A perfect storm

Wow. What a few weeks it has been. On Tuesday this week I got the official letter from the VC to confirm what I’d been told informally earlier the previous week – that the University of Birmingham had decided to promote me from Senior Research Fellow to Professor of Palaeobiology (equivalent to full professor in the US system). This was a huge surprise, and it is a tremendous honour to have reached this point still relatively early in my career.

On Wednesday this week our paper on the oldest stem-bird and close dinosaur relative Teleocrater was published in Nature. Again, this was hugely exciting – only the second Nature paper of my career. I wrote an article on the new species for The Conversation, and did radio interviews with BBC Wales, BBC Scotland and the BBC World Service. The University recorded a short video about the discovery, and Palaeocast published a podcast interview recorded with me back at last year’s SVP.

Teleocrater final Witton 2017 lower res

Above: A stunning reconstruction of Teleocrater rhadinus in Middle Triassic Tanzania by the frankly brilliant palaeoartist Mark Witton. Copyright: Mark Witton/Natural History Museum.

Also on Wednesday, the Lapworth Museum’s first annual Keith Palmer Lecture took place, after several months of planning by Museum staff and the University’s Development and Alumni Relations Office. Following our recent redevelopment of the Lapworth, we committed to organise an annual public lecture for the local community, named in honour of our lead donor. For this first lecture, we were lucky enough to collaborate with the GeoLiteracy tour of PESGB, and bring Professor Ken Lacovara to the University of Birmingham School to talk about ‘Why Dinosaurs Matter’. The event was hosted by Professor Alice Roberts, and was a fantastic success, with well over 200 members of the public, of all ages, enjoying a brilliant talk.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement, last week we received the proofs for a forthcoming paper in Nature Communications led by Roger Close, as well as getting generally encouraging reviews back for another Nature Communications submission led by David Button. And if I look slightly further back, to the end of March, I had the great pleasure of joining my close friend Roger Benson of the University of Oxford and a number of colleagues (including Elsa Panciroli and Stig Walsh) from National Museums Scotland for fieldwork in the Middle Jurassic of Skye. We made a number of very significant discoveries of small vertebrates, and I was very excited to find my first ever Mesozoic mammal jaw. Also, it’s never bad working somewhere that looks like this.


And there’s been one other mega exciting piece of news that has had us in a bit of a spin the last fortnight, one that I am itching to share. Unfortunately, it has to stay under wraps for a little while longer – I can’t even hint at what it is – but if you follow me on Twitter then all will be revealed in due course.

— Richard




Review of 2016

I’ve struggled to find time to update our research group webpage this year, so I thought it might be useful to write a summary of just some of the things that we got up to in 2016, to make up for all the updates that I didn’t manage to write earlier…


New faces

Roger Close joined us right at the start of 2016 as the lead postdoc on my ERC grant. Roger has been busy developing new methods for analysing fossil diversity patterns, as well as co-supervising the PhDs of Emma Dunne and Dan Cashmore and lead-supervising two undergraduate projects. His first manuscript from the ERC project is now in review at Nature Communications, and he presented work at GSA and the BES Macroecology meeting. Midway through the year, we were joined by Júlio Marsola, who is spending one year within our group as part of his PhD, which he will complete at the Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil. Júlio has been busy working on early dinosaur fossils and learning the latest biogeographic techniques. In October, Amy Jones started her NERC-funded PhD with Tom Dunkley Jones on Palaeogene nannofossils, with me as a co-supervisor (providing input on macroevolutionary analyses). Emily Brown, Lisa Glover, Isabel Soane, and Kai McWhirter also all started their undergraduate projects working with us. Finally, congratulations to Roger on the birth of his daughter, Merryn, right at the end of the year!


