The Palaeobiology Research Group (PBRG) in Bristol uses the fossil
record to study the history of life and how ancient organisms lived.
Major questions that guide our work concern the origins of biodiversity and
global change. These questions combine analyses of palaeodiversity and the quality
of the fossil record, engineering approaches to function in ancient organisms, the
evolution of novel traits, and the relative roles of intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of
macroevolution. A growing focus is on phylogenomics, the search for evolutionary
relationships in the tree of life and the mapping of trait evolution linked to gene
The group has pioneered many research and educational initiatives. The Bristol
Dinosaur Project focuses research on the Late Triassic prosauropod dinosaur
Thecodontosaurus, the oldest plant-eating dinosaur. The work is yielding new
information on the early evolution of dinosaurs, and it is the subject of a major
educational initiative, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
| || From 2013, we are proud to present our new logo,
representing the combination of research interests explored by the palaeobiologists in
Bristol. For members of the group, email Mike
Benton for access to the logo in various formats. |
Invitation: If you are interested in joining our group, follow this link.
| News from the Palaeobiology Research Group
August 2014 - Marine crocodilian evolution constrained by ocean temperature|
Mesozoic and Cenozoic crocodilians colonised the seas during warm phases and became extinct during cold phases, according to a new study. The research, led by Dr Jeremy Martin from the Université de Lyon, France and formerly from the University of Bristol, UK, published this week in Nature Communications, presents new isotopic data of sea surface temperature from bone measurements. On four occasions in the past 200 million years, major crocodile groups entered the seas, and then became extinct. It seems that crocodiles repeatedly colonized the oceans at times of global warming. Read more...
July 2014 - The other carbon dioxide problem|
The Cabot Institute's Global Change theme lead, Dr Dani Schmidt, has been interviewed by Chemistry World and appears in an article on ocean acidification. A number of scientists, including Schmidt, are looking at fossils of organisms that were alive during past ocean acidification events to help predict how the ecosystem will react this time. They assess pH of ancient oceans using boron isotopes, and contrast the gradual changes in the past with extremely rapid change today. Some foraminifers react to increasing acidification by thickening their walls. Read more...
July 2014 - Fossils found in Siberia suggest all dinosaurs had feathers|
The first ever example of a plant-eating dinosaur with feathers and scales has been discovered in Russia. Previously only flesh-eating dinosaurs were known to have had feathers, so this new find indicates that all dinosaurs could have been feathered. The new dinosaur, named Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, is described in a paper published today in Science. Kulindadromeus has scales on its tail and shins, and short bristles on its head and back. The most astonishing discovery, however, is that it also has complex, compound feathers associated with its arms and legs. Read more...
June 2014 - How marine life is responding to ocean acidification|
A study published today in Nature Climate Change sheds light on how marine organisms are reacting to ocean acidification. Sophie McCoy (Plymouth) and Federica Ragazzola (Bristol) compared historical and recent specimens of crustose coralline algae from a location with fast acidification on the west coast of the United States. They found that the reaction to ocean acidification depends on skeleton thickness: thick-walled species halved in thickness, and thin-walled species remained approximately the same thickness but reduced total carbonate tissue by making thinner inter-filament cell walls. Read more...
June 2014 - Newly discovered paddle prints show how ancient sea reptiles swam|
Trackways formed on an ancient seabed have shed new light on how nothosaurs, Triassic marine reptiles, propelled themselves through water. The evidence is described by a team from Bristol and China in today - trackways from Luoping in Yunnan province, China. The tracks consist of slots in the mud arranged in pairs, and in long series of ten to fifty that follow straight lines and sweeping curves. The size and spacing of the paired markings indicate that they were created by the forelimbs of nothosaurs, punting through the sediment to disturb fishes and lobsters, their prey. Read more...
May 2014 - Bristol students win all the prizes|
At the recent Progressive Palaeontology meeting in Southampton, present and former students from Bristol won five of the six prizes: of current Bristol students, Luke Parry (PhD) won the 'fan choice' (voted for by the delegates) lightning talk, Nidia Alvárez Armada (MSc) won the 'fan choice' poster, and Max Stockdale (PhD) won the best poster voted by the committee. Of former Bristol students, Sam Giles (Bristol MSci, currently Oxford PhD) won the best talk voted by the committee, and Tom Fletcher (Bristol MSci, currently Leeds PhD) won the fan choice talk.
May 2014 - Fossil avatars are transforming palaeontology|
New techniques for visualizing fossils are transforming our understanding of evolutionary history according to a paper published in TREE by John Cunningham and colleagues at the University of Bristol. The introduction of X-ray tomography has revolutionized the way that fossils are studied, allowing them to be virtually extracted from the rock in a fraction of the time necessary to prepare specimens by hand and without the risk of damaging the fossil. The digital models reveal previously unknown anatomy, even in microscopically tiny fossils, and they allow objective biomechanical modelling. Read more...
May 2014 - Davide Foffa, Bristol MSc student reports pliosaur snout internal structure|
CT scanning is giving scientists an unprecedented look at pliosaurs, the dominant marine reptiles of the Jurassic, some of which reached lengths of over 10 metres. University of Bristol researcher Davide Foffa, who completed the Palaeobiology MSc in 2012, collated 2,000 individual scans of a fossilised pliosaur's skull and discovered that its snout contained an intricate nerve system similar to that found in crocodiles. This is part of Davide's MSc thesis, published this month in Naturwissenschaften, and the remainder, a full biomechanical study of pliosaur feeding, is published next month in Journal of Anatomy. See the video...
May 2014 - Former MSc student publishes book on dinosaurs of Mexico|
Hector Rivera Sylva, who completed the MSc in Palaeobiology in 2003, and now works at the Museo del Desierto in Mexico, is lead editor of a new book, just published by University of Indiana Press on the Dinosaurs and Other Reptiles from the Mesozoic of Mexico. The book summarizes research on turtles, lepidosauromorphs, plesiosaurs, crocodyliforms, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs. In addition, chapters focus on trackways and other trace fossils and on K/P boundary (the Chicxulub crater, beneath the Gulf of Mexico, has been hypothesized as the site of the boloid impact that killed off the dinosaurs). Read more...
