The Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group includes six members of academic staff, together with large numbers of research fellows, postdocts, PhD students, and Masters students. Find out about our main activities through the laboratory web pages of staff, and some thematic topics.
The Benton laboratory
The Donoghue laboratory
The Rayfield laboratory
The Schmidt laboratory
The Vinther laboratory
| News from the Palaeobiology Research Group
| || January 2017 - The best way to include fossils in the 'tree of life' |
A team of scientists from the University of Bristol has suggested that we need to use a fresh approach to analyse relationships in the fossil record to show how all living and extinct species are related in the 'tree of life'. Generally, palaeontologists have used parsimony techniques to draw cladograms, but the new work, led by postdoc Mark Puttick, shows that, while such parsimony-based analyses may be precise (= well resolved), they may not be accurate. The new work strongly suggests that palaeontologists should now switch to Bayesian methods of tree reconstruction. Read more.
| || January 2017 - Major grants strengthen links with China in palaeobiology |
The University of Bristol has secured substantial funding under an initiative to strengthen research ties between the UK and China. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the UK government funding body that covers all aspects of environmental science, offered three awards, each of approximately £1.5 million, to run for up to five years, and to cover costs of young researchers, field and laboratory work in both countries. The three funded projects concern plants and climate evolution in the Cenozoic, the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, and Earth and life through the Proterozoic-Phaerozoic transition. Read more.
| || December 2016 - Dinosaur tail in amber is top palaeontological discovery of 2016 |
Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group features three times in the roster of the top 13 scientifically most influential fossil stories of 2016 in Earth Archives. In reverse order, number 9 is work by Jakob Vinther and colleagues on Psittacosaurus countershading, and number 6 is the work on the enigmatic early chordate Tullimonstrum, its eyes and affinities, also involving Jakob Vinther. Number one for the whole year was the dinosaur tail in amber reported from Burma, in Current Biology in December 2016, in which Michael Benton was a collaborator. Read more.
| || December 2016 - Amber specimen offers rare glimpse of feathered dinosaur tail |
Researchers from China, Canada, and the University of Bristol have discovered a dinosaur tail complete with its feathers trapped in a piece of amber, reported today in Current Biology. The tail consists of eight vertebrae from a juvenile; these are surrounded by feathers that are preserved in 3D and with microscopic detail. The specimen came from Myitkyina, Myanmar. This is the first report of a complete dinosaur tail - bones, flesh, skin, and feathers - dried out, but complete. The tail is 4 cm long, and came from a baby abbout 10 cm long, the size of a long-tailed tit. Read more.
| || October 2016 - Flawed analysis casts doubt on years of evolution research |
A fatal flaw has been noted in a widely used technique used to 'correct' for incompleteness of the fossil record. The new study is published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution by Manabu Sakamoto and Chris Venditti from Reading, and Michael Benton from Bristol. The method assumes that variations in the number of different fossils at any time are a reflection of how much rock was available. It has been used in more than 150 published papers since it was presented in 2007. The method decouples the pairs of rock-fossil variables before conducting a correlation analysis, and so returns nonsensical results. Read more.
| || October 2016 - New species of Jurassic reptile identified from skeleton on display in Bristol |
A new species of British ichthyosaur has been identified using skeletal remains which have been on display at the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences for many years. The specimen is type of the new species Ichthyosaurus larkini, named today by Dean Lomax and Judy Massare in Papers in Palaeontology. The specimen has been displayed in the corridor of the School of Earth Sciences for many years, and was originally part of the Chaning Pearce collection purchased by the museum in 1915 and donated to the university in 1930. Read more.
| || September 2016 - Ancestor of arthropods had the mouth of a penis worm |
Fresh evidence from a series of expeditions to North Greenland have led palaeontologists to solve an age-old mystery about a distinctive group of arthropods. It turns out that the mouth apparatus was attached to a primitive relative to the arthropods, Pambdelurion. Jakob Vinther and his team found that the mouth of the Pambdelurion perfectly match the plates seen in Omnidens, a large mouth apparatus from China. This demonstrates that the two previous hypotheses - whether the giant mouth belongs to Anomalocaris or a penis worm - are not exactly right, but not entirely wrong either. Read more.
| || September 2016 - Fate of turtles and tortoises affected more by habitat than temperature |
Habitat degradation poses a greater risk to the survival of turtles and tortoises than rising global temperatures. The researchers tested if long-term climate change poses a threat or opportunity to turtles and tortoises. The Late Cretaceous fossil record was investigated as a natural experiment to quantify differences between the ecology of living turtles and tortoises and those living in an earlier, warmer greenhouse world. During periods with much warmer climates, turtles and tortoises were able to stand the heat in the warmer tropics - as long as there was enough water. Read more.
| || September 2016 - What dinosaurs' colour patterns say about their habitat |
After reconstructing the colour patterns of the well-preserved dinosaur Psittacosaurus from China, researchers from the University of Bristol have found that it was camouflaged, being light on its underside and darker on top. The study published today in Current Biology led the researchers to conclude that Psittacosaurus most likely lived in an environment with diffuse light, such as in a forest. Dr Jakob Vinther, who kled the study, noted that microscopic and chemical studies can give a better picture of what extinct animals looked like, as well as extinct ecologies and habitats. Read more.