Sad farewells

I’m not sure that anyone in the group is yet over the departure of David Button, whose Marie Curie CIG-funded postdoc on late Palaeozoic–early Mesozoic biogeography came to an end in November. David was an exceptional member of the team, and produced some really exciting results that he presented at GSA and SVP, and that we are currently in the final stages of preparing for publication. David has now moved to a new postdoc in the lab of Lindsay Zanno at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. We wish him well, and hope that we have lots more chances to work together with him in future. Roland Sookias also left the group at the start of the year, after completing his PhD in 2015, and after time away travelling is due to start a Humboldt Foundation fellowship at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin in January – good luck Roland! We also said goodbye to undergraduate project students Sam Tutin, Josh Hedge, and Emily Barratt. Sam is still living in Birmingham and is working with me to publish his BSc project results on plesiosaur fossil record completeness, and Josh is also working with Ivan Sansom and me to publish some of the results of his MSci project on Carboniferous ichnology.



It has been a busy year for publications. In total, we published 21 papers in peer-reviewed journals, including leading venues such as PLOS Biology, Current Biology and Palaeontology. More than 70% of these were published in gold open access. Several received significant coverage in the international media. With a number of other papers currently in review or in press, 2017 is also shaping up to be a bumper year. The full list of papers by group members for 2016 is given at the end of this post.



We managed to make it to a lot of conferences this year – there are nine that I can remember as I write this, but there may have been more! In March, Roger, Emma and I attended the Lyell Meeting on Palaeoinformatics in London, and I presented on our work with Roger Benson on Mesozoic tetrapod diversity patterns. In May, Emma, Dan, Andy, Pedro and Juan attended and presented work at the Progressive Palaeontology meeting in Oxford, and coolly walked away with half of the presentation prizes, while David acted as the auctioneer at the dinner and Roger ran a training session. Pedro flew to Madrid in June to present work at the II Iberian Symposium on Geometric Morphometrics. In July, Juan and I attended the EAVP meeting in Haarlem: I gave a keynote talk on the early diversification of archosauromorphs, while Juan presented a poster. Also in July, Roger presented work on spatially constrained subsampling of the vertebrate fossil record at the BES Macroecology meeting in Oxford. August saw me presenting the same research at the SVPCA meeting in Liverpool. Come September, David and Roger were jetting off to Denver, to present work in a special palaeobiogeography session at GSA. October saw me suffering disastrous travel delays en route to SVP in Salt Lake City; fortunately David was also attending and was able to step into the breach and give not only his own talk but also mine. And finally, right at the end of the year Andy, Dan, Emma and I presented work at the Annual Meeting of the Palaeontological Association in Lyon.



As a group, we won a few awards in 2016. I was delighted to be presented with an award for excellence in doctoral supervision by the University of Birmingham Graduate School – a prize that was made all the sweeter because I was nominated by my past and present students. Andy, Emma, and Juan all won prizes for their presentations at the Progressive Palaeontology meeting in Oxford, and Emma’s poster at the Annual Meeting of the Palaeontological Association in Lyon was highly commended. Pedro won a poster prize at the University of Birmingham Research Poster Conference. Pride of place, however, must go to lab alumnus and current research associate Martin Ezcurra, who won an exceptionally significant prize from the Fundación Bunge y Born in his native Argentina: Martin was the first palaeontologist to win their highly prestigious annual award for a leading scientist under the age of 40. There is a video about Martin and the award here (in Spanish).



The great excitement of the year was that after working as a core member of the redevelopment team for three years (ever since I arrived in Birmingham), we finally reopened the Lapworth Museum of Geology this year. We are delighted with the result of the £2.5 million redevelopment and expansion of the exhibitions and Museum facilities, and feedback thus far has been excellent. We are expecting 45,000+ visitors per year in the coming years. Many members of our team have been involved with public talks and events and other engagement activities since the opening of the Museum.

We’ve also been involved in a great range of other public engagement events through the year, much more than I can easily summarise here, but including public talks to diverse audiences, schools activities, as well as media coverage and interviews, and popular articles for the web.



