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PhD: Investigating the axial underpinnings of mammalian locomotor and ecological diversity

Project Title

Investigating the axial underpinnings of mammalian locomotor and ecological diversity


University of Liverpool

Supervisors and Institutions

Dr Karl Bates, University of Liverpool Dr Natalie Cooper, Natural History Museum Dr Katrina Jones, University of Manchester Dr James Charles, University of Liverpool

Funding Status

Funding is in competition with other projects and students

Project Description

Fundamental changes in locomotion underpin many major ecological transitions in vertebrate evolution. Our understanding of how key innovations in the locomotor system drive animal diversity is largely based on the limbs, while the role of the backbone (key to structural support) remains largely unstudied. Previous work has identified gait plasticity as key to ecological diversification in mammals, but the morpho-functional underpinnings of this adaptive release remain unexplained. Crucially, the role of the backbone in this context has not been tested.

In this project, the student will carry out comprehensive analyses of the role the backbone in the functional diversification of mammals by addressing the question: how have evolutionary trade-offs in spinal biomechanics influenced major transitions in locomotor ecology and whole-organism fitness? To answer this overarching question, the student will use physics-based simulations of locomotion to determine the mechanical constraints and energetic contribution of the backbone to locomotion. Spinal and limb anatomy will be analysed using a range of measures and techniques (geometric morphometrics, phylogenetic comparative methods) to reconstruct evolutionary patterns in key morphological traits and their correlations with ecology across a broad diversity of mammals. Finally, morphological data will be integrated with computational robotics models to examine locomotor optimisation and determinants of animal fitness (e.g. energetic costs, maximum performance) in a functional adaptive landscape to reconstruct trade-offs associated with major locomotor transitions.

Training will be provided in all necessary techniques, but a background in zoology/palaeontology and skills in quantitative, mechanical and/or 3D digital techniques, and/or phylogenetic comparative methods would be beneficial. The supervisory team includes experts in mammalian anatomy, palaeontology, biomechanics, phylogenetic methods 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 at NHM and Manchester.

Notes and details of how to apply are available here:

All applicants to ACCE must complete the ACCE personal statement proforma. This is instead of a personal/supporting statement or cover letter. The proforma is designed to standardise this part of the application to minimise the difference between those who are given support and those who are not. Candidates should also submit a CV and the contact details of 2 referees.

Funding Notes
NERC ACCE DTP programme starts from October 2024.
UKRI provide the following funding for 3.5 years:
• Stipend (2023/24 UKRI rate £18,622)
• Tuition Fees at UK fee rate (2023/24 rate £4,712)
• Research support and training grant (RTSG)
Note - UKRI funding only covers UK (Home) fees. The DTP partners have various schemes which allow international students to join the DTP but only be required to pay home fees. Home fees are already covered in the UKRI funding, meaning that successful international candidates do not need to find any additional funding for fees .

Contact Name

Karl Bates

Contact Email

Link to More Information

Closing Date

Monday, January 8, 2024

Expiry Date

Monday, January 8, 2024
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