Reconstructing skull evolution of fossil crown birds


This project will reconstruct the cranial morphology from micro-CT scans of early crown fossil birds housed in international collections.

The studentship starts in October 2020 and is funded by NERC. 

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then send your application to

Application deadline: 6 January 2020

Research focus

Using our recent analyses identifying seven cranial modules in birds, the student will test several hypotheses relating to ecological and developmental drivers of morphological diversity in living and extinct birds, analysing tempo and mode of evolution, and ecomorphology. The reconstructions of early birds alone will be of immense value to the broader community, but the project will ultimately provide a much more accurate understanding of the evolution of birds and what drove their immense diversification.


In my lab, we use high-density 3D surface morphometrics from surface  and CT scans to reconstruct the evolution of organismal shape through development and across deep time, bridging datasets from embryos to fossils. Many studies have demonstrated that fossil data significantly improve the accuracy of evolutionary  reconstructions; however, several hyperdiverse modern clades, such as birds, lack fossils that are well-preserved in 3-D, hindering their inclusion in these analyses.

In this study, the student will use cutting-edge retrodeformation techniques to reconstruct the cranial morphology from micro-CT scans of early crown fossil birds housed in international collections, conduct high-density 3D morphometric analyses of those fossils, and combine them with existing data from Prof Goswami’s lab for over 400 extant birds to reconstruct the early evolution of birds and identify the ecological and environmental factors that shaped this highly successful radiation.


What processes shape vertebrate diversity over large time scales? Previous approaches to this question have focused on many different factors, from life history, ecology, and biogeography to large-scale environmental change and extinction, and can use many different metrics to quantify diversity.

To date, the majority of studies on the evolution of vertebrate diversity have focused on relatively simple metrics, specifically taxon counts or univariate measures, such as body size. However, an approach based on either of those measures would be unable to distinguish between an elephant and a whale, similarly-sized mammals that otherwise differ in most attributes of consequence for understanding and reconstructing organismal evolution.

Multivariate morphological data requires more extensive time and effort to collect but ultimately provides a more complete picture of evolutionary and palaeoecological change. Moreover, morphological traits provide a bridge between studies of palaeoecological and palaeobiological change and studies of the genetic and developmental factors that intrinsically shape organismal morphology, and must also influence large-scale patterns of evolutionary change.

Thus, a complete understanding of the patterns and processes underlying evolution requires an  that can fully represent an organism’s phenome, the sum total of their observable traits. Fortunately, recent advances in imaging and morphometric data analysis now allow for study of phenomic evolution across large clades.

Huge improvements in data collection and data analysis in recent years have produced a step change in accuracy of evolutionary rates and identification of factors shaping diversity, in particular through quantifying the complex morphology of organisms.


To be eligible for a full award a student must have:

  • British Citizenship or; 
  • Settled status in the UK, meaning they have no restrictions on how long they can stay,
  • Been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the studentship - (For non-EU citizens, this must NOT have been in full time education.)
    This means they must have been normally residing in the UK (apart from temporary or occasional absences). This does not apply to UK nationals. 

For more information, download this PDF.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed through the Natural History Museum.

To apply, please send the following documents to the Postgraduate Office:

  • Curriculum vitae
  • Covering letter outlining your interest in the PhD position, relevant skills training, experience and qualifications for the research, and a statement of how this PhD project fits your career development plans
  • Names of two academic referees

The deadline for applications is 6 January 2020.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Prof Anjali Goswami


The Natural History Museum

Main supervisor: Prof Anjali Goswami

Imperial College London

Co-supervisor: Dr Joseph Tobias

University of Birmingham

Co-supervisor: Dr Stephan Lautenschlager

University College London

Co-supervisor: Dr Ryan Felice


Ryan N. Felice, Anjali Goswami (2018) Mosaic evolution in the avian cranium. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 115 (3) 555-560

Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) doctoral training partnership

This is a joint project between The Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) Doctoral Training Partnership at Imperial College London and The Natural History Museum.

Funded by