Coventry University Featured PhD Programmes
Newcastle University Featured PhD Programmes
King’s College London Featured PhD Programmes
University of Glasgow Featured PhD Programmes
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology Featured PhD Programmes

The evolution of human and gorilla locomotor ecology

Project Description

The transition from arboreal to terrestrial life has long been recognized as the major ecological transition in early human evolution that led to the evolution of bipedal locomotion and thus freed the hands from locomotor activities, and allowed the manufacture of stone tools. However, an accumulation of new evidence reveals that early human ancestors were substantially bipedal and already manufacturing stone tools, 0.5 million years before the earliest members of genus Homo and whilst they remained substantially arboreal. In addition, anthropological evidence shows that even today some modern human populations are highly adept at arboreal locomotion. These new findings on human origins mean that a radical rethink of this major ecological transition and its role in driving the origins of our genus is required.

This studentship will study the arboreal locomotion and ecology of human tree climbers and gorillas in Gabon. Contrary to the traditional depiction of gorillas as a predominantly terrestrial species, It has recently become clear that in the right ecological conditions, they are highly arboreal: female lowland gorillas have the capacity both to climb to significant heights (>40m) and to access the edges of tree crowns where branches are very flexible but the greatest amount of fruit tends to be situated. By studying both modern human tree climbers and gorillas, we can generate a picture of the arboreal ecology of great apes that are committed to, or functionally able to employ, bipedal gait. These field studies will be complemented by more detailed biomechanical analyses of the arboreal locomotion of zoo-housed gorillas and human volunteers. The student will then create musculoskeletal models of human and gorilla climbing in a range of environments, and morph the mechanics of human/ gorilla locomotion to extinct species and habitats. This approach will reveal the extent to which early humans could exploit forest canopy despite their increasingly modern anatomy to develop a new paradigm for humans’ evolutionary history.

The student will be supported by supervisors Susannah Thorpe (Birmingham) and Bill Sellers (Manchester), and project partners Robin Crompton (Liverpool) and Martha Robbins (Max Planck), who together have substantial expertise in great ape behavioural ecology, biomechanics, ecomorphology and computer modelling. In addition project partner Joanne Wilton (Birmingham Medical School) will provide bespoke training to the successful student on theoretical and practical aspects of teaching the anatomical sciences. A suite of other training opportunities in e.g. career development and public understanding of sciences are available at the University of Birmingham. Thus the successful applicant will be at the centre of a vibrant, multidisciplinary research community.

Funding Notes

Ideally candidates will have a Merit or Distinction at Masters level in a relevant subject. Experience in studies of primate behaviour and biomechanical techniques would be useful. The position will involve 12-15 months of fieldwork in Gabon and experience of fieldwork, or an ability to thrive under similar challenging conditions, would be very beneficial.

This PhD studentship is being funded by the Anatomical Society. It is a 3-year studentship with fees paid for a UK student and a stipend of £14,777 per year.


Johannsen L, Coward SRL, Martin GR, Wing AM, van Casteren A, Sellers WI, Ennos AR, Crompton RH and Thorpe SKS (2017) Human bipedal instability in tree canopy environments is reduced by “light touch” fingertip support. Scientific Reports 7: 1135, DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-01265-7

Halsey LG, Coward SRL, Crompton RH, Thorpe SKS (2017). Practise makes perfect: performance optimisation in ‘arboreal’ parkour athletes illuminates the evolutionary ecology of great ape anatomy. Journal of Human Evolution 103: 45-52

Crompton RH (2016). The hominins: a very conservative tribe? Last common ancestors, plasticity and ecomorphology in Hominidae. Or, What’s in a name? Journal of Anatomy 228: 686-699.

Crompton RH, Pataky TC, Savage R, D'août K, Bennett MR, Day MH, Bates K, Morse S, Sellers WI. (2012). Human-like external function of the foot, and fully upright gait, confirmed in the 3.66 million year old Laetoli hominin footprints by topographic statistics, experimental footprint-formation and computer simulation. Journal of the Royal Society, Interface / the Royal Society. 9:707-719.

Thorpe, SKS, Holder R and Crompton RH. (2009) Orangutans employ unique strategies to control branch flexibility Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 (31): 12646-12651.

Thorpe, SKS, Holder R and Crompton RH. (2007) Origin of human bipedalism as an adaptation for locomotion on flexible branches. Science 316:1328-1331

How good is research at University of Birmingham in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 42.80

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

Email Now

Insert previous message below for editing? 
You haven’t included a message. Providing a specific message means universities will take your enquiry more seriously and helps them provide the information you need.
Why not add a message here
* required field
Send a copy to me for my own records.

Your enquiry has been emailed successfully

FindAPhD. Copyright 2005-2019
All rights reserved.