May 2014 - New study sheds light on dinosaur claw function|
How claw form and function changed during the evolution from dinosaurs to birds is explored by a new study into the claws of a group of theropod dinosaurs known as therizinosaurs. Dr Stephan Lautenschlager from Bristol's School of Earth Sciences studied the differences in claw shape and function across all theropods. Therizinosaurs were very large animals, up to 7m tall, with claws more than 50cm long on their forelimbs, elongated necks and a coat of primitive, down-like feathers along their bodies. But in spite of their bizarre appearance, therizinosaurs were peaceful herbivores. Read more...
May 2014 - New Fellow of the Royal Society|
Michael Benton, Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology, has achieved the rare distinction of being elected Fellow of the world's most eminent and oldest scientific academy in continuous existence: the Royal Society, founded in 1660. He joins a Fellowship of some 1,400 outstanding individuals: a global scientific network of the highest calibre. Professor Benton has made fundamental contributions to understanding the history of life, particularly biodiversity through time, the roles of mass extinctions and recovery phases in the history of life, dating the tree of life, and the quality of the fossil record. Read more...
March 2014 - Ancient sea creatures filtered food like modern whales|
Ancient, giant marine animals used bizarre facial appendages to filter food from the ocean, according to new fossils discovered in northern Greenland. The new study, led by the University of Bristol and published today in Nature, describes how the new anomalocarid arthropod Tamisiocaris used these huge, specialized appendages to filter plankton, similar to the way modern blue whales feed today. The animals lived 520 million years ago during the Early Cambrian, and were part of the 'Cambrian Explosion' in which all the major animal groups and complex ecosystems suddenly appeared. Read more...
February 2014 - Jaw mechanics shed new light on early tetrapod feeding habits|
James Neenan, who completed the MSc in Palaeobiology in Bristol in 2009, has published his Masters research in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In this, he and colleagues in Bristol and elsewhere, present a study of the jaws of Acanthostega and its relatives. The researchers developed innovative new numerical, biomechanical methods to infer the feeding mechanism of Acanthostega, one of the earliest and most primitive tetrapods, and several of its relatives. They find that Acanthostega was more geared towards feeding under water than on land. Read more...
January 2014 - New insights into the origin of birds|
The key characteristics of birds which allow them to fly - their wings and their small size - arose much earlier than previously thought, according to research by Mark Puttick and colleagues into the Paraves, the first birds and their closest dinosaurian relatives which lived 160 to 120 million years ago. In order to fly, hulking meat-eating dinosaurs had to shrink in size and grow much longer arms to support their feathered wings, but this happened long before Archaeopteryx, the first bird, and heralded a time of diversification of paravians that parachuted, glided, and flew. Read more...
December 2013 - More scientific publications by Bristol MSc students|
With nine further publications in 2013, Bristol's Masters students have now published 104 papers in all since the MSc in Palaeobiology began. The 100th paper is a phylogenetic study of trilobites by Javier Hernández-Ortega, currently a Research fellow in Cambridge, and David Legg, currently a postdoc in Oxford, both of them prolific authors on fossil arthropods. The Bristol Palaeobiology Research group overall published a total of 80 papers in 2013, of which the contribution by Masters students is 11 percent. Read more...
| || December 2013 - Life-size model of the Bristol Dinosaur unveiled |
A full-size replica of the Bristol dinosaur Thecodontosaurus was unveiled at the University of Bristol on December 13th. The model is the work of local artist Robert Nicholls and University lab technician Pedro Viegas. It was constructed at M Shed during October and November, with more than 50,000 visitors dropping in to see it. The model is now on permanent display in the main entrance hall of the Wills Memorial Building. The whole processof building the dinosaur was the last step in a highly successful, major programme of research and engagement, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Read more...
| || December 2013 - Former Masters students publish in Nature |
Two graduates of the Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology have recently led teams that published their new discoveries in Nature. First, Vivian Allen, who graduated in 2005, published a paper in May, 2013 that offers new insights into the origins of flight, and functional linkages between forelimb and hindlimb evolution in theropod dinosaurs and birds. Second, Emma Schachner, who also graduated in 2005, has just published a paper that shows unidirectional airflow in the lungs of Savannah monitor lizards. This was unexpected, as unidirectional airflow was known before only in birds.
| || December 2013 - New light on the
functional importance of dinosaur beaks |
Why beaks evolved in some theropod
dinosaurs and what their function might have been is the subject of new research published
this week in PNAS. Employing high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT
scanning) and computer simulations, Stephan Lautenschlager and Emily Rayfield, with
colleagues from Mongolia and the USA, used digital models to take a closer look at these
dinosaur beaks. This new study reveals that keratinous beaks played an important role in
stabilizing the skeletal structure during feeding, making the skull less susceptible to
bending and deformation. Read more...
| || December 2013 - Five new researchers funded by the EU Marie
Curie scheme |
The new research fellows are: Professor Christine Janis
(Mesozoic mammalian evolution and adaptation to Cretaceous terrestrial ecosystems);
Albert Prieto-Marquez (The origin of novelties and the evolution of biodiversity
during the radiation of birds); David Wacey (Remarkable preservation of Precambrian
organic material); Monique Welten (Evolution of jaws and teeth - new insights into
key innovations and the origin of gnathostomes); Raquel
López-Antoñanzas (Of mice and rats: a new molecular palaeobiological
approach and best practice in divergence time estimation).
| || October 2013 - The Bristol dinosaur
build begins |
Bristol's dinosaur Thecodontosaurus will be brought to
life throughout October when local artist Robert Nicholls and Pedro Viegas from the
University of Bristol build a full-size replica. This is the culmination of a 3-year
project run by the University of Bristol and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The
build begins on Tuesday 1 October at M Shed, and will run until the end of November 2013.
