Permian Fest 2023

The Whiteside Museum of Natural History is a particular local-ish favorite of mine. As I described in my original review, it packs a lot of value into a deceptively small building, and has a lot to offer paleonerds of all stripes. The only thing preventing me from constantly visiting is its distance from the DFW Metroplex. The several hour drive is a little daunting with two young boys in tow, and so I tend to reserve my visits for special occasions.

With a gift shop as well-stocked as this, how can I stay away!?

February 2023 brought the perfect such excuse, however, as The Whiteside Museum inaugurated their “Permian Fest” celebration, gathering fossil lovers from near and far to come and appreciate the Permian paleofauna of the local Texas Red Beds. On that note, the event coincided with the unveiling of several new Dimetrodon specimens in the main hall, as well as a skull of the Cretaceous mosasaur Tylosaurus! This, along with two other exhibits (about skulls and ichthyology respectively) that have opened since my last visit, changed the museum layout around a bit, so I’ll be updating my original museum review to reflect these differences soon.

I met up with my friend Thomas Strimpel at the lecture hall and spent most of the day together. The two of us really enjoyed the lectures, though I’m not so sure about my older son…

As for Permian Fest itself, various workshop events were available in the week leading up to the main event, which involved hands-on experience at some of the local dig sites the museum has excavated. The weekend of the 24-26th saw the arrival of vendors and guest speakers (along with the official unveiling of the aforementioned specimens). A lecture pass got you into the public hall across the street to listen to the various guest speakers, as well as museum admission for the day. An extra fee earned attendees admission to the Saturday fundraiser dinner in the evening, which supported both the ongoing work of the museum, as well as plans for expansion in the near future. I waited too long to look into nearby motel rooms, which unfortunately filled up by the time I finally looked, and so I opted not to attend the dinner after considering the long drive and the little people I had in tow. (I will certainly be planning THAT better next time, as I would have loved to rub shoulders with all the fascinating people that showed up!)

Some examples of the “coproliteposting” I saw in the lecture series. On the left, Roland T. Bird’s joking suggestion as to why he had found of set of “hand”prints from a long-necked sauropod, but no feet. On the right, Bob Bakker’s cartoons satirizing Victorian assumptions about different classes of animals.

The lecture series ran most of Friday & Saturday, and till early afternoon on Sunday. The guest speakers included the one-and-only Dr. Bob Bakker (Mister “Dinosaur Renaissance” himself!), Dr. Scott Persons, Carl Mehling, Amelia Zietlow, Cate Larson, Myria Perez, Cody Schulte, James Washington, Mike Eklund, Evelyn Vollmer, and the Whiteside’s director/curator Chris Flis. While I only attended the Saturday talks in-person (and not even all of those due to my antsy boys), I was able to catch some of the others on the event’s livestream, and my friend Thomas Strimpel caught me up on some of the others I missed when we hung out with him. This all-star lineup delivered some very enjoyable talks, at least from the perspective of this paleonerd. My sons might disagree. There was a suprising amount of “coproliteposting” in some of them, including cartoons by Bob Bakker, and recently discovered doodles by historic paleontologist Roland T. Bird that joked about some of the footprints he discovered while conducting the original surveys of the Paluxy trackways and nearby dinosaur traces. I particularly enjoyed Amelia‘s mosasaur talk, which hinted at some major shakeups she intends to publish on soon.

Just a few of the many vendors at Permian Fest. Inspired by Samantha Turner‘s video games, my younger son requested a Maya-style Opabinia pin designed by Monica Robles Corzo in collaboration with Paleo Pals/Split Mountain Studios. I found myself fascinated by the 3D printed Thylacine embryos by Stockton Skulls, though the boys pulled me away before I had the chance to chat.

I could have stayed in the lecture hall all day, but my little raptors dragged me from the hall when they finally couldn’t stand sitting still anymore (they did a very good job overall, and even asked some good questions of a couple of the speakers!). Fortunately, the vendor tent was much more their speed, and they had a lot of fun running around to the different stalls to look at everything. Some of the vendors present included the famous Paleo Pals/Split Mountain Studios (known for their prehistoric plushies and pins), Fossil Quest (a fellow Texan I had first met at the Hillsboro fossil show and purchased an ammonite painting from at Fossilmania XL), sculptor Stockton Skulls, Simply Sketching, Dale Novak Illustrations, Steve Bush Illustrations, and more. If I had remembered to book a motel reservation in time, I would have joined with my fellow members of the Dallas Paleontological Society (DPS) in manning their booth (and maybe have set up my dinosaur phylogeny activity again like at Fossilmania XL), but it looked like they did okay without me at least!

Dinosaurs will indeed always be awesome with amazing science communicators like Jimmy around!

The breakout star of the vendor tent, at least as far as my kids were concerned, was Jimmy Waldron of the Dinosaurs Will Always Be Awesome podcast (see my Media Recommendations). My kids loved the activities he had set up at his booth, which included sorting animal toys into “dinosaur” & “not dinosaur” categories, a truly inspired “Laundry Basket Stratigraphy” activity, among others.

It’ll be hard to get myself into a cooler photo than this! My older son seems to think it’s a needless distraction taking time away from Jimmy’s table, though.

I was particularly excited to attend Saturday’s book signing event featuring Ashley Hall & the Whiteside’s own Holly Simon. Ashley was of course signing copies of Fossils For Kids, while Holly debuted her first children’s book, I Came Before The Dinosaurs (stay tuned for my review soon)! Ashley is a giant of the paleontology social media world, and I was particularly excited to finally meet her in person. I took the chance to replace my copy of her book, which I had tried to donate to my local library, only for them to misplace it! Both of them were great, and were kind enough to let us take a picture with them.

Moving into the museum proper, I paid special attention to the things that were new to me since my last visit, which included the overall layout of the entire front half of the museum! The life reconstructions seem to be in roughly similar locations to what I remembered, but have had new alcoves built around them which help focus the attention of patrons. Three new large Dimetrodon specimens have joined Bonnie, who was unveiled during my last visit, and isolated Dimetrodon material surrounded them, allowing guests to examine individual features in greater detail. The new Tylosaurus skull divides the Mesozoic section in two, while a new focus on skulls adds interesting extra focal points to the mammal hall.

The Lindgren Hall of Ichthyology now divides the herpetarium from the prep lab, and is largely dedicated the incredible aquatic diversity of Fossil Lake. I actually wandered in at the same time as Anthony Lindgren himself, who was viewing his own namesake gallery for the first time! We chatted about it a bit, but I didn’t want to interrupt him by asking for a picture. The Orthocanthus & Diplocaulus reconstructions have also been moved to this area, despite being members of the local Texas Red Beds alongside Dimetrodon & friends in the main hall. (Incidentally, Orthocanthus appears to have formed a significant part of Dimetrodon, a fact which is illustrated in both Sharks: A 400 Million Year Journey & Discovering Sharks, the latter of which includes a mural that hangs in the Whiteside itself!)

Organizing my swag while live-streaming Evelyn Vollmer‘s Sunday talk on Helicoprion. You know, the Whiteside gift shop should really consider trying to stock that PNSO model… the Collecta Edaphosaurus, too, while we’re at it!

All in all, Permian Fest 2023 turned out to be an amazing event. Like the Whiteside Museum itself, what seems to be a smaller attraction managed to pack in an incredible amount of material, which made it well worth the three hour drive to reach it. I had a great time, and was absolutely delighted to finally meet many of my favorite paleonerds in person. I hope the success of this event encourages the staff of the Whiteside to make it a regular event, and I am already looking forward to the next one. If they are taking suggestions, I would particularly love to see them bring Dr. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan in to discuss her own research on similar Permian paleofauna in South Africa! That feels like a natural team-up just waiting to happen. In any case, I will definitely be making every effort to attend more of the events next time, in whatever form they may take!

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