Vertebrate Palaeontology


Our research in Vertebrate Palaeontology focuses on major transitions in vertebrate evolution, the origins of key vertebrate groups, the long-term patterns and drivers of vertebrate diversity, macroevolution and biogeography in deep time, and vertebrate palaeobiology and functional morphology. Our taxonomic expertise ranges from the earliest vertebrates to Mesozoic dinosaurs and early Cenozoic mammals.  

Current key research projects are focused on: 

  1. The origin and evolution of the vertebrate skeleton
  2. The origins of major groups of fish
  3. Patterns of diversification and extinction in the Palaeozoic fish record
  4. Reconstructing major changes in species richness of terrestrial tetrapods across the Phanerozoic
  5. Permian–Jurassic terrestrial tetrapods and the early evolutionary radiations of dinosaurs and their close relatives
  6. Functional morphology of fossil tetrapods, including early mammals, dinosaurs, and turtles
  7. Digital hard- and soft-tissue reconstruction of fossil vertebrates 
  8. Origin, diversification and evolutionary relationships of placental mammals

Academic staff

Professor Richard Butlerbutler-richard-2018

Richard is an expert on the systematics, evolution and biogeography of late Palaeozoic to Mesozoic reptiles, including the earliest dinosaurs. His current research programme aims to establish major patterns and drivers of terrestrial biodiversity change, as exemplified by four-limbed vertebrates (tetrapods), over the last 375 million years. 



Dr Stephan LautenschlagerStephan Lautenschlager

Stephan is a leading expert on functional morphology and biomechanical analysis, and has worked on a diverse range of vertebrates, including dinosaurs, turtles, mammals and ichthyosaurs. His research focuses on the relationship between form and function in extinct vertebrates and how biomechanical function evolved through time. 


Dr Sam Gilesgiles-sam

Sam uses fossil data to understand the evolution of modern groups of vertebrates. By using CT scanning she ‘virtually’ dissects both fossil and extant taxa to gain insight into the evolution of key features of the vertebrate body plan. She has a particular interest in the brain and braincase of the earliest bony fishes


Dr Ivan Sansomsansom-ivan

Ivan specialises on the evolution and diversification of Palaeozoic non-tetrapod vertebrates, including the earliest skeletonising fish and the origin of the sharks. Current research primarily focuses on patterns of dispersal within jawed and jawless fish and the influence of their palaeoecology on diversity and extinction. 


Dr James WheeleyDr James Wheeley

James' research focuses on utilising conodont oxygen isotopes to elucidate conodont palaeoecology and seawater temperature changes, particularly for the Ordovician. Recent work has been on material from Anticosti and Newfoundland, Canada. Limestone samples collected from Anticosti have also been analysed for uranium isotopes; these tell us about global ocean redox conditions during the end Ordovician mass extinction. 

Postdoctoral researchers

Dr Gemma Beneventobenevento-gemma

Gemma research aims to quantify the morphological diversification of Cenozoic mammals following the Cretaceous-Palaeogene mass extinction. She is currently extending this work to examine the relationship between body size and diversity changes after this event, as part of a European Research Council funded project. 


Chris DeanDr Christopher Dean

Chris is a quantitative palaeobiologist interested in the quantification and correction of sampling biases in the fossil record, and has worked on a diverse range of taxonomic groups and study systems. He is currently developing and extending these research interests as part of a European Research Council funded project.


Research associates

Martin EzcurraDr Martin Ezcurra

Martin completed his PhD at Birmingham in 2015. He is currently based in Buenos Aires, where he holds a permanent research position as a member of the CONICET. He is an award-winning palaeobiologist with expertise in the systematics and macroevolution of Permian–Triassic reptiles and theropod dinosaurs. 


Dr Plamen Andreev

Plamen completed his PhD in Birmingham in 2014 and was subsequently employed as a research assistant for two years. His areas of expertise lie in the evolution of the integumentary skeleton and the origins of sharks. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher in China. 