Members of the public are welcome to drop in and observe the reconstruction of the
life-sized Thecodontosaurus and see the dinosaur come to life, from October 1st;
admission free. Read more about all the events...
| || September 2013 - Crocodiles in the age
of dinosaurs |
New research, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society
B has revealed the hidden past of crocodiles. While most modern crocodiles live in
freshwater habitats and feed on mammals and fish, their ancient relatives were extremely
diverse - with some built for running around like dogs on land and others adapting to life
in the open ocean, imitating the feeding behaviour of today's killer whales. The study of
morphological and functional disparity in Mesozoic crocodylomorphs was part of Tom Stubbs'
MSc project, together with Emily Rayfield, Stephanie Pierce, and Phil Anderson. Read more...
| || September 2013 - Mike Benton on the Life Scientific |
In 'The Life
Scientific', Professor Jim Al-Khalili interviews working scientists about what they do,
what motivates them, how they began in their career, and how they do what they do. Mike
Benton was the subject of the programme on September 10th. Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks
to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires and motivates
them and asking what their discoveries might do for mankind. Mike Benton talks about his
fascination with ancient life on the planet and his work on the Bristol Dinosaur Project.
Hear Mike's programme on iPlayer..
| || September 2013 - Building the Bristol
Bristol's own dinosaur Thecodontosaurus will be brought to
life on the city's Harbourside this autumn when local artist Robert Nicholls and Pedro
Viegas from the University of Bristol build a full-size replica of the beast. This is the
culmination of a 3-year project run by the University of Bristol and funded by the
Heritage Lottery Fund. The build begins on Tuesday 1 October at M Shed, and will run until
the end of November 2013. Members of the public are welcome to drop in and observe the
reconstruction of the life-sized Thecodontosaurus and see the dinosaur come to
life; admission free. Read more...
| || August 2013 - Why Earth's greatest
mass extinction was the making of modern mammals |
The ancient closest
relatives of mammals, the cynodonts, not only survived the greatest mass extinction of all
time, 252 million years ago, but thrived in the aftermath, according to research published
today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The first mammals arose in the
Triassic, marking the beginning of our lineage. They had differentiated teeth (incisors,
canines, molars) and large brains and were probably warm-blooded and covered in fur - but
these features were acquired over a long span of time, and did not mark a huge leap
forward in comparison to the rest of Triassic cynodont evolution. Read more...
| || August 2013 - Fossil fishes come to
life in Ilminster |
A collection of important fossil specimens are coming
back to their home town in Somerset for an outreach open day, thanks to a partnership
between Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (BRLSI) and the University of
Bristol. The project has been led by James Fleming, a fourth-year undergraduate in the
School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. The JESBI (Jurassic Ecosystem of
Strawberry Bank Ilminster) project is opening an exhibit on Friday 23 August in the
Minster Rooms, Ilminster to showcase the beautiful fossils found in the area. Members of
the project will also be giving talks. Read more...
| || August 2013 - Ancient mammal relatives cast light on recovery after mass
In the aftermath of the largest mass extinction in Earth
history, anomodonts did not evolve any fundamentally new features, according to new
research published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. This suggests that
the evolutionary bottleneck they passed through during the extinction constrained their
evolution during the recovery. These findings are surprising as much research so far
suggests that the survivors of mass extinctions are often presented with new ecological
opportunities. However, it turns out that not all survivors respond in the same way. Read more...
| || August 2013 - Bristol research seen
by tens of thousands at Asia's biggest science fair |
being carried out in Bristol to identify the colour of prehistoric animals is being
showcased at the largest science and technology fair in Asia, attracting some 1.2 million
visitors each year. Seven researchers and PhD students from the University of Bristol are
showcasing their research into determining colour from ancient fossils at the National
Science and Technology Fair 2013, taking place in Bangkok until 21 August. British Council
Thailand was asked to arrange a stand to showcase UK science at the annual event, and this
is one of only two British exhibits. Read more...
| || July 2013 - Largest bony fish ever
lived during the age of dinosaurs |
Giant fish that could grow up to 16 m
long roamed the seas 165 million years ago, new research suggests. These giant
plankton-eating were wiped out by the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, and then replaced by
plankton-eating sharks and whales. The question is: just how big did these giant fishes
get? New work suggests between 12 and 16 m long. The estimate comes from detailed
anatomical work on growth patterns in bones and scales of the giant Leedsichthys
from the British Late Jurassic by Jeff Liston of Kunming and Bristol. Read more...
| || July 2013 - Prehistoric colour |
From July 1-8, Bristol palaeobiologists
exhibited at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, the leading public engagement
event of the year. Our exhibit is about structural evidence for the colour of feathers in
fossil birds and dinosaurs, as well as iridescence in insects, and the effects of burial
on those colours. We have spoken to hundreds of enthusiastic school children, teachers,
fellows of the Royal Society, peers of the realm, and members of the Royal family. Our
slide show was the front-page item on the BBC web site earlier in the week. Read more on our blog and the Royal Society web page.
| || June 2013 - Exploring dinosaur growth |
Tracking the growth of dinosaurs
and how they changed as they grew is difficult. Using a combination of biomechanical
analysis and bone histology, palaeontologists from Beijing, Bristol, and Bonn have shown
how one of the best-known dinosaurs switched from four feet to two as it grew. As part of
his PhD thesis on Psittacosaurus at the University of Bristol, Qi Zhao, now on the
staff of the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology in Beijing, carried out the intricate
study on bones of babies, juveniles and adults. The paper is published today in Nature
Communications. Read more...
| || June 2013 - Genome of
700,000-year-old horse sequenced |
The oldest genome so far has been
sequenced by an international team, led by scientists from the Natural History Museum of
Denmark. The team, which included Dr Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol, sequenced
short pieces of DNA molecules preserved in bone from a horse frozen for the last 700,000
years in the permafrost of Yukon, Canada. By tracking the genomic changes that transformed
prehistoric wild horses into domestic breeds, the researchers have revealed the genetic
make-up of modern horses with unprecedented detail. Their findings are published today in
| || May 2013 - Unexpected effects of
ocean acidification on deep-sea organisms |
About 55.5 million years ago,
geologically rapid emission of a large volume of greenhouse gases at the Paleocene-Eocene
boundary (PETM) led to global warming of about 5oC, severe ocean acidification,
and widespread extinction of foraminifera. Dr Laura Foster and Dr Dani Schmidt of the
School of Earth Sciences, together with visiting professor Ellen Thomas from Yale
University, have shown that survivors of the extinction increased the thickness of their
shells during ocean acidification, with organisms living buried within the sediment able
to survive better than forms living on the sediment surface. Read more...
