Neil Adams

University of Leicester


Out from the shadow of the dinosaurs? Dietary diversity and niche partitioning in Cretaceous and Paleocene mammals

PhD Summary

The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event, ca. 66 million years ago, had profound consequences for terrestrial life, most famously leading to the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs. Traditionally the dominance of terrestrial ecosystems by dinosaurs during the Mesozoic was thought to have supressed mammalian diversity, and only after their extinction were mammals able to diversify. However, recent research is challenging this palaeontological paradigm and suggests mammalian diversity may have been on the rise during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, concurrent with the reign of the dinosaurs. This PhD project seeks to establish the dietary diversity of mammals before and after the K-Pg extinction and to understand if and how mammalian trophic niche occupation changed after dinosaur extinction. I will use textural analysis of tooth microwear, a method pioneered at Leicester, on Cretaceous and Paleocene mammals for the first time, in combination with mesowear and shape analyses of teeth and isotopic data, to identify the dietary guilds to which these early mammals belonged. This interdisciplinary, multiproxy approach will test long-held hypotheses on the effects of dinosaurs on mammalian diversity and will afford new insights into the evolutionary history of mammals.

What inspires you

Growing up in a rural community it was difficult to escape the influence of nature. It was my inquisitiveness as a child exploring the countryside that roused my interest in understanding how and why landscapes and wildlife came to look the way they do today.

Previous activity

As an undergraduate I studied BSc Physical Geography and Geology at Royal Holloway University of London, where I developed a keen interest in past life and environments. My BSc dissertation focused on the Early Pleistocene mammalian fossil assemblage and sediments preserved inside a cave system in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, and how they could be used to reconstruct the palaeoecology and palaeoenvironment of the area. Between my undergraduate and master’s study I worked as a research and laboratory assistant in the Departments of Earth Sciences and Geography at Royal Holloway. Research projects I worked on involved study of ice age mammals from sites across Britain and the use of X-ray imaging to study fossil and modern plant materials. I then went on to study for an MSc in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol, where I completed my thesis on the use of comparative biomechanical techniques to examine the role of rodent competition in multituberculate mammal extinction during the Paleogene.

Why did you choose doctoral research?

I was lucky enough to have several experiences of academic research as an undergraduate, through volunteering as a field and lab assistant, an undergraduate research bursary from the Palaeontological Association, a research internship at the Paleontological Research Institution in New York, and a research volunteer position at the Natural History Museum in London. These experiences, as well as conducting my own research project for my dissertation, inspired my desire to pursue a career in research. Undertaking doctoral research is a necessary prerequisite for most research posts, especially in academia, so applying for a PhD was the logical next step for my intended career.

Why did you choose CENTA?

I was interested in the CENTA studentship not only for the funded opportunity to work on a fascinating PhD project at institutions that are renowned for pioneering research in my field, but also for the training programme that covers statistical computing, media and public engagement, and organisational placements, which will prove useful for any future career in science.

Future plans

I hope to go on to a career in academic research and teaching, focused on past life and environments. The CENTA studentship will provide me with a well-respected research qualification and sought-after skills that will be valuable when applying for postdoctoral and research positions in the future.