| || August 2016 - Bristol MSc Palaeobiology student wins poster prize |
Against competition from PhD students, postdocs, and established academics, Bristol MSc student Melisa Morales Garcia won the prize for best poster at the 64th Symposium for Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, held at the University of Liverpool. The title of her poster is 'Savannahs from the past and present: an analysis on the morphospace occupation of ungulates', based on her Masters research project supervised by Professor Christine Janis in Bristol and Laura Säilä in Helsinki. Melisa begins a PhD shortly with Professor Emily Rayfield, in Bristol. Read more.
| || August 2016 - Elbows of extinct marsupial lion suggest unique hunting style |
Professor Christine Janis of the University of Bristol and colleagues from Málaga have proposed that the long extinct marsupial lion Thylacoleo hunted in a unique way, by using its teeth to hold prey before dispatching them with its huge claws. The evidence is that the elbow joint had a great deal of rotational capacity , and there was a huge 'dew claw' on a mobile thumb, which together would have allowed the marsupial lion to use that claw to kill its prey. It had massive shearing teeth in the back of its jaw, but the incisors appear to have functioned better for gripping than for piercing flesh in a killing bite. Read more.
| || August 2016 - Unearthed: the cannibal sharks of a forgotten age |
Scientists have discovered macabre fossil evidence suggesting that 300 million-year-old sharks ate their own young, as fossil faeces of adult Orthacanthus sharks contained the tiny teeth of juveniles. Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology student, Aodhán Ó Gogáin, made the extraordinary discovery as part of his research project, published today in Palaeontology. he was investigating an extensive vertebrate fauna from the Late Carboniferous of New Brunswick, Canada, where he did field work, and then worked on a large sample of sediment rich in bones and teeth. Read more.
| || August 2016 - Motorways reveal evidence of massive tropical storms 200 million years ago |
In new research, Tiffany Slater, a student from Kentucky, analysed a series of borehole samples taken 25 years ago near the M4-M5 junction , as part of a summer project at the University of Bristol. The Rhaetian Transgression accumulated teeth and bones in several bone beds. The studied material consists of 2,600 fossils, including teeth, scales, and jaw fragments of large carnivorous fish, and teeth from exotic sharks and ichthyosaurs. Her work revealed that two bone beds originated from independent and energetic shoreward storms during the Rhaetian Transgression. Read more.
| || August 2016 - Evidence from China shows how plants colonized the land |
New fossil finds from China push back the origins of deep soils by 20 myr, in research from the universities of Peking and Bristol. Up to 450 Ma, there was no life outside water, and the land surface was rocky. By 390 Ma, in the Middle Devonian, the first trees emerged. The new find is of deep rooting systems in much older, Early Devonian rocks. Soils are made by plants and animals, and they have a great stabilizing effect, taking up rainwater and limiting erosion rates. After this time, river systems changed their type, from fast-flowing, to slower-moving, meandering streams. Read more.
| || July 2016 - Tooth wear sheds light on the feeding habits of ancient elephant relatives |
For the first time, the changing diets of elephants in the last two million years in China have been reconstructed, using a technique based on analysis of the surface textures of their teeth. The work was carried out by University of Bristol student, Steven (Hanwen) Zhang, as his MSci Palaeontology & Evolution final project, and working with an international team of researchers. The research was published online in Quaternary International. The wear patterns show that two extinct elephants were primarily browsing on leaves, and the third was both a grazer and a browser. Read more.
| || June 2016 - The success of the plant-eating dinosaurs |
Plant-eating dinosaurs had several bursts of evolution, and these were all kicked off by innovations in their teeth and jaws, new research has found. The new study, led by Masters of Palaeobiology student Eddy Strickson, reveals four evolutionary bursts; one in the middle of the Jurassic, and the other three in a cluster around 80 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous. Plants were evolving fast during the Mesozoic, with the rise of cycads, conifers, and especially the angiosperms. However, the evolution of ornithopod dinosaur jaws and teeth did not show any response to these changes in availability of plants. Read more.
| || June 2016 - Early bird wings preserved in Burmese amber |
Two new specimens of tiny bird wings trapped in amber have been uncovered in Burma. The international research team was led by Dr Xing Lida from the China University of Geosciences, and colleagues from Canada, Canada and Professor Mike Benton from the University of Bristol, UK. The specimens come from a famous amber deposit in northeastern Myanmar, which has produced thousands of exquisite specimens of insects, as well as spiders, scorpions, lizards, and isolated feathers. This is the first time that skeletons, feathers, and skin of fossil birds of this age have been reported. Read more.
| || June 2016 - When Britain was fringed by tropical seas |
A team from the University of Bristol has shed new light on the creatures that inhabited the tropical seas surrounding Britain during the Rhaetian (latest Triassic). Published in Proceedings of the Geologists' Association, this is the most extensive study yet, based on more than 26,000 identified fossils, of the Rhaetian shallow sea sharks, bony fishes, marine reptiles, and other creatures, extracted from a number of excavations at Hampstead Farm Quarry, near Chipping Sodbury. Unusually, five members of the team were undergraduates when they did the work, and this was part of a series of summer internships. Read more.