| || May 2013 - Fossil brain
Stephan Lautenschlager from Bristol's School of Earth Sciences,
together with Tom Hübner from the Niedersächsische Landesmuseum in Hannover,
Germany, studied the reconstructed brain of the Jurassic dinosaur Dysalotosaurus
lettowvorbecki in two specimens, a very young (juvenile) individual of approximately
three years of age and a fully grown specimen of more than 12 years of age. The brain
underwent considerable changes during growth - most likely as a response to environmental
and metabolic requirements. Read more...
| || May 2013 - Cooling ocean
temperature could buy more time for coral reefs |
Limiting the amount of
warming experienced by the world's oceans in the future could buy some time for tropical
coral reefs. The study, published by the journal Geophysical Research Letters, used
computer models to investigate how shallow-water tropical coral reef habitats may respond
to climate change over the coming decades. Dr Elena Couce and colleagues found that
restricting greenhouse warming to three watts per square metre is needed in order to avoid
large-scale reductions in reef habitat occurring in the future. Read more...
| || March 2013 - How do we know what
colour dinosaur feathers were? |
An international research team, led by Dr
Maria McNamara from the School of Earth Sciences, has shown that the original colour of
fossil feathers may have been tainted by the extreme geological processes deep below the
earth's surface. The results, published in the journal Biology Letters, suggest
that some previous reconstructions may be flawed. Melanosomes, the organelles in feathers
that contain melanin and so give some feather colours, may change shape subtly after
burial. Because melanosome shape is a guide to the original colour of a feather, this
could affect assumptions. Read more...
| || February 2013 - Palaeontologists
reveal insects' colourful past |
An international research team led by Dr
Maria McNamara has explained the preservation of colours in fossil insects for the first
time. The paper has just been published online in the journal Geology. The research
will also be showcased at this year's prestigious Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition
in London, from 1 to 7 July. The study used a novel experimental technique to simulate
high pressures and temperatures that are found deep under the Earth's surface, and so the
researchers could follow colour change and colour loss during mock fossilisation
| || February 2013 - Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit award to Phil Donoghue |
The Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit scheme aims to provide universities with
additional support to enable them to attract science talent from overseas and retain
respected UK scientists of outstanding achievement and potential. Professor Donoghue
receives the award for his work in the emerging field of molecular paleobiology. Professor
Donoghue sees this as an opportunity for palaeontologists to integrate molecular biology's
dataset, techniques and experimental approach with the insight into events in Deep Time
that palaeontology uniquely provides. Read more...
| || January 2013 - New research
highlights influence of intraspecific variability on biodiversity studies |
study of around 100 newly collected specimens of early ammonoids suggests that the number
of species they belong to might have been over-estimated. Dr Kenneth De Baets of the
University of Bristol, with Dr Christian Klug (University of Zürich) and Dr Claude
Monnet (University of Lille), studied the intraspecific variability through ontogeny
(development of an organism) in early ammonoids, which has rarely been attempted before.
Ammonoids are ideal for this type of study as they hold a record of growth from embryo to
adult in their accretionary shell. Read more...
| || January 2013 - Multicellularity, a
key event in the evolution of life |
Multicellularity in cyanobacteria
originated before 2.4 billion years ago and is associated with the accumulation of
atmospheric oxygen, subsequently enabling the evolution of aerobic life, as we know it
today, according to a new study from the University of Zurich involving researchers now at
the University of Bristol, and Gothenburg. The research, published today in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, applied phylogenetic tree
reconstruction methods to the study of oxygen-producing bacteria, so-called cyanobacteria.
| || January 2013 - A citation
classic in molecular evolution |
In a survey of papers published in the
leading journal 'Molecular Biology & Evolution' from 1983 to the present day, a paper by
Mike Benton and Phil Donoghue ( Paleontological evidence
to date the tree of life), published in 2007, has been identified as one of the 1%
most cited papers ever from that journal, a 'citation classic', with nearly 400 citations
in six years. The paper presented a new rationale for ensuring phylogenetic trees are
correctly dated, focusing on exact phylogenetic placement of calibration fossils and use
of appropriate, asymmetric probability distributions on their ages. Read more...
| || January 2013 - Dr Jakob
Vinther awarded Hodson Prize |
Dr Jakob Vinther of both the School of Earth
Sciences and the School of Biological Sciences has been awarded The Hodson Prize Fund by
the Palaeontological Association at its Annual Meeting in Dublin in late December. The
Association is one of the world's leading professional societies of palaeontologists and
The Hodson Fund is awarded to a palaeontologist under the age of 35 and who has made a
notable early contribution to the science. The award honours Jakob's work on origins of
basal groups of animals and on colour in fossils, including dinosaur feathers. Read
| || December 2012 - Inside the head of a
A new study of the brain anatomy of therizinosaurs, plant-eating
Cretaceous theropod dinosaurs, has revealed interesting links with their meat-eating
relatives. A team from Bristol and Ohio, including PhD student Stephan Lautenschlager and
Dr Emily Rayfield of the University of Bristol, found that the senses of smell, hearing
and balance were well developed in therizinosaurs and might have affected or benefited
from an enlarged forebrain. These findings came as a surprise as exceptional sensory
abilities would be expected from predatory and not necessarily from plant-eating animals.
| || December 2012 - Bringing fossils to
A new way to learn about ancient life that harnesses some of the
cutting edge techniques used by palaeontologists to study fossils, is being pioneered by
researchers at the University of Bristol. CT scanning and 3D printing allow
palaeontologists to see fossils in ways they never could before, to study delicate bones
and other ancient remains in great detail without destroying the precious specimens
themselves. Now Dr Imran Rahman has brought these marvels of 'virtual palaeontology' to
the public in an exhibition in Birmingham, and in an article in Evolution: Education
and Outreach. Read more...