It has been a quiet year on the fieldwork front, as I’ve found it difficult to get away from home for long stretches of time since the birth of my daughter in late 2015. However, both Roger Close and I did manage to join Roger Benson’s fieldwork programme in the Middle Jurassic of Skye for a few days in the spring, and I also found myself leading our second year undergraduate fieldtrip to Dorset at Easter with just 24 hours notice, after the fieldtrip lead pulled out with illness! We survived.


Looking forward to 2017

Can we top 2016 as we move into the New Year? Well, there’s lots that we are looking forward to in 2017. On the publications front, we should start to publish some high-profile results from Roger and David’s work, the Manda archosaur specimens that I’ve been working on with Sterling Nesbitt, Paul Barrett and others should finally see the light of day, and Pedro, Andy, Dan and Emma should all start to publish the results of their PhD projects. We’re looking forward to more time in the field in 2017, hopefully including work in South Africa and Portugal. We’ve got various research trips and conferences lined up, including in Denmark, Berlin, Munich, Brazil and Canada, and we’re going to be hosting the 65th SVPCA meeting here in Birmingham in September. We’re also expecting a number of key collaborators to visit us, including Felipe Pinheiro for two months in February–March to work on the Early Triassic archosauromorph record of Brazil, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed on some funding decisions. And on the engagement front there will be lots happening, including finally (hopefully) getting underway with our Palaeontological Association-funded project using gesture-control technologies and virtual reality to engage the public with fossils.

Most exciting from my point-of-view though is that in January my collaborator Stephan Lautenschlager will join our department from Bristol as a Lecturer in Earth Sciences. He’ll be establishing his own research group, but we look forward to close collaborations with him on a range of functional morphological and imaging projects.


Full publication list for 2016

Baczko, M. B. von & EZCURRA, M. D. 2016. Taxonomy of the archosaur Ornithosuchus: reassessing Ornithosuchus woodwardi Newton, 1894 and Dasygnathoides longidens (Huxley 1877). Earth & Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 106:199–205.

Barrett, P. M., BUTLER, R. J., Yates, A. M., Baron, M. G., Choiniere, J. N. 2016. New specimens of the basal ornithischian dinosaur Lesothosaurus diagnosticus Galton, 1978 from the Early Jurassic of South Africa. Palaeontologia Africana 50:48–63.

Benson, R. B. J., BUTLER, R. J., Alroy, J., Mannion, P. D., Carrano, M. T., Lloyd, G. T. 2016. Near-stasis in the long-term diversification of Mesozoic tetrapods. PLoS Biology 14:e1002359.

Cabreira, S. F. et al. 2016. A unique Late Triassic dinosauromorph assemblage reveals dinosaur ancestral anatomy and diet. Current Biology 26:3090–3095.

CLOSE, R.A., Johanson, Z., Tyler, J.C., Harrington, R.C. & Friedman, M. 2016. Mosaicism in a new Eocene pufferfish highlights rapid morphological innovation near the origin of crown tetraodontiforms. Palaeontology 59:499-514.

CLOSE, R.A., Davis, B.M., Wolniewicz, A., Walsh, S., Friedman, M. & Benson, R.B.J. 2016. A lower jaw of Palaeoxonodon from the Middle Jurassic of the Isle of Skye, Scotland, sheds new light on the diversity of British stem therians. Palaeontology 59:155-169.

Dean, C. D., Mannion, P. D., BUTLER, R. J. 2016. Preservational bias controls the fossil record of pterosaurs. Palaeontology 59:225–247.

EZCURRA, M.D. 2016. The phylogenetic relationships of basal archosauromorphs, with an emphasis on the systematics of proterosuchian archosauriforms. PeerJ 4:e1778.

EZCURRA, M. D., Montefeltro, F. C., BUTLER, R. J. 2016. The early evolution of rhynchosaurs. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 3:142.

Foth, C., Hedrick, B.P., EZCURRA, M.D. 2016. Cranial ontogenetic variation in early saurischians and the role of heterochrony in the diversification of predatory dinosaurs. PeerJ 4:e1589.