| || May 2016 - Dino jaws: Stegosaurs bite strength revealed |
The first detailed study of a Stegosaurus skull shows that it had a stronger bite than its small peg-shaped teeth suggested. Lead author Dr Stephan Lautenschlager employed digital models and computer simulations to analyse the dinosaurs' bites, using data from 3D scans of the skulls and lower jaws. Comparison with reconstructed skulls, jaw actions, and bite foces of the theropod Erlikosaurus and the basal sauropodomorph Plateosaurus, chosen because all three have similarly shaped jaws and similarly-sized teeth, showed that feeding mode cannot be identified from superficial study of the skulls. Read more.
| || May 2016 - Rapid rise of the Mesozoic sea dragons |
The origins and early rise to dominance of the Mesozoic marine reptiles have been unclear. New research by Tom Stubbs and Mike Benton shows that they burst onto the scene, rather than expanding slowly. Within a relatively short time, marine reptiles began feeding on hard-shelled invertebrates, fast-moving fish and other large marine reptiles. The new research uses their rich fossil record to statistically quantify variation in the shape and function of their jaws and teeth. Intriguingly, just 30 million years after the initial marine reptile 'evolutionary burst', they were hit by a number of extinctions in the Late Triassic. Read more.
| || April 2016 - Birds of prey constrained in the beak evolution race |
The diverse adaptations of bird beaks are classic examples of evolution by natural selection. However beak shape can be constrained by their structure, so shape change is not infinite. Jen Bright, former postdoc in Bristol, and colleagues including Emily Rayfield, show in a paper in PNAS that the beak shapes of raptors, the flesh-eating hawks, depend on body size. In small birds of prey the beak is falcon-shaped, and in large forms the skull looks like a vulture. These shapes are constant even in unrelated forms, suggesting underlying genomic constraints that channel evolution along parallel routes. Read more.
| || April 2016 - Dinosaurs already in decline before asteroid apocalypse |
Dinosaurs were already in an evolutionary decline 50 Myr before the meteorite impact that finally finished them off, new research has found. By using a sophisticated statistical analysis of macroevolution across a complete phylogeny of dinosaurs, Manabu Sakamoto and Chris Venditti from the University of Reading and Mike Benton from the University of Bristol showed that dinosaur species were going extinct at a faster pace than new ones were emerging, from the beginning of the Late Cretaceous, except for the efficient plant-eating hadrosaurs and ceratopsians, which bucked the trend. Read more.
| || April 2016 - Tully Monster's eyes prove it was a vertebrate |
Researchers from Leicester and Bristol, including Jakob Vinther from Bristol, and led by Thomas Clements, former Bristol Masters student, report conclusive evidence that Tullimonstrum gregarium was a vertebrate based on microscopic organelles in its eyes. The animal, more commonly known the 'Tully Monster', has been found only in coal quarries in Illinois, had been generally interpreted as an invertebrate. The team identified melanosomes in the eye stalks, pigment-bearing organelles, and they were in two types, sausage-shaped and globular, and these two types are known only in vertebrates. Read more.
| || March 2016 - Fossilised snake shows its true colours |
A study of an upper Miocene snake has shown for the first time a range of chromatophores, the cells in the skin responsible for colour. Dr Maria McNamara, a palaeobiologist at University College Cork and colleagues, including Dr Stuart Kearns of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, found that the fossilised snake skin had melanophores, which contain the pigment melanin, xanthophores, which contain carotenoid and pterin pigments, and iridophores, which create iridescence. All told, the snake was a mottled green and black, with a pale underside: colours that likely aided in daytime camouflage. Read more.
| || February 2016 - The 'ugliest fossil reptiles' who roamed China |
Long before the dinosaurs, hefty herbivores called pareiasaurs ruled the Earth. Now, for the first time, a detailed investigation of all Chinese specimens of these creatures - often described as the 'ugliest fossil reptiles' - has been published. In the new study, Mike Benton shows there are close similarities between Chinese fossils and those found in Russia and South Africa, indicating that the huge herbivores were able to travel around the world despite their lumbering movement. Up to now, six species of pareiasaurs had been described from China, but study of specimens and field sites shows there were three. Read more.
| || February 2016 - Sauropod swimmers or walkers? |
A new study by palaeontologists from the China University of Geosciences in Beijing, the University of Bristol, and elsewhere, has shed light on some unusual dinosaur tracks from north China. The tracks were made by huge, four-legged sauropod dinosaurs, yet they show only hind footprints. Previous studies of such trackways suggested that the dinosaurs might have been swimming. The new specimens were, however, produced by walking animals. This is because the prints are the same as in more usual tracks consisting of all four feet, and the hands have not pressed into the rather solid sediment. Read more.
