Charlotte BirdUniversity of Birmingham
Brain evolution in pre-mammalian cynodonts and the role of intraspecific variation
Dr Stephan Lautenschlager (University of Birmingham) Professor Richard Butler (University of Birmingham) Dr Martin Ruecklin (Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, Leiden) Professor Paul Barrett (Natural History Museum, London)
Virtual palaeontology enables non-destructive study of fossil skulls, permitting digital reconstruction of soft tissues lost to the fossil record. Through the production of 3D models from CT scan datasets of extinct and extant taxa, I will reconstruct the brain of a plethora of cynodont species across their evolutionary lineage from the Triassic towards modern mammals. Extensive quantitative analyses will ascertain the roles of intraspecific variation, sexual dimorphism and developmental stage in neurological evolution, with subsequent contextualisation regarding the consequent impacts upon species’ intelligence and sensory capabilities. Furthermore, as cynodonts are understudied due to their relatively sparse fossil record, this research is particularly valuable for understanding more about pre-mammalian brain evolution. Equally, it provides an important opportunity to determine biases in digital reconstruction techniques which directly impact the inferences that can be made, a topic of multidisciplinary importance.
What inspires you?
Family holidays first peaked my interest in the natural world and I have been hooked ever since. From seeing Mount Stromboli erupting at night and the dramatic geysers of Iceland, to walking through an alpine glacier and snorkelling along coral reefs, I love discovering more about the natural wonders the planet has to offer.
I completed an MSci degree in Geology and Physical Geography at the University of Birmingham, undertaking a third year project in environmental remediation techniques at an aggregates quarry, before exploring my true passion for palaeontology during my forth year studying pre-mammalian brain evolution in the cynodont Thrinaxodon liorhinus. Additionally, I undertook a Palaeontological Association Undergraduate Research Bursary creating a database of global conodont occurrences, providing an independent preservational proxy to a larger study of early vertebrate diversification, the results of which were subsequently published in Science.
Why did you choose Docotoral Research?
Personally, I love researching and learning, hence I wanted to embark upon a career path that will enable me to continue adding to the knowledge of the scientific community and the skills within the department. For the project area, this research is invaluable to augmenting understanding of the little-studied cynodonts, alongside evaluating the bias in 3D reconstruction techniques.
Why did you choose a CENTA Studentship?
CENTA studentships are so important for early-career researchers, with this project allowing me to collaborate with renowned palaeontologists, being a part of a dedicated training program to advance skills for a future career in academia or industry, alongside belonging to a diverse PhD cohort advancing multiple scientific fields.
What are your future plans
As a PhD student, I hope to develop both my independent and cohesive research capabilities within the department, acquiring technical skills transferrable to future careers in academia or science communication.