attendees bade their farewells until next year, when Cardiff University, United Kingdom, will host the event.

Palaeontologists hunting for fossils during the fieldtrip in Yorkshire. Image Credit: Charlotte Kenchington

Palaeontologists hunting for fossils during the fieldtrip in Yorkshire. Image Credit: Charlotte Kenchington

Videos of selected talks will be made available at www.palaeocast.com.

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