Overview

Oviraptorosauria is an iconic group of feathered theropod dinosaurs from the Cretaceous of Asia and North America. Although closely related to typically carnivorous theropod dinosaurs, oviraptorosaurs are thought to have evolved a variety of dietary specialisations, including feeding on small vertebrates, insects, molluscs or plants. This is reflected by their highly modified skulls, with short tooth-less beaks and robust lower jaws, although early members of this group retained teeth. While some rare fossils preserve stomach contents suggesting an omnivorous or herbivorous diet, little is known about feeding behaviour in this group and how it might have changed throughout their evolutionary history. A better understanding of the functional morphology of the cranial skeleton of Oviraptorosauria can therefore provide further insights into how diet evolved in this group and within theropods in general.

The aim of this project is to conduct a comprehensive biomechanical study on the cranial skeleton of oviraptorosaurs using modern imaging techniques including micro-CT scanning, digital reconstruction and biomechanical modelling. Key research questions include: (1) How did the form and function of the skull and lower jaw change from basal to derived oviraptorosaurs? (2) Are different modifications of the cranial skeleton related to adaptations to specific diets (durophagy, insectivory, herbivory)? (3) How complex were dietary diversity patterns in oviraptorosaurs and derived theropod dinosaurs?

Fossil skull and digital rendering of the oviraptorosaur Citipati.

Methodology

The overarching objective of this proposal is to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the functional morphology of the oviraptorosaur skull and lower jaw. Computed tomographic (CT) datasets are available for several key taxa (e.g. Incisivosaurus, Citipati, Khaan, Gigantoraptor and Anzu). The cranial osteology of these key taxa will be reconstructed using digital visualisation and modelling techniques. These restorations will serve as the basis for the reconstruction of jaw adductor musculature. Subsequent biomechanical analyses will include finite element modelling of the skulls to test functional performance. Three-dimensional biomechanical modelling will be supplemented by two-dimensional analyses of the cranial skeleton using published data. The student will visit selected fossil collections in the US and China to examine fossil material to aid in the digital reconstruction.

Training and Skills

CENTA students are required to complete 45 days training throughout their PhD including a 10-day placement. In the first year, students will be trained as a single cohort on environmental science, research methods and core skills. Throughout the PhD, training will progress from core skills sets to master classes specific to the student's projects and themes. 

Comprehensive project-specific training will be provided and will include vertebrate anatomy, how to describe and photograph fossil specimens, generation and analysis of CT data (including using popular CT software, such as Avizo), reconstructing fossil hard- and soft-tissue anatomy using digital techniques, performing biomechanical analysis, international scientific collaborations, and public communication of science. Opportunities may also be available for the student to gain teaching and project supervision experience through the undergraduate programmes in Earth Sciences at Birmingham.   

 

Timeline

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 osteology. Conferences: SVPCA (UK), EAVP (Europe).

Year 2: Digital reconstructions of soft-tissues and generation of biomechanical models. 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. Biomechanical analyses 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 (including CASE)

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 supervisor, Dr Michael Pittman (University of Hong Kong), who is an expert on oviraptorosaur anatomy and theropod dinosaurs more generally.

Further Details

Please contact Dr Stephan Lautenschlager (s.lautenschlager@bham.ac.uk) for further details.