John  ClarkeDr John Clarke

John is a quantitative palaeobiologist interested in the diversification and macroevolution of fish. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tartu in Estonia. 


Andrew JonesDr Andrew Jones

Andy completed his PhD research on morphological convergence between the Triassic reptile group Phytosauria and modern and fossil crocodilians, using a broad range of functional, morphological and cladistic techniques. He is now a Digital Technologies Officer within the Lapworth Museum of Geology, and is continuing to publish his PhD work. 


Dr Susannah MaidmentSusannah Maidment

Susie is a researcher and curator at the Natural History Museum in London, and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham. She is an internationally leading expert on the systematics, evolution and palaeobiology of dinosaurs, and a highly experienced field geologist with a focus on the Morrison Formation of the western USA. 


Dr Felipe Montefeltromontefeltro-felipe

Felipe's research focuses on reconstructing the anatomy, phylogeny and evolution of two groups of Mesozoic tetrapods, the notosuchian crocodylomorphs and rhynchosaurs. He is particularly interested in understanding what led to these groups dominating the ecosystems in which they lived. He has visited Birmingham twice on short-term fellowships, and continues to collaborate with the Birmingham team. 


Dr Emma Randlerandle-emma

Emma completed her PhD in 2017. Her research focuses on early vertebrate diversity, systematics and phylogenetics, including developing appropriate treatments for characters included within cladistic analyses and the use of stratigraphic congruence for assessing the fit of evolutionary hypotheses to the fossil record. Other aspects of her research focuses on the macroevolutionary patterns of heterostracan vertebrates including biases associated with heterostracan palaeoenvironments and palaeosea-level, and predation traces preserved on heterostracan fossils and the associated jawed vertebrates fauna.


Dr Sarah Sangster

Sarah completed her PhD on the Jurassic pterosaur Dimorphodon at the University of Cambridge in 2003. Having been employed for many years as a secondary teacher, she is now working on preparing her PhD research for publication. 


Dr Will Tattersdilltattersdill-will

Will is a Senior Lecturer in Popular Literature in the Department of English Literature. He has a research interest in the social history of dinosaurs from the nineteenth century to the present day, and has recently collaborated with Richard Butler on a joint exhibition on changing scientific and cultural depictions of dinosaurs. 

Research students

Daniel CashmoreDaniel Cashmore

Dan is undertaking European Research Council-funded doctoral research into the completeness of the tetrapod fossil record. He is using quantitative approaches to estimate the proportion of preserved skeletal material of numerous tetrapod clades spanning the entire Phanerozoic. 


Struan Henderson henderson-struan

Struan Henderson completed his BSci and MScR degrees at the University of Edinburgh. His PhD research focuses on macroevolutionary trends in Palaeozoic osteichthyan fish, with particular focus on the diversity and distribution of ray-finned fish. He also employs high-resolution CT-scans of fossil fish to determine their internal anatomy and construct 3D models.

View Struan's Google Scholar profile


Fion Mama-fion

Fion is originally from Hong Kong. She completed her MSc at the University of Edinburgh, using geometric morphometrics to study skull form in oviraptorosaurian dinosaurs. For her PhD, she is further exploring oviraptorosaur functional morphology using 3D modelling techniques.


Luke Meademeade-luke

Luke is undertaking a comprehensive biomechanical study on the skulls of oviraptorosaurs, a group of feathered theropod dinosaurs from the Cretaceous of North America and Asia. These animals are characterised by robust, stubby, often toothless beaks which leave the feeding behaviour and ecosystem position of Oviraptorosauria enigmatic due to a lack of other evidence. He will use 3D data to reconstruct and visualise the skulls and musculature of key taxa (e.g. Incisivosaurus, Citipati, Khaan, Gigantoraptor and Anzu) and conduct biomechanical analyses including finite element modelling to test how their skulls may have functioned. The analyses may reveal patterns of change in the form and function of the skull and lower jaw through the group Oviraptorosauria and whether different skull modifications can be linked as adaptations to specific diets (durophagy, insectivory, herbivory). Ultimately, this may reveal a picture of how complex dietary diversity patterns were in Oviraptorosauria and in other derived theropod groups throughout millions of years. Insight from this may be applied to interpret trends in feeding behaviour in other important extinct and extant taxa and ecosystems. 