| || February 2016 - Rooting the family tree of placental mammals |
The roots of the mammalian family tree have long been shrouded in mystery; it was unclear how the three main groups were related to each other - Afrotheria (elephants, tenrecs, and relatives, in Africa), Xenarthra (armadillos and sloths, in South America) and Boreoeutheria (all other placental mammals, in northern continents). A new phylogenetic analysis by James Tarver and colleagues, published today in Genome Biology and Evolution, shows that placental mammals split first into Atlantogenata and Boreoeutheria, and then Atlantogenata split into Afrotheria and Xenarthra. Read more.
| || February 2016 - Dinosaurs take over Bristol Museum for British Science Week |
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery will be celebrating British Science Week (11-20 March 2016), with a Dinosaur Takeover. Bristol Museums have partnered with dinosaur experts at the University of Bristol to deliver an exciting half day experience for school groups in the region, packed with thrilling dinosaur-related activities. Professor Mike Benton, a dinosaur expert at the University of Bristol said: "We are delighted to be able to work with the Museum to engage young children in science. It's great for the students too - a break from their regular studies, but also serious, practical experience in education and learning." Read more.
| || February 2016 - Ocean acidification makes coralline algae less robust |
Ocean acidification is affecting the formation of the skeleton of coralline algae which play an important part in marine biodiversity, new research from the University of Bristol has found. The coralline alga skeleton is composed of high-magnesium calcite, the most soluble form of calcium carbonate, and is therefore vulnerable to the change in carbonate chemistry resulting from the absorption of man-made CO2 by the ocean. In a new study, published today in Scientific Reports, Dr Federica Ragazzola and colleagues show that the skeleton is becoming more brittle. Read more.
| || January 2016 - Current pace of environmental change is unprecedented in Earth's history |
University of Bristol researchers, including Professor Daniela Schmidt, publish research in Nature Geosciences that compares the unprecedented rate of environmental change today compared to previous events in Earth history. The team show that during the Aptian oceanic anoxic event 120 Myr ago, atmospheric carbon dioxide (pCO2) increased in response to volcanic outgassing and remained high for around 1.5-2 Myr. The change in pCO2 appears to have been far slower than that of today, suggesting it is unlikely that widespread surface ocean acidification occurred during this event. Read more.
| || December 2015 - Bumper year for publications by the Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group |
For the second time, the Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group published more than 100 papers in refereed research journals during a single calendar year, a total of 117, and two of them in Nature and Science. The list of papers published in 2015 shows many contributions from graduate students, as well as 15 papers from Masters students, making 13% of the total. The annual publications lists for the past thirty years show a steady rise in number and scope of publications in line with the growth in size of the Bristol PBRG. With this year's 15 papers, the Masters students have now published 131 papers over the years.
| || November 2015 - Researchers find size isn't everything in the world of plant evolution|
Researchers from the University of Bristol, led by Mark Puttick, have uncovered one of the reasons for the evolutionary success of flowering plants, in a paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. They show that the ability of some plants to rapidly vary the size of their genomes, helped to explain the huge diversity seen in flowering plants. The researchers used a family tree of all land plants to identify a link between the rates of genome size evolution and diversification in angiosperms, whereas other land plants have low rates for both. Read more.
| || November 2015 - Which came first: the sponge or the comb jelly?|
Recent genomic studies have suggested that comb jellies, members of the phylum Ctenophora, are the sister group to all animals but now new research, led by Davide Pisani at the University of Bristol and published today inProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, reaffirms the traditional view - that sponges (Porifera) are the oldest animal phylum. The team reanalysed genomic data sets from three studies supporting the Ctenophora-sister hypothesis. Depending on whether sponges or comb jellies came first underpins entirely different evolutionary histories for the animal nervous system. Read more.
| || November 2015 - Earth's first ecosystems were more complex than previously thought, study finds|
Computer simulations show how Tribrachidium, a puzzling Ediacaran organism with no known modern relatives fed, revealing that some of the first large, complex organisms on Earth formed ecosystems that were much more complex than previously thought. The team, led by Imran Rahman from Bristol have shown that this simple animal was a suspension feeder by applying computational fluid dynamics to a digital model of the fossil. The external morphology of Tribrachidium passively directs water flow toward the apex of the organism and generates low-velocity eddies above apical pits. Read more.
| || November 2015 - Fossil fireworm species named after rock musician|
A muscly fossil fireworm from the Cretaceous of Lebanon, discovered by scientists from the University of Bristol and the Natural History Museum, has been named Rollinschaeta myoplena in honour of punk musician and spoken word artist, Henry Rollins, the legendary, muscular frontman of hardcore punk band Black Flag. The fossil is a polychaete annelid, and the researchers were able to identify different muscle groups in Rollinschaeta as the creature's muscles were replicated by the mineral apatite soon after its death. The work was done by Bristol MSc student Paul Wilson and PhD student Luke Parry. Read more.
| || November
2015 - The better to eat you with? How dinosaurs' jaws influenced diet|
New research from the University of Bristol has found that the feeding style and dietary preferences of dinosaurs was closely linked to how wide they could open their jaws. Using digital models and computer analyses, Dr Stephan Lautenschlager from Bristol's School of Earth Sciences studied the muscle strain during jaw opening of three theropods with different dietary habits. The study found that the carnivorous Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus were capable of a wide gape (up to 90 degrees), while the herbivorous Erlikosaurus was limited to small gape (around 45 degrees). Read more.