Foth, C., EZCURRA, M. D., SOOKIAS, R. B., Brusatte, S. L., BUTLER, R. J. 2016. Unappreciated diversification of stem archosaurs during the Middle Triassic predated the dominance of dinosaurs. BMC Evolutionary Biology 16:188.

GODOY, P. L., Bronzati, M., Eltink, E., MARSOLA, J. C. A., Cidade, G. M., Langer, M. C., Montefeltro, F. C. 2016. Postcranial anatomy of Pissarrachampsa sera (Crocodyliformes, Baurusuchidae) from the Late Cretaceous of Brazil: insights on lifestyle and phylogenetic significance. PeerJ 4:e2075.

Kammerer, C. F., BUTLER, R. J., Bandyopadhyay, S. & Stocker, M. R. 2016. Relationships of the Indian phytosaur Parasuchus hislopi Lydekker, 1885. Papers in Palaeontology 2:1–23.

Lautenschlager, S. BUTLER, R. J. 2016. Neural and endocranial anatomy of Triassic phytosaurian reptiles and convergence with fossil and modern crocodylians. PeerJ 4:e2251.

Lautenschlager, S., Brassey, C., BUTTON, D.J. & Barrett, P.M. 2016. Decoupled form and function in disparate herbivorous dinosaur clades. Scientific Reports 6:26495.

Lecuona, A., EZCURRA, M. D., Irmis, R. B. 2016. Revision of the early crocodylomorph Trialestes romeri (Archosauria, Suchia) from the lower Upper Triassic Ischigualasto Formation of Argentina: one of the oldest-known crocodylomorphs. Papers in Palaeontology 2:585–622.

McPhee, B. W., Upchurch, P., Mannion, P. D., Sullivan, C., BUTLER, R. J., Barrett, P. M. 2016. A revision of Sanpasaurus yaoi Young, 1944 from the Early Jurassic of China, and its relevance to the early evolution of Sauropoda (Dinosauria). PeerJ 4:e2578.

MEADE, L. E., JONES, A. S., BUTLER, R. J. 2016. A revision of tetrapod footprints from the late Carboniferous of the West Midlands, UK. PeerJ 4:e2718.

Pinheiro, F. L., França, M. A. G., Lacerda, M. B., BUTLER, R. J., Schultz, C. L. 2016. An exceptional fossil skull from South America and the origins of the archosauriform radiation. Scientific Reports 6:22817.

Sobral, G., SOOKIAS, R., Bhullar, B.-A. S., Smith, R. M. H., BUTLER, R. J., Müller, J. 2016. New information on the braincase and inner ear of Euparkeria capensis Broom: implications for diapsid and archosaur evolution. Royal Society Open Science 3: 160072.

SOOKIAS, R. 2016. The relationships of the Euparkeriidae and the rise of Archosauria. Royal Society Open Science 3:150674.

Research group at PalAss 2016 in Lyon

The 60th Annual Meeting of The Palaeontological Association took place in Lyon, France, 14–17th  December 2016, and was attended by nearly 300 palaeontologists from all over the world. Our research group was well represented, with Richard, Andrew, Emma and Dan all attending, and contributing to the oral and poster sessions. Richard was also involved in judging the student poster prize as one of his final tasks before rotating off the Council of the Association at the end of the meeting after three years’ service. Emma’s poster was recognised as ‘highly commended’ by the poster committee in the conference prizes. Several close friends of our group, Paul Barrett, Susie Maidment and Rob Sansom, also won key awards from the Association.

PhD student Emma Dunne, with her highly commended poster on vertebrate diversity in the Carboniferous–Permian transition.
PhD student Dan Cashmore with his poster on the theropod fossil record.

