Charlotte Bird

University of Birmingham


Brain evolution in pre-mammalian cynodonts and the role of intraspecific variation


  • Dr Stephan Lautenschlager (University of Birmingham)
  • Professor Paul Barrett (Natural History Museum, London)
  • Professor Richard Butler (University of Birmingham)
  • Dr Martin Ruecklin (Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, Leiden)

PhD Summary

Virtual palaeontology enables non-destructive study of fossil skulls, permitting digital reconstruction of soft tissues lost to the fossil record. Through the production of 3D models from CT scan datasets of extinct and extant taxa, I reconstruct the brain of a plethora of cynodont species across their evolutionary lineage from the Triassic towards modern mammals. Extensive quantitative analyses will ascertain the roles of intraspecific variation, sexual dimorphism and developmental stage in neurological evolution, with subsequent contextualisation regarding the consequent impacts upon species’ intelligence and sensory capabilities.

Previous activity

I completed an MSci degree in Geology and Physical Geography at the University of Birmingham, undertaking a third year project in environmental remediation techniques at an aggregates quarry, before exploring my true passion for palaeontology during my fourth year. My final project involved researching brain morphology and evolution in the cynodont Thrinaxodon liorhinus, a mammalian ancestor. Additionally, I undertook a Palaeontological Association Undergraduate Research Bursary creating a database of global conodont occurrences, providing an independent preservational proxy to a larger study of early vertebrate diversification, the results of which were subsequently published in Science.

Why did you choose doctoral research?

I love constantly learning something new, hence I believe a PhD provides a gateway to a career path that will enable me to continue adding to the knowledge of the scientific community and my personal growth as a researcher. For my research area, I thoroughly enjoyed developing digital reconstruction techniques during my MSci project, hence my PhD will expand upon the work I started. Furthermore, the topic is invaluable to augmenting understanding of the little-studied cynodonts, alongside evaluating the bias in 3D reconstruction techniques for methodological completeness.

Why did you choose CENTA?

CENTA studentships are so important for early-career researchers to facilitate my collaboration with renowned palaeontologists, being a part of a dedicated training program to advance skills for a future career in academia or industry, alongside belonging to a diverse PhD cohort advancing multiple scientific fields.

Future plans

As a PhD student, I hope to develop both my independent and cohesive research capabilities within the department, acquiring technical skills transferrable to a future career. I hope that the digital skills I train in and the industry placement help me to gain necessary experience to thrive in a career in academia and science communication post-PhD.