| || October
2015 - X-rays uncover gut of 320-million-year-old-animal|
The inner workings of a tiny fossil have been studied using X-ray microscopy, revealing evidence of the digestive system for the first time. Researchers from the University of Bristol, and overseas, analysed the specimen using high-energy X-rays. The fossil under study is an early relative of modern sea urchins and starfish and is part of a major group of marine invertebrates called echinoderms. The results of X-ray imaging prove that the fossil represents an early developmental stage of an extinct group known as blastoids. It can therefore shed light on the early evolutionary history of echinoderms. Read more.
| || October
2015 - Computer simulations reveal feeding in early animal|
Scientists have used computer simulations to reconstruct feeding in the common ancestor shared between humans and starfish. The researchers, led by Imran Rahman from the University of Bristol, tested competing theories for feeding in a 510-million-year-old fossil using computational fluid dynamics. The fossil under study is the cinctan Protocinctus mansillaensis. The analyses show that the animal fed by actively drawing water into its mouth using internal gill slits, rather than passively waiting for food to come to it, likely the feeding strategy of the ancestor of echinoderms and vertebrates. Read more.
| || October
2015 - Bristol Palaeobiology MSc student wins EGU poster prize|
Rachael Moore is now a PhD student at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris. The poster she presented at the EGU General Assembly, 'Morphotype disparity in the Precambrian,' shows results from her MSc research at the University of Bristol where she examined the microfossils found within Precambrian stromatolites supervised by Dr. Bettina Schirrmeister. Her main research interest is the deep biosphere; she is currently investigating microbial communities found within crystalline basalts and the impact these communities have on their host rocks. Click here to download this prize-winning poster. Read more.
| || October
2015 - 125 million-year-old wing sheds new light on the evolution of flight|
Some of the most ancient birds were capable of performing aerodynamic feats like many living birds, according to a new study of a fossil wing. In new research published in Scientific Reports, University of Bristol PhD student, Guillermo Navalón, together with a team of Spanish palaeontologists and Dr Luis M. Chiappe of the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles County, studied the exceptionally well-preserved right wing of a 125-Myr-old bird from central Spain. This new fossil preserves not only the articulated bones of the forelimb but also remains of the plumage and of the soft-tissues of the wing. Read more.
| || October
2015 - Student reports new finds of a living fossil|
Another undergraduate project has struck gold! Undergraduate Harry Allard, working on a summer internship, found remains of coelacanth fishes, ranging in size from juveniles to adults, in a section of Late Triassic rocks, dated at about 210 million years old, at Manor Farm, Aust, close to the first Severn crossing. He was working on microvertebrate fossils from the Manor Farm locality, a collection of 20,000 specimens made by the late Mike Curtis. Coelacanths are rare in these Rhaetic bonebeds near Bristol, and this is only the third record ever, and better than previous finds because there are multiple fossils. Read more.
| || September
2015 - X-rays reveal fossil secrets|
A sophisticated imaging technique has allowed scientists to virtually peer inside a 10-million-year-old sea urchin. The team of researchers from the United Kingdom, Spain and Germany, including Dr Imran Rahman from the University of Bristol, used X-ray computed tomography to show that the sea urchin was riddled with borings made by bivalves, and the boring bivalves were preserved inside the sea urchin in large numbers, proving that the bivalves were using the sea urchin as an 'island' habitat on the seafloor, as occurs in modern oceans. Read more.
| || August 2015 - Just how good (or bad) is the fossil record of dinosaurs?|
A key question for palaeontologists is 'how good is the fossil record?' In a new study, Mike Benton explores how knowledge about dinosaurs has accumulated over the past 200 years, since the first dinosaur was named in 1824. His research suggests that strong caution is needed with some popular methods to 'correct' the fossil record, especially formation counts. He finds that cumulative measures such as numbers of formations, localities or collections are not independent of numbers of species and so neither can be used as yardstick against which to assess the quality of the other. Read more.
| || August 2015 - Ancient British shores teemed with life - shows study by Bristol
A Bristol undergraduate has shown the diverse fauna that once inhabited shallow coastal tropical waters in Somerset. Klara Nordén studied material from the Late Triassic of the Marston Road Quarry, near Nunney, which are rich in microscopic fossil teeth. She identified many species of bony fish and shark as well as Pachystropheus, a crocodile-like animal, and a placodont, an armoured reptile whose flat teeth were ideal for crushing shells. The placodont (left) is one of the last to survive on Earth. Most importantly, the site shows mixing of land-living sphenodontians, evidence that the site was close to the coast. Read more.
