Brain evolution in pre-mammalian cynodonts and the role of intraspecific variation

This project will investigate the brain anatomy of different pre-mammalian cynodont species to investigate patterns of neurological evolution. 

The studentship is part of the CENTA doctoral training partnership, funded by NERC and starts October 2019.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then apply through the University of Birmingham's online application service.

Please submit your CENTA studentship application form as part of the application procedure.

Application deadline: 21 January 2019

Project Highlights

  • New insights into pre-mammalian brain evolution
  • Use of cutting-edge digital visualisation and reconstruction techniques to study fossil brain morphology
  • Comprehensive study on impact of intraspecific variation, developmental stage, etc. on anatomical interpretations


Modern mammals are distinguished from other vertebrate groups by a number of distinctive characters, which include the trend towards a large brain (in comparison to body size) and an expanded neocortex. Their evolutionary origins are found in the Triassic and Early Jurassic in a group of mammalian precursors known as cynodonts (Rowe et al., 2011). Due to the relatively sparse fossil record and the number of available specimens, knowledge on the morphology and intraspecific and ontogenetic variation of the brain of pre-mammalian cynodonts is very limited.

The main aim of this project is to reconstruct, visualise and describe the brain (endocranial) anatomy of different pre-mammalian cynodont species to investigate patterns of neurological evolution. In addition, the role of intraspecific variation, sexual dimorphism, developmental stage and the impact of different reconstruction techniques and methodical approaches on the interpretation of fossil brain anatomy will be investigated using both fossil and extant comparative samples.

Key research questions include:

  • How did brain anatomy change in the course of evolution leading to modern mammals?
  • Are current endocranial reconstructions biased by a variety of biological, taphonomical and methodological biases?


The overarching objective of this proposal is to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the endocranial anatomy of pre-mammalian cynodonts and to evaluate the current bias affecting digital brain reconstructions in fossil vertebrates.

The student will create three-dimensional reconstructions of the brain anatomy of different cynodont species and comparative extant vertebrates. Generated reconstructions will be compared and investigated using different 3D comparative methods.

Visits to different national and European museum collections for first-hand study of specimens will supplement the digital reconstruction work.

Training and Skills

Comprehensive project-specific training will be provided and will include vertebrate anatomy, digital methods to process and analyse CT data sets, reconstructing fossil hard- and soft-tissue anatomy using digital techniques, international scientific collaborations, and public communication of science.

Training in specialist software for analysis of CT data (Avizo, Spiers), digital visualisation and modelling (Blender) and 3D comparative methods (CloudCompare) will be provided.

Opportunities may also be available for the student to gain teaching and project supervision experience through the undergraduate programmes in Earth Sciences at Birmingham.


Year 1:Training in vertebrate anatomy, analysis of CT data, and digital reconstruction techniques. Data collection and trips to selected museums. Work on digital reconstruction of fossil specimens. Conferences: SVPCA (UK), EAVP (Europe).

Year 2:Digital reconstructions of extant comparative specimens. Collection of comparative anatomical information from published literature and museum collections. Submission of first publications. Conferences: SVPCA (UK), EAVP (Europe).  

Year 3:Completion of digital reconstruction work and compilation of results. Comparative analyses of extant species and phylogenetic comparison of results. Ongoing publication of results. Write up and submision of thesis. Conferences: SVPCA (UK), SVP (USA).    

Partners and collaboration

The core Birmingham supervisory team will consist of Dr Stephan Lautenschlager and Professor Richard Butler. Dr Lautenschlager has pioneered the use of digital methods such as micro-CT scanning to restore fossil morphology and to reconstruct soft-tissue anatomy. Prof Butler is a leading expert on the anatomy, systematics and evolution of Mesozoic archosaurs, and has extensive experience in the application of quantitative approaches to analysis of palaeontological data.

Additional expertise and access to key fossil specimens and collections will be provided by the external partner Dr Martin Ruecklin (Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, Leiden), Prof. Paul Barrett (Natural History Museum London).


CENTA studentships are available to UK and EU applicants only.

Residency rules apply. UK and EU students with qualifying residence in the UK are eligible for full-cost awards. Non-UK students from the EU who do not have qualifying residence are eligible for fees-only awards, which covers the tuition fees and Research Training Support Grant (RTSG), but not stipend. 

All applicants need to comply with the registered university's English-language requirements.

Applicants should have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a master's degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed through the University of Birmingham's online application service.

You will also need to complete and submit the CENTA studentship application form as part of the online application procedure.

The deadline for applications is 21 January 2019.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Dr Stephan Lautenschlager


Rodrigues, P. G., Ruf, I., Schultz, C. L. (2014). Study of a digital cranial endocast of the nonmammaliaform cynodont Brasilitherium riograndensis (Later Triassic, Brazil) and its relevance to the evolution of the mammalian brain. Paläontologische Zeitschrift, 88: 329-352.

Rowe, T. B., Macrini, T. E., Luo, Z. X. (2011). Fossil evidence on origin of the mammalian brain. Science, 332: 955-957.

CENTA Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships involving the Universities of Birmingham, Leicester,  Warwick, Loughborough, Cranfield and The Open University and four NERC research organisations.

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