The full list of contributions by our research group to the conference was:

(Talk) Mass extinctions as drivers of increased faunal cosmopolitanism on the supercontinent Pangaea. David J. Button, Richard J. Butler, Graeme T. Lloyd and Martin D. Ezcurra (presented by Richard)

(Talk) The enigmatic archosaurs Mandasuchus and Teleocrater from the Middle Triassic of Tanzania and their implications for archosaur evolution. Paul M. Barrett, Sterling J. Nesbitt, Alan Charig and Richard J. Butler

(Talk) Looking snappy: quantifying convergence in cranial morphology between phytosaurs and crocodylomorphs. Andrew Jones, Pedro L. Godoy and Richard J. Butler

(Poster) Testing terrestrial tetrapod diversity change across the Carboniferous–Permian Boundary. Emma Dunne, Roger A. Close, Roger B. J. Benson and Richard J. Butler

(Poster) Inferring the diets of pterosaurs and extant analogues using quantitative 3D textural analysis of tooth microwear. Jordan Bestwick, David M. Unwin, Mark A. Purnell, Richard J. Butler and Donald M. Henderson

(Poster) Completeness of the non-avian theropod fossil record. Daniel Cashmore, Richard J. Butler and Roger A. Close

Award for Excellence in Doctoral Supervision!

Emma collecting the award on my behalf – unfortunately I was unable to attend the ceremony. 

I am absolutely delighted that the University of Birmingham’s Graduate School has chosen me for the Award for Excellent in Doctoral Research Supervision 2016 for the College of Life & Environmental Sciences. It is particularly special because it was awarded on the basis of a nomination from my past and current PhD students. I’d like to thank them for the nomination – I am extremely lucky to work with such an inspiring group of young researchers.

At the same ceremony, Pedro received his recent prize from the Graduate School’s research conference.


Christine Böhmer and Martin Ezcurra visit

It’s been fun the last few weeks to host visits from a couple of our friends and collaborators. Christine Böhmer, who I know from when she was a PhD student and me a postdoc in Munich, visited three weeks ago to give a talk and discuss a possible fellowship application for her to join our group. She gave a very interesting presentation on her exciting work on tracing Hox gene evolution in fossil archosaurs, and we also took the opportunity to take her out to a local pub.

Also visiting has been Martin Ezcurra, former PhD student and current Honorary Research Fellow in our group. Martin is now based in Buenos Aires, but visited to collaborate with us on some projects on Triassic biogeography, Early Jurassic theropods, and early archosauromorph macroevolution. He also taught a short course while he was here on the phylogenetic software TNT, and took the opportunity to visit and work in museum collections in London, Cardiff and Warwick. He’s now on his way back to Argentina, but hopefully it won’t be long before he visits again!

Martin (third from left) and members of our research group in the new Lapworth Museum


Congrats to our undergrads!

A quick post to congratulate all undergraduate students in Earth Sciences at the University of Birmingham who received their final degree classifications today. Several students who worked within our research team were among them. Sam Tutin (BSc Palaeobiology & Palaeoenvironments) completed his Major Project with me on plesiosaur fossil record completeness. Josh Hedge (MSci Geology) worked on his Advanced Project with Ivan Sansom and myself on Carboniferous ichnology from Alveley in Shropshire, including freshwater invertebrate tracks and vertebrate resting traces. Emily Barratt (MSci Palaeobiology & Palaeoenvironments) completed her Advanced Project with me on fossil record completeness of early archosauromorph reptiles. All three did well in their projects and final classifications, and we wish all them all the best for the future!

Pedro presents work at conferences in Madrid and Birmingham

Pedro has had a busy couple of weeks. Last week he attended the II Iberian Symposium on Geometric Morphometrics in Madrid, presenting his research using morphometrics to assess the role of heterochrony in Cretaceous crocodyliform evolution.


This week, he presented a poster on his thesis research at the Research Poster Conference organised by the Graduate School at the University of Birmingham. He did very well, being awarded the best poster prize for the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, adding to our group’s recent excellent record in winning prizes.


To top this all off, there is a nice interview on the PeerJ blog with Pedro on his recent paper on the postcranial anatomy of Pissarrachampsa.