| || November 2012 - New evidence of
dinosaurs' role in the evolution of bird flight |
A new study looking at the
structure of feathers in bird-like dinosaurs has shed light on one of nature's most
remarkable inventions - how flight might have evolved. Academics at the Universities of
Bristol, Yale and Calgary have shown that prehistoric birds had a much more primitive
version of the wings we see today, with rigid layers of feathers acting as simple airfoils
for gliding. Close examination of the earliest theropod dinosaurs suggests that feathers
were initially developed for insulation, arranged in multiple layers to preserve heat,
before their shape evolved for display and camouflage. Read more...
| || November 2012 - Best PhD thesis in Faculty |
Congratulations to Dr Jen
Bright, now a postdoc in the PBRG. She has just been awarded the Science Faculty prize
for the best PhD thesis from the Faculty in 2012. Her thesis, entitled 'Validation of
finite element models and the implications for palaeontology' focuses on ground-truthing
finite element analytical techniques. Her thesis has yielded four published papers and she
is currently a postdoc in Bristol. Jen is one of three palaeobiology PhD candidates to be
awarded a Faculty commendation in 2012. Read more...
| || October 2012 - New study sheds light on
how and when vision evolved |
Opsins, the light-sensitive proteins that are
key to vision, may have evolved earlier and undergone fewer genetic changes than
previously believed, according to a new study from the National University of Ireland
Maynooth and the University of Bristol published today in Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences. Dr Davide Pisani of Bristol's Schools of Biological Sciences and
Earth Sciences and colleagues at NUI Maynooth performed a computational analysis to test
every hypothesis of opsin evolution proposed to date. Read more...
| || September 2012 - The evolutionary origins
of our pretty smile |
It takes both teeth and jaws to make a smile, but the
evolutionary origins of these parts of our anatomy have only just been discovered, thanks
to a particle accelerator and a long dead fish. All living jawed vertebrates have teeth,
but it has long been thought that the first jawed vertebrates lacked them, instead
capturing prey with gruesome scissor-like jaw-bones. However new research, led by the
University of Bristol and published today in Nature, shows that these earliest jawed
vertebrates possessed teeth too indicating that teeth evolved along with, or soon after,
the evolution of jaws. Read more...
| || September 2012 - Visit to the home of the
Bristol dinosaur |
Visitors to the village of Tytherington where specimens of
the West's very own dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus, were discovered in the 1970s, had
the chance to learn more about this amazing local resident on Wednesday 31 October as part
of South Gloucestershire's Discover Festival. Discover Dinosaur Day! included hands on
activities to find out how Thecodontosaurus - also known as the Bristol Dinosaur as
the first specimens were found in Bristol in 1834 - lived 210 million years ago. The
event is organised by the Bristol Dinosaur Project at the University of Bristol. Read more...
| || September 2012 - Palaeobiology's 250th MSc graduate sparks first reunion |
University of Bristol's Palaeobiology Research Group is celebrating the
fact that 250 students have now completed its MSc in Palaeobiology, with its first reunion
event for former and current Bristol palaeobiologists. The reunion weekend was a chance to welcome new members of staff,
Dr Davide Pisani and Dr Jakob Vinther, and included talks from staff, students, and
alumni, a CPD programme of new numerical methods, a tour and display, and a field trip.
Liz Martin from Canada (left) was the 250th student to complete the MSc in Palaeobiology.
| || September 2012 - Palaeontology student
receives prestigious Fulbright award |
Rachel Frigot, who has just finished
the MSc in Palaeobiology programme for 2011-2, has received a Fulbright Award to enable
her to study at Johns Hopkins University in the US on one of the most prestigious and
selective scholarship programmes operating world-wide. Created by treaty in 1948, the
US-UK Fulbright Commission offers awards for study or research in any field, at any
accredited US or UK university. Rachel funded her Masters studies in Bristol over the past
two years by working as a science tutor for A-level students. Read more...
| || July 2012 - Engineering technology reveals eating habits of giant
High-tech technology, usually used to design racing cars and
aeroplanes, has helped researchers to understand how plant-eating dinosaurs fed 150
million years ago. A team of international researchers, led by Dr Emily Rayfield from the
University of Bristol and Dr Paul Barrett from the Natural History Museum, used CT scans
and biomechanical modelling to show that Diplodocus - one of the largest dinosaurs
ever - had a skull adapted to strip leaves from tree branches. This research was rated
number 77 out of the 100 top science stories of 2012 by
Discover magazine. Read more...
| || July 2012 - Skulls shed new light on the evolution of the cat |
cats diverged in skull shape from their sabre-toothed ancestors early in their history and
then followed separate evolutionary trajectories, according to new research published
today in PLoS ONE. The study also found that the separation between modern domestic
cats and big cats such as lions and tigers is also deeply rooted. Dr Manabu Sakamoto and
Dr Marcello Ruta applied a range of numerical morphometric tools to explore the evolution
of skull shape of extinct sabre-toothed cats, modern (conical-toothed) cats and
prehistoric 'basal' cats (ancestors of modern cats). Read more...
| || May 2012 - Ten million years to recover from mass extinction |
some 10 million years for Earth to recover from the greatest mass extinction of all time,
latest research has revealed. Life was nearly wiped out 250 million years ago, with only
10 per cent of plants and animals surviving. Recent evidence for a rapid bounce-back is
evaluated in a new review article by Dr Zhong-Qiang Chen, from the China University of
Geosciences in Wuhan, and Professor Michael Benton from the University of Bristol. They
find that recovery from the crisis lasted some 10 million years, as explained today in
Nature Geoscience. Read more...
| || May 2012 - Pliosaur with a gammy jaw |
Imagine having arthritis in your
jaw bones... if they're over 2 metres long! A new study by scientists at the University of
Bristol has found signs of a degenerative condition similar to human arthritis in the jaw
of a pliosaur. Such a disease has never been described before in fossilised Jurassic
reptiles. The animal is the pliosaur Pliosaurus from the Upper Jurassic of
Westbury, Wiltshire, and the new paper, published today in Palaeontology is the
core of Judyth Sassoon's research thesis which she completed while studying for the
Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology. Read more...
