SVPCA – the Paleontology Super Bowl

In 2012, the Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group led by National Geographic Explorer Dr. Jørn Hurum finished off their final field season on Svalbard. After eight consecutive years, the project of locating and excavating marine reptiles from the Upper Jurassic has been a success. Nevertheless, the team is not as dead as the reptiles. Down in the dark basement of the Geological Museum there is a laboratory, where all the prehistoric sea monsters from Svalbard are brought back to life.

By Aubrey Roberts and Victoria Engelschiøn Nash

Summer is over, and everywhere people are returning to their jobs. For some extra inspiration, this is the best time. A couple of times a year, scientists meet to discuss new discoveries, theories, or breakthroughs. One of these gatherings is called the SVPCA and was held last week in Edinburgh, and so, the two of us together with Jørn Hurum  attended.

The SVPCA, or the “Annual Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy” as it is also called, is a three-day-long conference open to everyone interested in prehistoric, backboned life. Why only animals with backbones? Because these are all made out of the same blueprint, originating from fish. Also, the non-backboned critters make up such vast numbers and comprise of so many different animal groups that to do it all together would just be too much. Therefore, people attending this symposium are those working on dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, fishes, and the likes. And of course that includes us.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh - one of the venues for  the conference
The Royal Society of Edinburgh – one of the venues for the conference. Photo Courtesy of Aubrey Roberts.

Making Friends

These conferences are important to share research, but they are even more important for networking and making friends. It is a lot of fun meeting other paleo-nerds who share your interests to the same degree, as this does not happen very often! And for students, it is key to continue studies at other institutions. Aubrey attended the last SVPCA when it was held in Oxford, England, and this is how she got in touch with the University of Southampton where she will be starting her PhD in October. Giving talks or having a research poster is a scary but great way to get different input into your research and what to do differently.

Some of the Conference delegates. A great group of people! Photo courtesy of Richard Forrest.
Some of the conference delegates. A great group of people! Photo courtesy of Richard Forrest.

Bring Your Dictionary

When looking at the titles of the talks, a masters degree will still leave you feeling a bit thick. Luckily, the two of us represent both geology and biology, so together we managed to translate most of it for each other. And when we failed, we always had Jørn, the walking encyclopedia of all things extinct. We were all (especially the two youngest of us) terribly excited, as this is the Super Bowl of vertebrate paleontology in Great Britain.

It’s Fun to Be at the… S-V-P-C-A

After an intense three days of new paleo-research, we are pretty exhausted. The talks and posters were on anything from how different dead goldfish look when they are left  to rot,  to super-cool CT-scans of placodont skulls and how to grow teeth in petri-dishes. There was of course a fantastic afternoon talk session just on marine reptiles, in one of  which one of Aubrey’s ichthyosaur heroines gave a talk, Judy Massare. Awesome!

There were also social activities in the evening like Scottish whisky-tasting, the banquet, and the hilarious stand-up book auction, which was so funny that our stomachs still hurt from laughing so much. All of us ended up in bringing at least four kilos of old books and articles home.

The whisky tasting at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Photo courtesy of Richard Forrest.
The whisky tasting at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Photo courtesy of Richard Forrest.

So yeah, all in all, despite the travel, the geekiness, the late nights, and everything, it’s pretty safe to say paleo-conferences rock. (Get it?!)

(If that last joke didn’t make you click away yet, get more of the same with all the “Sea Monsters 2013” blog posts!)


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Meet the Author
Jørn Harald Hurum was born in Drammen, a city on southeastern Norway. Since childhood he has collected fossils and minerals in the Oslo region. Since 2000 he has been employed at the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo where he works as an associate professor in vertebrate paleontology. At the University he teaches paleontology and evolutionary biology and supervises masters and Ph.D. students. One recent outreach effort brought him on stage before a general audience interested in his Arctic island project excavating fossils of ancient sea monsters. “There was a four-year-old in the front row and he couldn’t stop asking questions, really good questions” Hurum remembers. “This little boy was so excited to know there was somebody else who understood the things he was wondering about. He made my whole day! As a child, I felt very alone with my interest in fossils. Finally at age 13, I discovered there was a museum in Norway that actually employed people to study paleontology. I started corresponding with those scientists and it was such a relief, such an inspiration. I hope I can give some of that spirit back to the next generation.” Learn More About Jørn and His Work