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NERC DTP BC207: Palaeontological and developmental approaches for resolving vertebrate phylogenetics and character evolution

Supervisor: Dr Robert Asher

Project summary:

This project applies new methods in comparative anatomy and genomics to improve estimates of the evolutionary relationships of fossil branches on the Tree of Life. We use well-corroborated parts of the Tree, primarily living groups for which ample genomic data are available, in order to 1) assess the information content of fossilizable data and 2) reconstruct the morphology of predicted ancestors. The student will undertake phylogenetic analyses of morphological data that incorporate predicted ancestors, living and fossil taxa in order to provide a genomically informed means with which to assess the evolutionary affinities of long-extinct species. 

What the student will be doing:

The student will formulate and test hypotheses on vertebrate evolution by collecting comparative anatomical data on living and fossil species using collections-based research, microCT, and/or histology. Using well-corroborated branches on the tree of life (e.g., living placental mammals), the student will undertake heuristic tests of phylogenetic accuracy among fossils based on subsets of osteology, soft tissues and DNA. Where available, the student will also collect data on developmental changes to phenotype during the course of growth. The student will analyze these data to quantify accuracy of paleontological phylogenetic hypotheses and test generalizations of of systemic bias in paleontological phylogenetics. 


Asher RJ, Smith MR, Rankin AH, Emry, RJ. 2019. Congruence, fossils, and the evolutionary tree of rodents and lagomorphs. Royal Society Open Science 6: 190387.

Pattinson DJ, Thompson RS, Piotrowski A, Asher RJ. 2015. Phylogeny, paleontology, and primates: do incomplete fossils bias the tree of life? Systematic Biology 64(2):169-186. 

Tarver JE, Dos Reis M, Mirarab S, Moran RJ, Parker S, O'Reilly JE, King BL, O'Connell MJ, Asher RJ, Warnow T, Peterson KJ, Donoghue PC, Pisani D. 2016. The Interrelationships of Placental Mammals and the Limits of Phylogenetic Inference. Genome Biology and Evolution 8(2):330-344.

Additional information: 

Funding is available for this project via the NERC Cambridge Climate, Life and Earth (C-CLEAR) Doctoral Training Partnership – please refer to their website for more information: