This page outlines some general questions and answers to give you an idea of the kind of research we carry out, and the kinds of questions we are attempting to answer - it's still work in progress....


How do you work out how an extinct animal functioned?
All animals, extinct or alive, are subject to the same physical principles, such as they must deal with the laws of gravity, and create skeletal structures that are strong enough to support their bodies, yet not too costly, in terms of material, to build and carry around. My group and I apply these principles to extinct animals to work out features such as how fast or how forcefully jaws moved, place boundaries on the range of functions animals can undertake, study how well adapted a particular feature is for a particular function, and explore what other constraints evolution may place on the shape and function of the animal skeleton.

Why bother?
One only has to look at the success of TV programmes such as Walking with Dinosaurs to see that the public are fascinated with the lifestyles of extinct animals. Our research goes far beyond this however, and as I elude to above, we're interested not only in individual animal function, but also large-scale patterns of how functions evolve over time, whether animals do follow biomechanical predictions, and if they do not, what other factors are controlling the shape of their skeleton.

What we ultimately hope to achieve with this research is (i) an idea of how morphology (that is shape, or form) changes over evolutionary timescales by interactions between function, the environment, developmental processes, and the genetic material the animal has available to it in the first place; (ii) and how diversity in function (and perhaps ecology) relates to species diversity over time, and what role external environmental factors play.


How do you use different techniques?
We frequently use X-ray computed tomography scanning (CT scanning) to capture the external and internal features of a specimen. CT scanning uses X-rays to capture a series of 2D images that are then computationally assembled into a 3D dataset. This 3D data can then be used to visualise the internal anatomy of the specimen, and used as the basis for performing further functional analysis, such as finite element analysis (FEA). FEA is a technique that computes how a structure, like a fossil, stresses and strains when it is performing a function such as feeding or walking. From these models we can get an idea of the type of behaviour an extinct animal could perform, and why its skeleton was shaped in a particular way.