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PhD: Moving about a new axis: The role of the backbone in major adaptive radiations of terrestrial vertebrates

Project Title

Moving about a new axis: The role of the backbone in major adaptive radiations of terrestrial vertebrates


University of Liverpool

Supervisors and Institutions

Dr Karl Bates (University of Liverpool), Dr Katrina Jones (Harvard University), Dr Phil Cox (University of York), Dr James Gardiner (University of Liverpool)

Funding Status

Funding is in competition with other projects and students

Project Description

Evolutionary shifts in locomotion underpin major ecological transitions in vertebrates. Our understanding of how key innovations in the locomotor system drive taxonomic and ecological diversity during evolutionary transitions is largely based on the limbs. However, recent studies demonstrate strong correlations between the morphology of the vertebral column and locomotor ecology, with elevated morphological disparity and evolutionary rates in axial regions linked with locomotor mechanics. Therefore, the axial skeleton has the potential to provide fascinating new insights into evolutionary transitions and their impact on biodiversity.

In this project the student will utilize morphological, experimental and computer simulation approaches to understand axial adaptation to different locomotor ecologies during vertebrate evolution. Physics-based simulations of locomotion using simple conceptual models will be used to determine the theoretical optimal axial morphology and functional mechanics for the range of gaits (walking, jumping, galloping etc.) used by terrestrial vertebrates. Geometric morphometrics and phylogenetic comparative approaches will be used to compare axial morphology among locomotor types to determine the role of ecological and environment adaptation versus phylogenetic and allometric constraints across evolutionary transitions. To compare function across extant locomotor types, and against theoretical model optima, biplanar x-ray videography will be used to quantify axial motion in animals moving through mock habitats representative of real-word locomotor environments. Biomechanical models of key fossil taxa will be used to understand changes in axial function across major evolutionary transitions, enabling comparisons between transitional taxa and theoretically optimal mechanics.

The ideal student would have a background in zoology/palaeontology and skills in quantitative, mechanical and/or 3D digital techniques, and/or phylogenetic comparative methods, but training will be provided in all techniques. The supervisory team includes experts in vertebrate anatomy, palaeontology, biomechanics, imaging and computer simulation. The student will be based with Dr Bates in the Evolutionary Morphology & Biomechanics Group at Liverpool but will spend time in the labs of the co-supervisors.

To apply please send your CV, letter of applications and the contact details of 2 referees by email to Dr Karl Bates at with a copy to by January 8th 2020.

The Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease is fully committed to promoting gender equality in all activities. In recruitment we emphasize the supportive nature of the working environment and the flexible family support that the University provides. The Institute holds a silver Athena SWAN award in recognition of on-going commitment to ensuring that the Athena SWAN principles are embedded in its activities and strategic initiatives.

Contact Name

Karl Bates

Contact Email

Closing Date

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Expiry Date

Thursday, January 9, 2020
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