| || April 2012 - Former MSc student publishes the textbook |
Brusatte, who completed the MSc in Palaeobiology in Bristol in 2007, and went on to
work for his PhD at the American Museum of Natural History, has just published the most
authoritative and up-to-date textbook on dinosaurs, with the title Dinosaur
Paleobiology. This is the first in a new series of advanced palaeontological books
aimed at researchers and reflecting the latest advances in the field, published worldwide
by Wiley-Blackwell, and edited by Mike Benton from the Bristol group. A further 15 titles
are commissioned and will appear in the next few years. Read more...
| || March 2012 - Just so: Scientists name Dorset crocodile after Kipling |
superbly preserved 130-million-year-old crocodile skull, discovered at Swanage in Dorset
in 2009, has been described as belonging to a species new to science in a paper by
researchers at the University of Bristol. The specimen has been given the name
Goniopholis kiplingi after Rudyard Kipling, author of The Just So Stories, in
recognition of his enthusiasm for the natural sciences. The skull was discovered in April
2009 by Richard Edmonds, Earth Science Manager with the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site
Team, in the course of regular site monitoring. Read more...
| || March 2012 - Size isn't everything - it's how sharp you are |
teeth of a long-extinct vertebrate - with tips only two micrometres across: one twentieth
the width of a human hair - are the sharpest dental structures ever measured, new research
from the University of Bristol and Monash University, Australia has found. David Jones led
a study of conodont function, working with 3D models reconstructed from micro-CT scans,
and showed they were the sharpest biological structures ever - they overcome the
limitations of their tiny size by achieving exceptional sharpness. Read more...
| || March 2012 - The cutting edge: Exploring the efficiency of bladed tooth
Using a combination of guillotine-based experiments and cutting-edge
computer modelling, Phil Anderson and Emily Rayfield, researchers at the University of
Bristol have explored the most efficient ways for teeth to slice food. Their results,
published today in Journal of the Royal Society Interface, show just how precisely
the shape of an animal's teeth is optimized to suit the type of food it eats. They use the
engineering technique Finite Element Analysis to mimic the experiments, and it turns out
that different shaped bladed teeth are optimized for different types of food.. Read more...
| || March 2012 - The
history of ocean acidification |
Current rates of ocean acidification are
unparalleled in Earth's history, according to new research from an international team of
scientists which compiled all the evidence of global warming and acidifying oceans from
the past 300 million years. Dani Schmidt, a member of the 22-strong team, comments
'Laboratory experiments can tell us about how individual marine organisms react, but the
geological record is a real time experiment involving the entire ocean. In order to learn
about the future, the researchers looked to the past, reviewing climate events over the
past 300 million years. Read more...
| || February 2012 - Public invited to draw
the Bristol dinosaur |
Bristol's own dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus, is
now the subject of a competition. The public now have the chance to draw what they think
it really looked like as part of an illustration competition run by the Bristol Dinosaur
Project at the University of Bristol. Discovered in 1834 near Bristol Zoo, Clifton, the
Bristol dinosaur was only the fourth dinosaur ever discovered in the world. Ideas about
what the dinosaur looked like are changing all the time as paleontologists find out more
about its bones which are held at the University and Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Read more...
| || February 2012 - Mouse to elephant? Just
wait 24 million generations |
Scientists have for the first time measured how
fast large-scale evolution can occur in mammals, showing it takes 24 million generations
for a mouse-sized animal to evolve to the size of an elephant. Research published today in
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA describes increases and
decreases in mammal body size following the extinction of the dinosaurs. An international
team, including Dr David Jones, discovered that rates of size decrease are much faster
than growth rates. It takes only 100,000 generations for very large decreases, leading to
dwarfism, to occur. Read more...
| || December 2011 - Chinese fossils shed
light on the origin of animals from single-celled ancestors |
Evidence of the
single-celled ancestors of animals has been discovered in 570 million-year-old rocks from
South China by researchers from the University of Bristol, the Swedish Museum of Natural
History, the Paul Scherrer Institut and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences. This
X-ray microscopy revealed that the fossils had features that multicellular embryos do not,
and this led the researchers to the conclusion that the fossils were neither animals nor
embryos but rather the reproductive spore bodies of single-celled ancestors of animals. Read more...
| || August 2011 - Rocks and clocks help
unravel the mysteries of ancient Earth |
Research into the dating techniques
used to identify the origins of the living world has found that fossils and molecules
together are crucial to calibrate the Earth's evolutionary clock. PhD student Rachel
Warnock and Professor Phil Donoghue show that the shape of the probability distribution of
fossils close to a critical calibration point can alter the estimate of age profoundly.
Their work points to the need for much greater care in the future about constructing
detailed estimates of the likely distributions of known and missing fossils in dating the
tree of life. Read
| || August 2011 - Getting inside the mind (and up the nose) of our ancient
Reorganisation of the brain and sense organs could be the key to
the evolutionary success of vertebrates, one of the great puzzles in evolutionary biology,
according to a paper by Gai Zhi-kun, a Bristol PhD student, his supervisor Phil Donoghue,
and colleagues, just published in Nature. The study claims to have solved this
scientific riddle by studying the brain of a 400 million year old galeaspid, using high
energy X-rays at the Swiss Light Source. The detailed internal architecture of the
specimens can be revealed for the first time using computer imaging techniques. Read more...
| || July 2011 - Fossil jaws shed new light on early vertebrate feeding
With the evolution of jaws some 420 million years ago, jawed
animals diversified rapidly into a range of niches that remained stable for the following
80 million years, despite extinctions, habitat loss and competition, say researchers from
the Universities of Bristol, Oxford and Leiden in Nature. Bristol researchers Phil
Anderson and Emily Rayfield used engineering approaches to explore the dynamics of early
jaw evolution, and the team found that jawed vertebrates surprisingly did not have an
obvious or overwhelming advantage over those without jaws. Read more...
| || July 2011 - The
rise and rise of the flying reptiles
Pterosaurs, flying reptiles from the
time of the dinosaurs, were not driven to extinction by the birds, but in fact they
continued to diversify and innovate for millions of years after birds had originated. A
new numerical study by Katy Prentice, completed as part of her undergraduate degree (MSci
in Palaeontology and Evolution), shows that the pterosaurs evolved in a most unusual way,
becoming more and more specialised through their 160 million years on Earth. The work is
published today in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. Read more here and here.
| || May 2011 - Reptile 'cousins' shed new light on end-Permian extinction |
The end-Permian extinction, by far the most dramatic biological crisis to affect life on
Earth, may not have been as catastrophic for some creatures as previously thought,
according to a new study led by the University of Bristol. The team studied the
parareptiles, a diverse group of bizarre-looking terrestrial vertebrates which varied in
shape and size. The researchers found that parareptiles were not hit much harder by the
end-Permian extinction than at any other point in their 90 million-year history. Never
hugely diverse, the parareptiles seem to have been less affected than other reptiles. Read more...
| || May 2011 - The sea dragons bounce back |
Ichthyosaurs, important marine
predators of the age of dinosaurs, were hit hard by a mass extinction event 200 million
years ago. Ichthyosaurs are iconic fossils, first discovered 200 years ago by Mary Anning
on the Jurassic coast of Dorset at Lyme Regis. The new study, published in PNAS,
uses numerical methods to explore rates of evolution, diversity, and range of body
morphology through the crisis. The extinction acted as a 'bottleneck', reducing
ichthyosaur diversity massively, and when they recovered in terms of numbers of species,
their range of adaptations did not bounce back. Read more...
| || March 2011 - A night at the
museum with the Bristol dinosaur |
People of all ages will have the
opportunity to find out about Bristol's very own dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus, along
with meeting experts to learn about Bristol University's current scientific research on
fossils and dinosaurs. Dino-nite! has been organised by the Bristol Dinosaur Project, run
by the University's School of Earth Sciences, in partnership with Bristol City Museum. A
scary, but impressive night involving education, fun, and thrills, and a chance to learn
about the dinosaur on your doorstep. Read more...
| || January 2011 - Introducing
It's not often that someone has a dinosaur, or other
prehistoric beast, named after them. Two Bristol alumni have described a new reptile
fossil and named it in honour of their Bristol tutor, Professor Mike Benton.
Bentonyx is now an official new genus of rhynchosaur - a group of extinct reptiles
that lived around 230 million years ago. Mike commented 'Bentonyx is a squat,
pig-shaped animal, with a fat belly, hooked snout, and inane grin, so I can see why they
thought of me'. Read more...
| || December 2010 - Record number of scientific publications by Bristol MSc
The year 2010 has seen the the largest number of publications by
current and former Bristol Palaeobiology Masters students, totalling 20 - one 'public
understanding of science' contribution, and 19 scientific papers in journals ranging from
Science to Palaeontology, and Zoological Journal of the Linnean
Society to Biology Letters. This brings the total of original refereed
scientific papers by MSc and MSci students to 81, since the MSc began in 1996. The Bristol
Palaeobiology Research group overall published a total of 80 papers in 2010, of which the
contribution by Masters students is 25 percent. Read more...
| || December 2010 - Fucheng Zhang
visits Bristol as Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor |
Zhang has won a 3-month distinguished visiting professorship position, and is in Bristol
from December to March, to continue work on the colour of the feathers of fossil birds and
dinosaurs. Fucheng's research interests cover the origin and early evolution of birds
and feathers, and the origin of avian flight. His current research themes focus on the
description of remarkable new bird fossils, including skeletons with feathers and skin, as
well as eggs, and other fossils from the astonishing Early Cretaceous fossil deposits of
the Jehol Group in NE China. Read
| || December 2010 - New fossil site in China
shows long recovery from the largest mass extinction |
A major new fossil
site in south-west China has filled in a sizeable gap in our understanding of how life on
this planet recovered from the greatest mass extinction of all time, according to a paper
co-authored by Professor Mike Benton, in the School of Earth Sciences, and published this
week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The work is led by scientists from the
Chengdu Geological Center in China. The new site, at Luoping in Yunnan Province, has
yielded 20,000 fossils, including some of the first reptiles, indicating the first
emergence of a full ecosystem, some 10 million years after the end-Permian mass
| || November 2010 - Rainforest collapse drove
reptile evolution |
Global warming devastated tropical rainforests, 300
million years ago. Now, Bristol palaeontologists Sarda Sahney, Howard Falcon-Lang (also
Royal Holloway) and Mike Benton report the unexpected discovery that this event triggered
an evolutionary burst amongst reptiles - and inadvertently paved the way for the rise of
dinosaurs, a hundred million years later. This event happened 305 Myr ago, during the
Carboniferous Period. At that time, Europe and North America lay on the equator and were
covered by steamy tropical rainforests. But when the Earth's climate became hotter and
drier, rainforests collapsed, triggering reptile evolution. Read more....
| || November 2010 - Engineer provides new insight into pterosaur flight |
Palmer, an engineer turned palaeobiology PhD student at Bristol has now shown that
pterosaurs were slower flyers than had been assumed. By a combination of model testing and
numerical calculations, he has shown that these ancient flying reptiles were significantly
less aerodynamically efficient and were capable of flying at lower speeds than previously
thought. This meant they could land at slower speeds than had been thought, and so
explains why they did not break their fragile bones more often. Read more....
| || November 2010 - Student wins
mineralized tissue prize |
Duncan Murdock, a current third year PhD
palaeobiology student, has received the 'Young Investigator Award' at the 10th
International Conference on the Chemistry and Biology of Mineralized Tissues in Arizona
for his paper on the 'Evolutionary origins of animal skeletons'. Read more....
| || November 2010 - New prize
announced for best MSc thesis |
A new prize for the best project from
students enrolled for the MSc in Palaeobiology, to be called the David Dineley Prize, has
been launched. The first award will be made in early 2011, for the best MSc thesis in the
2009-2010 cohort, as judged by the teaching staff and the external examiner for the
programme. Read more....
| || October 2010 - 'Junk DNA' uncovers the nature
of our ancient ancestors |
The key to solving one of the great puzzles in
evolutionary biology, the origin of vertebrates, has been revealed in new research from
Dartmouth College (USA) and the University of Bristol. Phil Donoghue and colleagues show,
in a study of micro RNAs, that lamprey and hagfish form a clade Cyclostomata, and they are
both equally related to the jawed vertebrates - previous orthodoxy had been that the
hagfish was closer to gnathostomes. The work is published in Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, USA. Read more in the Nature news
| || September 2010 - Top
dinosaur hunters are worst at naming |
The more fossil species you describe,
the less likely the names are to stick. Edward Cope (left) named 64 dinosaur species, but
only 9 of his names are still in use. This is as true of prolific dinosaur namers in both
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a study of all 321 authors who have named one
or more dinosaur species, the most successful were those who named only one, as reported
in a new paper in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology by Mike Benton. Read more in
the Nature news report.
| || August 2010 - Evolution rewritten again
and again |
Palaeontologists are forever claiming that their latest fossil
discovery will 'rewrite evolutionary history'. Is this just boasting or is our 'knowledge'
of evolution so feeble that it changes every time we find a new fossil? A team of
researchers at the University of Bristol decided to find out, with investigations of
dinosaur and human evolution. Their study suggests most fossil discoveries do not make a
huge difference, confirming, not contradicting our understanding of evolutionary history.
Read more here,
and on the Nature and Discover websites.
| || July 2010 - Ancient reptiles 'make tracks' |
A new discovery of 318
million-year-old fossilised footprints from Eastern Canada reveals when reptiles first
conquered dry land. The footprints were discovered by Dr Howard Falcon-Lang, when he was
on the staff of this department, and were studied in collaboration with Mike Benton. They
show key features of the amniotes, reptiles and their descendants, and are older than the
oldest amniote skeletal fossils. Read more here.
| || June 2010 - First
analysis of theropod biting diversity |
A study comparing how carnivorous
dinosaurs tore through their meat has found meat eaters munched using at least four
distinct biting methods. The findings, by Dr Manabu Sakamoto, a postdoc at the University
of Bristol, appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Sakamoto compared 41
species of theropods, and used biomechanical models to identify the four feeding modes.
Read more here and here.
| || May 2010 - MSc student wins prize for
Nick Crumpton, who completed the MSc in Palaeobiology in Bristol in
September 2009, has just been awarded the Geologists' Association prize for one of the
best earth sciences Masters theses in the UK in 2009. Nick worked on adaptation and
morphometrics of the teeth of tiny Triassic and Jurassic mammals, and the prize was
awarded for his application of innovative numerical imaging techniques and comparisons
with analogous extant forms. Read
| || April 2010 - Former MSc students get permanent palaeontology positions |
Former students of the Bristol MSc have achieved excellent careers in palaeontology - in
museums, universities, publishing, and the media. We normally do not highlight their new
posts, but keep a list of
current jobs of former students where we can. Three have recently secured permanent
positions - Isla
Gladstone, as the new Curator of Natural Sciences at the Yorkshire Museum in York, Tai
Kubo as Curator at the Fukui Prefectural
Dinosaur Museum in Japan, and Phil Hopley as
Lecturer in Palaeoclimatology at Birkbeck College, University of London. Many
congratulations to them all!
| || March 2010 - JESBI funding
The 'Jurassic Ecosystem of Strawberry Bank,
Ilminster' project was launched on 25th March, with generous funding from the Esmée
Fairburn Foundation. The Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution's museum holds a
unique spectacular collection of exceptionally preserved fossils from the late Lias of
Ilminster, Somerset, that show exquisite 3-dimensional detail, and many have soft tissues.
The funding supports essential curatorial work at the BRLSI and development of a
substantial new research programme by Bristol MSc students. Read more...
| || February 2010 - Island of dwarf
The idea of dwarf dinosaurs on Haţeg Island, Romania, was
proposed 100 years ago by the colourful Baron Franz Nopcsa, whose family owned estates in
the area. He realized that many of the Haţeg dinosaurs had close relatives in older
rocks in England, Germany, and North America, but the Romanian specimens were half the
size. In new work by Mike Benton at the University of Bristol, and six other authors from
Romania, Germany, and the United States, Nopcsa's hypothesis is tested for the first time,
using numerical methods and bone histology. Read more...
| || February 2010 - Humble algae are the key to whale evolution |
planktonic algae, have been key to the evolution of the diversity of whales, according to
a new study. The research by Felix Marx, a PhD student at the University of Otago in New
Zealand and University of Bristol, together with Dr Mark Uhen of George Mason University
in the US, is published in the journal Science. The fossil record shows that
diatoms and whales rose and fell in diversity together. Whales do not eat diatoms, but the
giant baleen whales feed on krill, small crustaceans that themselves feed on diatoms.
Felix began this project while completing his MSci project in Bristol. Read
| || February 2010 - Ocean acidification is at fastest rate in 65 million years |
A new model, capable of assessing the rate at which the oceans are acidifying, suggests
that changes in the carbonate chemistry of the deep ocean may exceed anything seen in the
past 65 million years. The research, by Dr Andy Ridgwell (Geographical Sciences) and Dr
Daniela Schmidt (Earth Sciences) also predicts much higher rates of environmental change
at the ocean's surface, potentially exceeding the rate at which plankton can adapt. The
work is based on studies of plankton extinction through the past 100 Myr, with a focus on
the PETM. Read
| || January 2010 - Melanosomes in dinosaur feathers show their original colour
The colour of some feathers on dinosaurs and early birds has been identified for the first
time, reports a paper published in Nature this week. For example, the theropod
dinosaur Sinosauropteryx had simple bristles - precursors of feathers - in
alternate orange and white rings down its tail, and the early bird Confuciusornis
had patches of white, black, and orange-brown colouring. This research was rated number 64 out of the
100 top science stories of 2010 by Discover magazine. Read more... See and
hear Mike Benton rambling on
about the discovery, and read the interpretive web pages.
Older news, from 2003-2009, is here.