| || August 2015
- X-ray technology reveals a new bone in a very old fish|
A new bone in
the skull of an iconic fossil animal that represents the 'missing link' between fish and all
land-dwelling vertebrate animals has been found by researchers from the University of Bristol. Dr
Laura Porro and colleagues applied high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanning to
several specimens of the lobe-finned fish Eusthenopteron. As the researchers dug deeper, they
found a surprise in the shape of a new jaw bone. They term it the postsymphseal - a bone found
between the mandibles in several sarcopterygians, but lost in fully terrestrial tetrapods. Read
| || August 2015 - Earliest evidence of reproduction in a complex
How some of the first complex organisms on Earth reproduced has been
identified in a new study of 565 million-year-old fossils by researchers from the Universities of
Cambridge, Bristol and Oxford. The researchers, including Dr Alex Liu from Bristol's School of Earth
Sciences, found that some organisms known as rangeomorphs reproduced by taking a joint approach:
they first sent out an 'advance party' to settle in a new area, followed by rapid colonisation of
the new neighbourhood. The study, reported today in the journal Nature, could aid in
revealing the origins of our modern marine environment. Read more.
| || July 2015 - Ancient life in three dimensions|
Hidden secrets about life in
Somerset 190 million years ago have been revealed by researchers at the University of Bristol and
the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Thanks to exceptional conditions of
preservation, a whole marine ecosystem has been uncovered. Work will now begin in earnest on the
fossils, thanks to a £240,000 grant from the Leverhulme Trust, which will allow for
three-dimensional scanning to be carried out and also fund young researchers to work in Bristol and
Oxford. A review of the fossils is published today in the Journal of the Geological Society.
| || June 2015 -
Deep thoughts: brain of ancient sea creature reconstructed by Bristol
The world's first study into the brain anatomy of an ichthyosaur has
shed light on how the reptilian brain adapted to life in the oceans. The work, led by University of
Bristol undergraduate Ryan Marek, is out this week in the journal Palaeontology. Research
into ichthyosaurs is difficult as their fossils are usually found compressed, making studies of
skull function and brain anatomy near impossible. However, one specimen from the Bath Royal Literary
and Scientific Institute, from a lost site at Strawberry Bank, Somerset, is almost complete, and is
preserved spectacularly in three dimensions. Read more.
| || June 2015 - Exploring the deep-time roots of plant diversity|
The conquest of land
by early plants contributed to the establishment of the first ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles
on Earth. A new study in the journal Earth-Science Reviews by a mix of Chinese and UK-based
authors, including Mike Benton from the School of Earth Sciences, identified two distinct phases in
the evolution of early vascular plants - the first during which species diversity and leaf-shape
diversity increased in parallel, and the second in which the complexity of compound leaves stablized
despite massive increase in plant species diversity. Read more.
| || June 2015 -
Bristol undergraduate identifies Gloucestershire fossil as new species of ancient reptile|
Fossils found in a quarry in Gloucestershire have been identified by a student and her supervisors at the University of Bristol as a new small species of reptile with self-sharpening blade-like teeth that lived 205 million years ago. Part of the name chosen for the new species - Clevosaurus sectumsemper, meaning 'Gloucester reptile with ever-sharp teeth' - takes inspiration from a spell cast in the Harry Potter books. The project was led by Catherine Klein, a final-year undergraduate who is completing the MSci in Palaeontology and Evolution, as a summer project in 2014. Read more.
| || May 2015 - New Fellow of the Royal Society|
Professor of 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 Donoghue works on the relationship between evolution and embryology,
integrating living and fossil organisms, genetics, developmental biology and knowledge of their
evolutionary relationships to provide a holistic understanding of major episodes in evolutionary
history. Read more...
| || April 2015
The first convincing evidence for sexual differences in a species
of dinosaur has been described by University of Bristol MSc student, Evan Saitta, in a study of the
iconic dinosaur Stegosaurus, published today in PLoS ONE. Stegosaurus had two
staggered rows of bony plates along its back and two pairs of spikes at the end of its tail. Some
individuals had wide plates, some had tall, with the wide plates being up to 45 per cent larger
overall than the tall plates. According to the new study, the tall-plated and the wide-plated
Stegosaurus were males and females. Read
| || April 2015
- Oldest fossils controversy resolved|
New analysis of world-famous 3.46
billion-year-old rocks has resolved a long running controversy about the world's oldest fossils. The
research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA by Dr David Wacey,
a Marie Curie Fellow in Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, with colleagues, shows that the 'Apex
chert microfossils' comprise stacks of plate-like clay minerals arranged into branched and tapered
worm-like chains. Carbon was then absorbed onto the edges of these minerals during the circulation
of hydrothermal fluids, giving a false impression of carbon-rich cell-like walls. Read more.
| || April 2015
- Reassessing China's dinosaur 'Pompeii'|
New geological fieldwork in
China has changed our understanding of a famous dinosaur fossil site. Up to now, the site at
Lujiatun, in Liaoning Province, NE China, was called the 'Chinese Pompeii' because it was assumed
the animals had been killed by volcanic gases and buried at the same time under clouds of ash from
erupting volcanoes. However, a new study, led by PhD student Chris Rogers from the University of
Bristol, with a team of international collaborators from the UK, Ireland and Beijing, shows that
these animals had been buried by sediments that were deposited by water and not by volcaniclastic
flows. Read more.
