May 24, 2023

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology News Bulletins

Brigid Christison

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) is an organization that was established in 1940 to allow people who study the evolution and ecology of ancient animals with backbones to communicate and collaborate with their peers. SVP still holds annual conferences that allow researchers of all career levels to meet, present, and talk about vertebrate palaeontology. These annual meetings allow attendees to keep up with the newest research and advancements in the field. People generally gather for a few days, form networks, meet future colleagues, win research awards, and generally get to spend several days immersed in learning about the study of extinct organisms.

A landscape image of small, undyed, ageing paper bulletins on a metal shelf. The bulletins are stacked with their spines outward like books, and there are enough of them to fill almost two feet of shelf space. Displayed in front of them is a front-facing bulletin that says "SOCIETY OF VERTEBRATE PALEONTOLOGY" at the top. In the centre is the logo, a March pit behind three Eryops vertebrae over a circle. Underneath the large logo it says NEWS BULLETIN Number 23 April 1948.
SVP News Bulletins at the Yale Peabody Museum. Taken by Brigid Christison.

Gathering once a year means you only get your news once a year, so in 1941 SVP began circulating quarterly news bulletins. These contained practical information like meeting dates, member addresses (for professional correspondence), job postings, and expense reports. They also included vital updates about news and goings-on with both members and institutions involved with SVP, including museum renovations, member obituaries, and field work updates (broken up by state within the US and then by country). For many members, these bulletins were the best way to keep up with the goings-on in the society, and were extremely helpful when planning research trips and career trajectories.

A black and white image of a T rex reconstruction outside a light coloured brick building. The caption, in typewriter font, reads "Life-size model of Tyrannosaurus recently unveiled at the University of Wyoming"
An example of some of the news you might see in an SVP News Bulletin. From the June 1964 issue. Taken by Brigid Christison, original photographer unknown.

For example, one could take a look at the ongoing field work at an institution, reach out to the people there via the member directory to arrange a collections visit, learn about the new tools they could use for their research, and then post a request for a reprint of an out-of-date publication that could assist with their work. The bulletins allowed members spread out across North America and abroad (mainly Europe, China, and the Soviet Union) to keep up with their colleagues even as the Cold War kept them isolated from each other. Importantly for, the bulletins were also full of palaeoart: poems, comics, and short, humorous stories, written or submitted by members. Many of the poems that we’ve featured on were found by flipping through the collection of SVP bulletins at the Yale Peabody Museum. These lighthearted works of palaeoart had a variety of topics and authors, and ranged from doodles or limericks to more elaborate reconstructions and ballads that allowed members’ personalities to shine through.

Artwork (illustrations and poetry)  became rarer in the bulletins towards the 1980s and 90s, likely for practical reasons; as SVP grew, the bulletins became longer and some things needed to be cut. Another likely reason is the shift from using typewriters to computers, which would have made it easier to print multiple copies of each edition but often made the inclusion of graphics more difficult. In 1996 the bulletins became available online, and by 2002, much to the disappointment of the members I spoke to, they went completely digital before ending in 2008 with issue no. 195.

a single page cartoon illustration of a grinning Captorhinus laying eggs in a shallow hole on the side of a swampy beach. A pointy headed, four legged reptile is whispering to a Diplocaulus as they watch from the water, and says "Don't look now, but that Mrs. Captorhinus is laying her eggs on dry land!" "On dry land" is underlined. Beneath the cartoon is the caption "II. Origin of Reptiles."
A sample cartoon from the June 1954 issue. Taken by Brigid Christison. Artist unknown.

Though much of the information that would have been included in the bulletins is accessible online, this information is decentralized, and the efforts are run by individuals rather than organizations. For example, the “Unemployed/Underemployed Paleontologist Support Group” on facebook is a great way to find job listings, but only if the job posters and applicants both know about and use the group. A centralized newsletter, blog, zine, or news bulletin run by SVP would go a long way to help members connect with each other and find information to assist with their research.

For anyone looking to do research on the history of palaeontology in the second half of the 20th century, these bulletins are nearly essential primary sources. Unfortunately, the SVP news bulletins have not been digitized and are difficult to access if one does not know, or have access to, the private libraries inside certain institutions. A full set of the bulletins is currently housed in the SVP collections, at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian). The digital bulletins from 2002-2008 are not available online either. They were the most current source of SVP news at the times that they were written, written by palaeontologists for palaeontologists, and are an excellent way of tracking the careers of scientists, shifting priorities for the institutions, the history of field work, how excavation and preparation tools have changed through time, among other vital historical info.

Further Reading

We are extremely thankful to Christopher J. Bell, Dan Brinkman, David Polly, and Darren Tanke for answering our questions on the topic.

Consider this a formal plea: the preservation of these important documents through full collection and digitization is essential to studying the history of palaeontology. If you've got a generous palaeo-history grant and want us to digitize and write about the bulletins, please contact us!

Wilson, J. A. (1990). The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology 1940-1990, a Fifty-Year Retrospective. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 10(1), 1–39.

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