Ancient Life

An elephant walking in grassland

Our Research

Studies of extinct organisms are key to our understanding of life’s origin and diversification. The fossil record provides unique and fundamental information on past biodiversity. It reveals how structural and functional characteristics of organisms are selected for and modified over geological time. It also offers insights into the response of organisms to large-scale environmental changes, such as mass extinctions. We investigate a diverse range of groups, including single-celled organisms, insects, early limbed vertebrates, Mesozoic marine and flying reptiles, dinosaurs, and birds. Our research is intrinsically cross-disciplinary, and we regularly interact with other research groups in Lincoln and with a worldwide network of evolutionary biologists.

Evolution of Biological Systems

We are interested in exploring the links between species richness, morphological and functional diversity, and structural complexity. Our research asks how these variables have shaped biodiversity over time. To this end, we investigate models of trait evolution in response to ecological innovation (e.g. conquest of new habitats) and functional adaptation (e.g. changes in bite force; flight performance). As a recent addition to our research programme, the analysis of skeletal complexity seeks to establish whether there is evidence for the so-called first law of biological evolution, namely that complexity tends to increase in parallel lineages of organisms over time.

Origin of Major Groups

The evolution of vertebrate terrestriality is a classic example of a major radiation underpinned by profound anatomical, biomechanical, and environmental changes. Our group explores the extraordinary variety of body shapes and proportions that evolved soon after vertebrates left the water to invade the land. Research in other areas aims to uncover changes in sensory perception (e.g. insect acoustic communication) in response to the opening of new environment (e.g. spread and fragmentation of forest habitats) and the appearance of new predatory guilds (e.g. from among vertebrates).

Ecology and Reproductive Biology

Using data from living organisms, it is possible to make inferences about fundamental aspects of the biology of extinct life forms.  The ecology and reproductive biology of fossil organisms are two key areas that our group investigates. For example, bird eggs can tell us interesting things about dinosaur reproduction and data from large modern vertebrates, such as elephants, can inform us about plausible biologies for extinct megaherbivores, such as the iconic, long-necked, and often gigantic sauropod dinosaurs.

Dr Charles Deeming – Avian and reptilian reproduction

Professor Stuart Humphries – Comparative biomechanics and biological fluid dynamics

Professor Fernando Montealegre-Z – Sensory biology, biomechanics of sound production and hearing in insects

Dr Marcello Ruta – Analytical evolutionary palaeobiology

Dr Manabu Sakamoto – Phylogenetics, evolutionary palaeobiology and functional morphology

Prof Dave Wilkinson – Ecology, evolution, archaeology and Earth System Science


Miss Emily Green – PhD student (Ruta), “Understanding the Biological Complexity of Tetrapods