| || April 2015
- Progressive Palaeontology, Bristol,
The annual meeting for and by students in palaeontology is in Bristol this
year. One hundred PhD and MSc students, and even some undergraduates, present their research in
talks and posters, to share the latest methods and ideas, and to gain practice in presenting their
scientific work. The organising team was chaired by Joe Keating, and events include a full day of
talks and posters, preceded by an icebreaker in the Life Sciences Building Sky Lounge, and followed
by the annual dinner, an auction to build a travel fund for the conference in future, and a field
trip to local sites. Read more, and
see live streaming of the talks.
| || April 2015
- Worm lizards
dispersed by 'rafting' over oceans, not continental drift|
Tiny, burrowing reptiles
known as worm lizards became widespread long after the breakup of the continents, leading scientists
at the universities of Bristol, Bath, Yale and George Washington to conclude that they must have
dispersed by rafting across oceans soon after the extinction of the dinosaurs, rather than by
continental drift as previously thought. The scientists used information from fossils and DNA from
living species to create a molecular clock to give a more accurate timescale of when the different
species split apart from each other. Read more.
| || March 2015
ammonite is most downloaded 3D fossil|
The most downloaded 3D digital model from a
growing data base on British fossil types in January 2015 was Coroniceras hyatti Donovan,
1952 (University of Bristol Geology Collection, BRSUG 212, left). The GB3D Type Fossils Online
project, funded by JISC, aims to develop a single database of the type specimens, held in British
collections, of macrofossil species and subspecies found in the UK, including links to photographs
(including 'anaglyph' stereo pairs) and a selection of 3D digital models. The database includes
major museums in London, Cambridge, Oxford, Cardiff, Keyworth, and Bristol. Read
| || February
2015 - Fossil skull sheds new light on transition from water to land|
first 3D reconstruction of the skull of a Devonian basal tetrapod has been created by scientists
from the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge. The researchers applied high-resolution X-ray
computed tomography scanning to several specimens of Acanthostega gunnari, and found that its
skull was taller and somewhat narrower than previously interpreted, more similar to the skull of a
modern crocodile than had been thought. The size and distribution of its teeth and the nature of the
sutures suggest Acanthostega may have initially seized prey at the front of its jaws using
its large front teeth and hook-shaped lower jaw. Read more.
| || February
2015 - Evidence from warm past confirms recent IPCC estimates of climate
A research team led by scientists at the Universities of Southampton and
Bristol has developed new records of past CO2 levels, published in an article in
Nature today. These reveal that the CO2 content of the Earth's atmosphere between
2.8 to 3.3 million years ago, was higher than that of the pre-industrial Earth and likely higher
than at any other point over the past two million years - but similar to values reached in the past
decade. The new records are based on geochemical analyses of marine sediments, especially boron, and
the team includes palaeontologist Daniela Schmidt. Read more.
| || January
2015 - Geology senior named as lead author of research paper|
Another paper by an undergraduate hits the headlines - this time, the undergraduate is from Iowa State University, Dana Korneisel, who visited in summer 2013 to join a project on small vertebrates near the
Triassic-Jurassic boundary, called At the feet of the dinosaurs. Dana worked on a small collection of sharks' teeth and other small fossils from marine beds in Devon, and identified them to make a reconstruction of the fauna of the time. Unexpectedly, after we did fieldwork, it turned out these Rhaetic bonebed fossils were enclosed in burrows and had been reworked by the shrimps that built the burrow systems. Read more.
| || January 2015 - Jaw mechanics of shell-crushing Jurassic fish revealed by Bristol
The feeding habits of an unusual Jurassic fish have been uncovered by a
University of Bristol undergraduate in a groundbreaking study which has been published in
Palaeontology, a leading scientific journal, this week - a rare achievement for an
undergraduate student. The fish, Dapedium, known from the Lower Lias rocks of the Dorset
coast around Lyme Regis, was a shell-crusher, and in the new study, Fiann Smithwick applied a
multiple-lever mechanical model to nearly 100 specimens, and confirms that it specialised in feeding
on shelled animals. Read more, and featured on The Conversation.
| || December 2014 - Shedding new light on the diet of extinct animals|
study of tooth enamel in mammals living today in the equatorial forest of Gabon could ultimately
shed light on the diet of long extinct animals, according to new research published in
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dr Jerémy Martin, formerly a Marie
Curie Research Fellow in Bristol, and now at the Université de Lyon in France, and colleagues
found that magnesium isotopes are particularly well suited to deciphering the diet of living mammals
and, when used in conjunction with other methods such as carbon isotopes, they could open up new
perspectives on the study of fossilised animals. Read more.
| || December 2014 - Bumper year for publications by the Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group |
For the first time, the Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group published more than 100 papers in refereed research journals during a single calendar year, a total of 106, and six of them in Nature and Science. The full list of papers published in 2014 shows many contributions from graduate students, as well as 12 papers from Masters students, making 11% of the year's total. The annual publications lists for the past thirty years show a steady rise in number and scope of publications in line with the growth in size of the Bristol PBRG. With this year's ten papers, the Masters students have now published 115 papers over the years.
