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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Jason Head, Zoology

Brief summary: 
This project will examine skeletal anatomy in fossil and modern squamates in order to reconstruct the evolution of the snake body form in a functional and ecological setting.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
The origin of snakes, including their evolutionary relationships and the ecological contexts for the evolution of the snake body form remains one of the most controversial topics in vertebrate evolution. The majority of studies focus on litigating primary homologies of cranial anatomy from a limited number of Cretaceous fossils, and there has been less attention paid to the systematic and functional implications of the majority of the fossil record, which is represented by isolated vertebrae. As a result, the explanatory power of the Cretaceous fossil record for inferring the origins of a diverse vertebrate clade remains mostly untapped.
Project summary : 
This project will use geometric morphometrics, phylogenetic comparative methods, anatomy of extant and fossil squamates, and palaeoenvironmental contexts of fossils to reconstruct the early history of the snake body form. Geometric morphometric analysis of vertebral shape and muscular reconstructions from vertebral anatomy in fossils will be compared with anatomy and locomotory habits in extant limbed and limbless squamates to constrain the history of body form evolution. The potential phylogenetic utility of vertebral anatomy will be tested via optimization onto competing tree topologies, and recent homology hypotheses of neurocranial anatomy will be tested by extensively comparative studies using micro Computed-Tomographic (C-T) datasets. Depositional environments will be used to infer past ecologies for fossil taxa.
What will the student do?: 
The student will examine museum collections in the UK and abroad to collect anatomical and palaeoenvironmental data, will quantify axial and neurocranial anatomies using morphometrics, and will place results in competing phylogenetic frameworks to infer histories and model body form evolution.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Caldwell, M.W., Nydam, R.L., Palci, A. and Apesteguía, S., 2015. The oldest known snakes from the Middle Jurassic-Lower Cretaceous provide insights on snake evolution. Nature communications, 6(1), pp.1-11.
Rieppel, O., and J. J. Head. 2005. New specimens of the fossil snake genus Eupodophis Rage and Escuillié, from the mid-Cretaceous of Lebanon. Memorie della Società Italiana di Scienze Naturali e Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano, 23(2):1-26.
Gauthier, J.A., Kearney, M., Maisano, J.A., Rieppel, O. and Behlke, A.D., 2012. Assembling the squamate tree of life: perspectives from the phenotype and the fossil record. Bulletin of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, 53(1), pp.3-308.
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Zoology page.
Dr Jason Head
Department of Zoology Graduate Administrator