Evolutionary biomechanics of the dinosaur hand

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Joao Leite

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Start Year

2016 (Cohort 3)

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PhD Project
PhD Title

Evolutionary biomechanics of the dinosaur hand

Research Theme

Evolution and Adaptation

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Secondary Supervisor
Secondary Institution



Dinosaurs were primitively bipedal, with hands that were relatively large, held in a prayer-like, supinated posture and adapted for grasping prey or vegetation. However, during the course of dinosaur evolution, hand function and morphology changed markedly, with some lineages co-opting the hand for quadrupedal locomotion (leading to modifications for weight-bearing and pronation), others reducing the size and/or functionality of the hand (e.g. digit reduction or loss), and marked changes in overall size and shape (including taxon-specific feeding, locomotor or defensive features). Nevertheless, with the exception of the theropod-bird transition, dinosaur hands have not been studied within explicit phylogenetic or functional frameworks, nor have there been extensive comparisons between the major dinosaur clades and other archosaur groups. This project will aim to: 1) describe the full range of morphological variation among dinosaur hands; 2) investigate the occupation of dinosaur hand morphospace to identify possible functional groups and changes in these functional groups through time using 2D and 3D geometric morphometrics; 3) test possible hand functions using a variety of cutting-edge dynamic and static biomechanical modelling methods (including Finite Element Analysis and Multibody Dynamics Analysis); 4) make functional comparisons with living archosaurs; and 5) place this morphological and functional data within a phylogenetic context. This work will result in the first overview of dinosaur hand functional evolution ever attempted, providing many new insights into dinosaur palaeobiology and palaeoecology.

Policy Impact

This project represents blue-skies research aimed at strengthening the UK’s science base in general and maintaining and extending its leading position at the cutting edge of organismal biology in particular. Palaeontology and biomechanics represent areas of major public interest and act as gateways to other STEM subjects.

Background Reading
  • Benson & Choiniere (2013) Rates of dinosaur limb evolution provide evidence for exceptional radiation in Mesozoic birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280:2013.1780
  • Bonnan & Yates (2007) A new description of the forelimb of the basal sauropodomorph Melanorosaurus: implications for the evolution of pronation, manus shape and quadrupedalism in sauropod dinosaurs. Special Papers in Palaeontology 77: 157-168.
  • Moreno et al. (2006) Morphological changes in pedal phalanges through ornithopod dinosaur evolution: A biomechanical approach. Journal of Morphology 268: 50-63.
  • Publications


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