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Evolutionary Paleontology: Using the Fossil Record to Understand Major Transitions in the History of Life on Earth

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  • Full or part time
    Dr Nick Longrich
    Prof Matthew Wills
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

Our lab focuses on using the fossil record to study major evolutionary transitions, including the evolution of organisms and the evolution of ecosystems. We work on a wide range of organisms- dinosaurs and birds, crocodiles and turtles, snakes and lizards- and examine a wide range of questions. How did birds evolve flight (1)? How did snakes lose their legs (2)? How severe was the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs (3,4,5)? How did the ecosystem recover(6,7)? We work using a wide range of techniques, from traditional descriptive palaeontology to quantitative approaches to disparity and functional diversity, to molecular clocks.

We believe that what separates the great science from the merely good science is not how we go about finding the answer, but the questions we choose to ask in the first place. In our lab, we focus on finding the right question- questions that are interesting, important, and above all, solvable- and it is this disciplined focus on research design that guides our projects.

Following this strategy, our group has studied the evolution of snakes from lizards (2), the mass extinction of mammals at the K-Pg boundary (3), and the radiation of marine crocodilians in the aftermath of the K-Pg extinction (6). Current projects in the lab include the mass extinction of pterosaurs, the biogeography of Paleogene crocodilians, and the adaptive radiation of Cenozoic snakes and lizards. The palaeontology group at Bath is growing, with two faculty (Dr. Nick Longrich and Professor Matt Wills) being joined by a third member (Dr. Daniel Field) in early 2017. We are also a core part of the new Milner Centre for Evolution, a research centre focused on doing groundbreaking research focusing on major questions in evolutionary biology.

If this kind of science appeals to you, we are always on the lookout for hard-working and creative students. Our goal is to provide the the guidance, the support and the room for our students to do their best. Prior research experience is required and real-world work experience is desirable but prior experience with palaeontology is not necessary.

Funding Notes

We welcome applications from self-funded students and are willing to assist students in seeking their own funding from external sources.


(1) Longrich, N.R., Vinther, J., Meng, Q., Li, Q., Russell, A.P., 2012. Origins and evolution of the avian wing: new evidence from Archaeopteryx lithographica and Anchiornis huxleyi. Current Biology 22, 1-6.
(2) Martill, D.M., Tischlinger, H., Longrich, N.R., 2015. A four-legged snake from the Early Cretaceous of Gondwana. Science 349, 416-419.
(3) Longrich, N.R., Scriberas, J., Wills, M.A., 2016. Severe extinction and rapid recovery of mammals across the Cretaceous‐Paleogene boundary, and the effects of rarity on patterns of extinction and recovery. Journal of evolutionary biology DOI: 10.1111/jeb.12882.
(4) Longrich, N.R., Tokaryk, T.T., Field, D., 2011. Mass extinction of birds at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, 15253-15257.
(5) Longrich, N.R., Bhullar, B.-A.S., Gauthier, J., 2012. Mass extinction of lizards and snakes at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, 21396-21401.
(6) Russell, P., Longrich, N.R., In review. Adaptive radiation of marine crocodylians following the end-Cretaceous extinction.
(7) Longrich, N.R., Vinther, J., Pyron, A., Pisani, D., Gauthier, J.A., 2015. Biogeography of worm lizards (Amphisbaenia) driven by end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 202, 20143034.

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

FTE Category A staff submitted: 24.50

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