Evolution and phylogenetic relationships of the early cerapodan dinosaurs

This project will produce a robust evolutionary tree of the early Cerapoda then investigate their history with a focus on palaeobiogeography, diversity through time, and the timings of major divergences and radiations.

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

  • Deciphering the early evolutionary history of the cerapodan dinosaurs    
  • Re-examining specimens in the light of new data and with state-of-the-art quantitative techniques
  • Exploring implications for dinosaur biogeography and diversity through time


Cerapodans are a major group of herbivorous bipedal and quadrupedal ornithischian dinosaurs that dominated the terrestrial herbivorous niche during the Cretaceous. Early in their evolutionary history they split into two major groups, the ornithopods (duck-billed dinosaurs and their relatives) and the marginocephalians (horned and frilled dinosaurs and dome-headed dinosaurs). Subsequent to the split both groups radiated and developed complex chewing mechanisms and social structures that allowed them to achieve high diversity and abundance, and their fossils are well-known from outstanding material.

However, early representatives of Cerapoda are known from much more fragmentary remains, and this has hindered our understanding of their taxonomy, relationships, and evolution. In particular, the ontogenetic status of many of the early cerapodans is unknown, and their fragmentary fossil record means that character transitions at the base of Cerapoda remain unclear. This has limited our interpretation of the evolution of mega-herbivory and quadrupedality in these dinosaurs. Competing phylogenetic hypotheses indicate radically different evolutionary relationships for early cerapodans, and it remains particularly unclear which taxa are included within Ornithopoda.

The aim of this project is to conduct a comprehensive anatomical and systematic evaluation of all basal cerapodans and resolve phylogenetic uncertainties, providing a robust evolutionary tree. This tree will then be used to investigate the evolutionary history of Cerapoda with a focus on palaeobiogeography, diversity through time, and the timings of major divergences and radiations.

Key research aims include:

  • Resolving the taxonomy of key basal cerapodans, with a particular focus on North American Late Jurassic taxa
  • Examining the ontogenetic status and population ecology in a large sample of Early Cretaceous British taxa
  • Determining the phylogenetic position of basal cerapodans relative to the divergence of Ornithopoda and Marginocephalia
  • Using the resulting hypothesis to explore biogeographic and diversity patterns through time


The student will be based at the Natural History Museum, making use of the extensive dinosaur collections, including key taxa for this project. They will supplement this data by visiting important museum collections worldwide, particularly in the USA and China. Specimens will be histologically sampled to determine their ontogenetic status.

The student will build a comparative database of photos, measurements and anatomical data, and will use this to carry out taxonomic revisions, anatomical descriptions, and score characters for the most comprehensive phylogenetic analysis carried out to date on these taxa. The phylogenetic dataset will be analysed using parsimony and Bayesian approaches to elucidate evolutionary relationships at the base of Cerapoda.

Quantitative analyses of biogeography and diversity will be conducted by combining the phylogenetic hypotheses with stratigraphic and geographic data from the Paleobiology Database (www.paleobiodb.org) using appropriate packages within the programming environment R.

Training and Skills

Comprehensive project-specific training will be provided and will include vertebrate anatomy, taxonomy, how to describe and photograph fossil specimens, building and using comparative databases, using various quantitative approaches to build phylogenies and test evolutionary trends over time (including coding in R), and international scientific collaborations. The NHM provides unparalleled opportunities for public outreach and engagement and the student will be encouraged and trained to participate in these. Opportunities may also be available for the student to gain skills in finding and collecting fossils in the field, through the supervisors’ active international fieldwork programmes.


Year 1:Training in vertebrate anatomy, taxonomy, and phylogenetics. Data collection in the NHM and USA. Work on anatomical descriptions and taxonomic revisions. Histological sampling. Conferences: SVPCA (UK), EAVP (Europe).

Year 2:Additional overseas data collection, particularly in China. Completion of anatomical descriptions and taxonomic revisions. Interpretation of histological data. Submission of first publications. Conferences: SVPCA (UK), EAVP (Europe).  

Year 3:Development and analysis of phylogenetic dataset. Quantitative analyses of biogeography and diversity through time. Ongoing publication of results. Write up and submision of thesis. Conferences: SVPCA (UK), SVP (USA).    

Partners and collaboration

The supervisory team will comprise Dr Susannah Maidment (NHM), Professor Richard Butler (Birmingham) and Professor Paul Barrett (NHM). The supervisors are leading experts in ornithischian dinosaur anatomy, taxonomy and systematics, and have a wide international network of collaborators that will facilitate access to fossil material worldwide.


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 Susannah Maidment

Contact us


Co-supervisor: Prof Paul Barrett

University of Birmingham

Co-supervisor: Prof Richard Butler


Boyd, C. A. (2015) ‘The systematic relationships and biogeographic history of ornithischian dinosaurs’, PeerJ, 3, e1523.

Butler, R. J., Upchurch, P. and Norman, D. B. (2008) ‘The phylogeny of the ornithischian dinosaurs’, Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 6, pp. 1-40.

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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