| || December
2014 - All
dinosaurs had feathers - top-ten science breakthroughs of 2014|
Science nominates their top ten scientific breakthroughs of the year, based on their
assessment, and the votes of readers. Number 1 for 2014 was the Rosetta mission to comet 67P, and
then among the nine unranked runners-up was the discovery that all dinosaurs had feathers, proved by
a joint Belgian-Russian-Bristol project, published in Science in July 2014. Our report of
exquisite preservation of scales and feathers in the basal ornithischian Kulindadromeus from
Siberia has changed the whole debate about the origin of bird feathers and dinosaurian physiology.
here... and here.
| || December 2014 - Palaeontological
It's been a busy week for Bristol palaeobiologists - not content
with being part of the
second best Earth Sciences department in the UK, Bristol and ex-Bristol people have won a host
of awards at the Palaeontological Association annual meeting in Leeds. Congratulations to Phil
Donoghue for being awarded the President's Medal, a mid career award for an outstanding
contribution to the subject, David Button for winning the President's Prize for the best talk
by early stage researchers within one year of their PhD. Congrats also to ex-Bristolians Maria
McNamara for winning the Hodson Award for researchers within 10 years of their PhD, ex-MSc
students Edine Pape and Jen Hoyal Cuthill for both winning the poster prize and
ex-MSci student Tom Fletcher for a commendation in the President's Prize.
| || November
2014 - Modern technology restores ancient dinosaur fossil|
A rare dinosaur
fossil has been restored by an international team of scientists, led by Dr Stephan Lautenschlager
from the University of Bristol, using high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT scanning) and
digital visualisation techniques. The work is described this week in the Journal of Vertebrate
Paleontology. The focus of the study was the skull of Erlikosaurus andrewsi, a 3-4 m long
therizinosaur, a herbivorous theropod, from the Cretaceous of Mongolia. This work was a key portion
of Lautenschlager's PhD, in which he investigated the feeding mechanics of these enigmatic
dinosaurs. Read more...
| || October
2014 - How dinosaurs divided their meals at the Jurassic dinner table|
Late Jurassic, numerous sauropod dinosaurs lived side by side, and it has not been clear how they
divided the food amongst themselves. New work by PhD student David Button, using 3D digital skull
models and biomechanical approaches shows how two Morrison sauropods fed differently.
Camarasaurus had a robust skull and strong bite, which allowed it to feed on tough leaves and
branches. The weaker bite and more delicate skull of Diplodocus restricted it to softer foods
like ferns. This indicates differences in diet between the two dinosaurs, which would have allowed
them to coexist. Read more...
| || September
2014 - Fourth edition of Vertebrate Palaeontology just published|
Benton's standard textbook Vertebrate Palaeontology first appeared in 1990, and subsequent
editions emerged in 1997 and 2005. Now the fourth edition has just appeared today, September 25th,
and it is bigger and better than its precursors. It is larger format than before, with huge numbers
of new box features reporting new research, extensive updating throughout to reflect 2013 and 2014
research, and with a collection of colour images. The book benefits from a new reconstruction of the
Middle Triassic underwater scene at Luoping in South China by astonishing palaeoartist Brian Choo.
| || September
2014 - Scientists report first semi-aquatic dinosaur, Spinosaurus|
fossils of the massive Cretaceous predator Spinosaurus aegyptiacus reveal it adapted to life
in the water. Its long snout lined with sharp teeth had long suggested Spinosaurus was a
fish-eater. Added to this are the proportions of its limb bones, the long snout and retracted
nostrils, and solid bone structure. The paper, published in Science, is led by Nizar Ibrahim,
who graduated from Bristol with a BSc in Geology and Biology in 2006, and current MSc student,
Matteo Fabbri. Rated ninth most significant science story of 2014 by Discover
magazine. Read more...
| || September
2014 - How
good is the fossil record?|
Do all the millions of fossils in museums give a balanced
view of the history of life, or is the record too incomplete to be sure? Methods have been developed
to correct for bias in the fossil record, but new research suggests caution. The study, led by Alex
Dunhill as part of his PhD work in Bristol, explored the rich fossil record of Great Britain.
Measures such the area of sedimentary rock, number of fossil collections and number of geological
formations, have been used as yardsticks against which the quality of the fossil record can be
assessed - but the new study casts doubt on their usefulness. Read
| || August 2014
Welsh mammals were picky eaters, study finds|
New analyses of tiny fossil mammals from
South Wales are shedding light on the function and diets of our earliest ancestors, a team led by
researchers from the Universities of Bristol and Leicester report today in the journal
Nature. These shrew-sized, early Jurassic mammals were not generalized insectivores as had
been thought. CT scans and finite element analysis showed that Kuehneotherium and
Morganucodon had very different abilities for catching and chewing prey, evidence for
specialization even at this early point in mammalian evolution. Read
| || 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 -
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
| || June 2014 -
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
| || 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 -
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
| || May 2014 -
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
| || May 2014 -
New Fellow of the
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
| || February 2014 - Jaw mechanics shed new light on early tetrapod feeding habits|
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
| || 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
Older news, from 2003-2013, is here.