Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Recent Events: Physical Drivers and Marine Tetrapod Evolution – Symposium at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

It has been WAY too long since my last post, my sincerest apologies. I was consumed with a handful of projects, some of which are submitted, and some of which I presented at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Pittsbugh, PA this past October 10-13.

I fully intend to blog on some of this new material soon, but want to start with a couple of things. 1) A report on a symposium held at the recent Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, and 2) a new series of blog posts reviewing recent literature and its relevance to the study of aquatic amniote evolution studies. I’ll get to the latter in my next post, but let me get started with this report on the recent (October 11, 2010) SVP Symposium titled, “Physical Drivers in Marine Tetrapod Evolution”. I’m keeping this brief, not only to save you from my usual boring wordiness, but also to protect the rights of authors of these presentations from having their unpublished material shared without their permission.

The symposium was organized by Neil Kelley (UC Davis) and R. Ewan Fordyce (University of Otago). Neil is a promising graduate student studying Triassic marine reptiles, and Ewan is one of the world’s leading experts on fossil cetaceans, and together it was a good match that brought lots of good minds together.

Neil Kelley and R. Ewan Fordyce, the organizers of the symposium, "Physical Drivers and Marine Tetrapod Evolution"

Among the minds brought together were (presented listed here only, though obviously many had co-authors that significantly contributed):

Neil Kelley (UC Davis, USA)

R. Ewan Fordyce (University of Otago, New Zealand)

Olivier Rieppel (Field Museum, USA)

Valentin Fischer (Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Science, Belgium)

Michael Polcyn (Southern Methodist University, USA)

Louis Jacobs (Southern Methodist University, USA)

James Parham (Alabama Museum of Natural History, USA)

Sanja Hinic-Frlog (Carleton University, Canada)

Tatsuro Ando (Ashoro Museum, Japan)

Brian Beatty (New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, USA)

Naoki Kohno (National Museum of Nature and Science, Japan)

Edward Davis (University of Oregon, USA)

Carolina Gutstein (Universidad de Chile, Chile)

Erich Fitzgerald (Museum Victoria, Australia)

Felix Marx (University of Otago, New Zealand)

Nicholas Pyenson (Smithsonian Institution, USA)

Topics covered included a variety of methods, details, and scales, though some common themes were:

  • How aquatic tetrapod groups have and have not been affected by the changing coastlines, chemistry, and productivity of the world’s oceans. I found it dumbfounding that so many variables affect diversity and distributions of these groups, and controlling for them is the challenge we all faced. Some did so by looking at distribution correlations, others by ecological variables such as isotope geochemistry or dental microwear. Methods here included:
    • Morphometrics of locomotor adaptations
    • Dental microwear
    • Stable isotope geochemistry
    • Distribution patterns
    • Bottom-up or top-down ecosystem design
    • Sea level changes and its effect on available habitat, and the use of freshwater by some usually marine groups.
    • Associations of taxa as implications of their ecology
    • Spatial and temporal changes in diversity correlating with global climate events

  • Some authors reviewed some unrecognized diversity, not only taxonomically but also in terms of ecological roles, that revise our understanding of how earth history may or may not have affected these groups. One compelling message of this was a clear reminder that we all need to come back to finding more fossils and describing them before jumping into complex analyses of existing records from databases alone.

  • In a surprising, but great twist, some made a point of looking at the way that some of the diversity and distribution of groups were or weren’t affected by how the animals themselves dealt with the physical environment in terms of sensory perceptions. Thus, not only did we see distribution and ecological variables discussed, but aspects of sensory modalities in some groups and how that could tell us more about where and how they lived and dealt with the changing environment.
Me (Beatty) finishing my talk on dental microwear in the Sirenia (photo by Michael Ayoub)

In the end, the topics covered all had one common theme – that the evolution of aquatic amniotes is very closely linked with the evolution of the Earth. Despite what one might see as an interesting lesson in history, I think that many of these talks demonstrated that for many of the taxa still living today, we can only hope that these lessons learned will help us avoid reliving history, especially those parts that ended in extinction. These are the sorts of studies that make paleontology relevant to modern ecologists and conservationists in the face of global warming.

I think that the symposium was a massive success, particularly because it seems to have encompassed a huge diversity of methods, taxa, and times, and brought people together to share ideas and potentially collaborate. I know I’m already going down the road of starting some new projects with people I spoke with just after the symposium. That is, after all, the more proximate goal of these symposia, and I am glad to have been part of it. I would like to thank Neil and Ewan for inviting me, and thank you for sharing my interest in keeping current with what is going on among aquatic amniotes.

Until next time... which will be soon!


  1. Hey Brian, it was good seeing you at the meeting! That was a cool symposium! I can't wait until next year meeting in San Diego, which should be like a larger version of this one! I'm looking forward to your upcoming posts!

  2. That was a great symposium! Although it was one of the first talks of the day (and the shortest) and most may have a fuzzy recollection of it, I particularly thought that Ewan Fordyce's suggestion that we look at many aspects of the marine invertebrate record for braoder patterns was really thought provoking. There have already been a couple of papers that have done this - Lindberg and Pyenson (2007) and Marx and Uhen (2010).

    It was a great meeting in many respects, and it was great to catch up with the marine mammal crowd again! Although I must say, talking shop that much does get very exhausting by the third day.

  3. sad i missed it all :(

    it is cool to see what ewan is up to these days. i used to volunteer for him at the uni of otago when i was living in NZ.