Romy Raynerrayner-romy

After completing her undergraduate study through the Open University, Romy is undertaking her PhD via distance learning. Her research focuses on patterns of vertebrate diversity and disparity across the Triassic-Jurassic boundary.


Lisa ShnetzLisa Schnetz

Sharks have inhabited this planet for over 400 million years and have maintained their status as top predators up until today. While we know a substantial amount about their history and diversification patterns from later geological periods, little is known about both their early history and diversity. There is a 50-million-year gap between the earliest findings of scales and the first shark teeth, where we have no indication of shark-like properties in the fossil record. Fossils of sharks are rarely preserved beyond the teeth and jaw sections, thus making it more difficult to investigate them. This project will aim to assess and investigate the quality of the fossil record of early sharks using new approaches to estimate the fossil record completeness of early sharks in order to address a series of key questions, including: (1) How complete is the early shark fossil record in comparison with other groups? (2) Is completeness impacted by ecological categories, habitat preferences, and/or body sizes? (3) Are changes in completeness correlated with major changes and shifts in global marine diversity, including evolutionary radiations and mass extinctions? (4) How do changes in completeness correlate with broader estimates of fossil record sampling through time and space?



Photo of research student Charlotte BirdCharlotte Bird

Charlotte is utilising digital modelling techniques to reconstruct soft tissue anatomy of early mammal ancestors – cynodonts. Specifically, she is reconstructing the brain of the Triassic cynodont, Thrinaxodon, from CT scans, subsequently assessing the potential for identifying intraspecific variation, sexual dimorphism and developmental stage within endocranial anatomy. Through modelling the brain and inner ear of a plethora of cynodont genera over the evolutionary lineage towards modern counterparts, such as the opossum, Charlotte aims to identify morphological evolution and how this impacted sensory and cognitive capabilities through time. Furthermore, the project will highlight the extent to which biases in the fossil record and digital reconstruction techniques impact the inferences that can be made. 

Google Scholar page


Phoot of research student Hannah BirdHannah Bird

Hannah's doctoral research focuses on geochemical and biodiversity studies of ichthyoliths (fish and shark teeth, scales and otoliths) from deep sea sediments originating at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (~56 million years ago) - our best analogue for modern and future climate change. This underutilised resource aims to provide a holisitic overview of palaeoceanographic changes and its subsequent impacts upon marine vertebrate communities, as well as the wider effects upon marine trophic webs. Ultimately, this may yield an insightful indication for modern fishing industry practices coping with climate change and link to conservation palaeobiology efforts.

Google Scholar page

Recent alumni

Dr David Button (postdoc, 2015–2016), now a postdoc at the Natural History Museum in London.

Dr Felipe Montefeltro (UoB Brazilian Visiting Fellow, 2014; now Associate Professor at São Paulo State University, Ilha Solteira) 

Dr Roland Sookias (PhD student, 2013–2015), now Humboldt Foundation Research Fellow at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

Dr Julio Marsola (visiting PhD student 2016–2017). 

Dr Pedro Godoy (PhD student, 2014–2018), from January 2019 a postdoctoral researcher at Stony Brook University, New York.

Juan Benito (research assistant, 2015-2017), now a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

Emma Dunne (PhD student, 2015–2019), Emma’s PhD research was funded by the European Research Council, and used databases and rigorous statistical techniques to test the patterns of terrestrial tetrapod diversification during the Carboniferous to the Jurassic and assess their possible drivers. Emma is currently a Leverhulme Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of Birmingham.



Facilities used by the vertebrate palaeontology group include the Lapworth Museum collections and public engagement facilities, an Artec Spider 3D scanner and a 3D printer, workstations with software for analysing CT and photogrammetric data and conducting FEA analyses, a variety of photographic and microscope equipment, and fossil processing and preparation laboratories.