Skull shape, function and evolution in the earliest dinosaurs

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Laura Porro

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Paul Barrett

Earth Sciences Department, NHM

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Project Description:

The origin and early evolution of dinosaurs was a key moment in the history of life. The earliest dinosaurs were small, unspecialised and rare components of Triassic faunas; in contrast, by the Jurassic, dinosaurs experienced a massive increase in diversity and abundance, and radiated to fill numerous terrestrial niches. Dietary diversification has been implicated as a potential factor in this radiation; however, rigorous testing of form-function hypotheses in early dinosaurs has been limited compared to derived taxa. This project will combine high-resolution imaging, 3D visualization and reconstruction of fossil skulls, and cutting-edge biomechanical modelling to investigate mechanical performance in the skulls of early dinosaurs – including theropods, sauropodomorphs and ornithischians – and their ancestors. Techniques to be applied include: CT- and surface scanning to capture shape; 3D visualization and methods to “retrodeform” fossil skulls; digital reconstruction of jaw-closing muscles; musculoskeletal models to predict bite force, jaw-closing speed, and muscle mechanical advantage; finite element analysis to reveal patterns of strain and stress under various feeding simulations; and potentially 3D geometric morphometrics to quantify shape. The student will use these methods to characterise skull mechanical performance during the early evolution of dinosaurs and link this to changes in feeding strategy, diet and ecology. Combined with phylogenetic comparative analyses, this will allow us to test hypotheses of the role that feeding may have played in dinosaur success and shed new light on our understanding of early dinosaur evolution.

Policy Impact of Research:

This project will train the student in a broad range of transferable skills (medical imaging, mathematics and statistics, coding, cutting-edge engineering techniques). Dinosaurs form a valuable avenue for STEM-focused public engagement.

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