Project highlights

  • Investigating dinosaur diversity and palaeoecology in the Early Cretaceous of the UK
  • Examining preservational biases on the dinosaur fossil record
  • Building the first chronostratigraphic framework for the Wealden Group


The Wealden Group of the Isle of Wight comprises fluvial and shallow marine strata deposited during the Early Cretaceous (Figure 1). The floodplains and beaches of the Wealden were home to a diversity of dinosaurs including the armoured ankylosaurs, the fish-eating spinosaurs, and the thumb-spiked iguanodontians. The Wealden dinosaurs are the best-known and most diverse from any time period in the UK. In contrast, the sediments have not been studied in the context of modern techniques and analyses. Consequently, depositional environments are poorly characterized, and a detailed chronostratigraphy is lacking. This hinders attempts to understand the evolution and palaeoecology of the dinosaurs, because they cannot be placed accurately in time, and the environments in which they lived and died are not always clear.

The aim of this project is to examine the relationships between the occurrence of dinosaur remains, sedimentary facies, and chronostratigraphy in the Wealden of the Isle of Wight. The working conceptual model of the depositional setting for the Wealden Group is a river system that was not confined to a valley, and to significant marine influence. Through the Wealden Group, sedimentary facies indicate that the river system was gradually flooded by a rising sea level. It is this conceptual model that we look to test; we will examine whether patterns of sea level fluctuation and a tendency of increased marine influence can be recognised upwards through the succession. Such studies will be carried out through facies analysis of fluvial elements across the island. The culmination of this work will be the first chronostratigraphic framework for the Isle of Wight Wealden.

We will then locate dinosaur occurrences across the island and discover if certain taxa can be correlated to a depositional sequence, hence palaeoenvironmental setting.  Such insights will allow us to examine preservational biases in the fossil record that might be hindering our understanding of dinosaur diversity and distribution and predict possible future sites. Finally, we will map dinosaur occurrences onto our chronostratigraphic framework and attempt to assess whether specific dinosaurs were isolated to specific timeslices, to characterize dinosaur evolution and inform analyses of dinosaur taxonomy and diversity.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project


University of Birmingham


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

  • Prof Richard Butler, University of Birmingham


  • Dr Susannah Maidment, Natural History Museum
  • Dr Catherine Russell, University of Leicester
  • Dr James Wheeley, University of Birmingha
  • Dr Oliver Wakefield, British Geological Survey

How to apply


To test the novel conceptual model, the student will log the Wealden Group at locations across the SW and SE coast of the Isle of Wight, and record grainsize, lithology, and sedimentary structures. This will allow identification of specific facies, which, in turn, will allow facies associations and architectural elements characteristic of specific depositional environments to be identified by the student. The chronostratigraphic framework will be built using the concepts of sequence stratigraphy based on recognised sea level changes.

The student will collect dinosaur occurrence data from the literature and collate it spatially in an ArcGIS database. Relationships between dinosaur occurrences and specific facies, and temporal distributions through time will be assessed using spatial statistical tools in ArcGIS and traditional statistical approaches.

Training and skills

The student should have a strong background and interest in sedimentology, but comprehensive project-specific training will be provided. This will include facies analysis, sequence stratigraphy, examination of fossil specimens, building and using databases, spatial analysis in ArcGIS, quantitative approaches to examine bias in the fossil record (including coding in R), and international scientific collaborations. The NHM provides unparalleled opportunities for public outreach and engagement and the student will be encouraged and trained to participate in these. Opportunities may also be available for the student to gain skills in finding and collecting fossils in the field, through collaborations with local museums on the Isle of Wight as well as through the supervisors’ active international fieldwork programmes.


Partners and collaboration

The interdisciplinary supervisory team includes dinosaur palaeontologists (Butler & Maidment) and sedimentologists (Russell, Wheeley & Wakefield) that represent two CENTA2 universities (Birmingham and Leicester), a Research Centre Partner (BGS), and an L1 end user (NHM). In particular, the team have ongoing research programmes involving Wealden sedimentology (Russell) and dinosaur palaeontology (Maidment) with strong links to local Isle of Wight museums and the amateur geological and palaeontological community on the island.

Further details

Prof Richard Butler, University of Birmingham;

Applications need to be submitted via the University of Birmingham postgraduate portal,, by midnight 11.01.2021. Please first check whether the primary supervisor is within Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, or in Biosciences, and click on the corresponding PhD program on the application page.

This application should include

  • a brief cover letter, CV, and the contact details for at least two referees
  • a CENTA application form
  • the supervisor and title of the project you are applying for under the Research Information section of the application form.

Referee’s will be invited to submit their references once you submit your application, but we strongly encourage applicants to ensure referees are aware of your submission and expecting a reference request from us. Students are also encouraged to visit and explore the additional information available on the CENTA website.

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

These have been selected because the project meets specific characteristics such as CASE support, collaboration with our CENTA high-level end-users, diversity of the supervisory team, career development of the supervisory team, collaboration with one of our Research Centre Partners (BGS, CEH, NCEO, NCAS) or student co-designed project. These characteristics are a CENTA priority. Studentships associated with Flagship projects will be provided exactly the same level of support as all other studentships.

Possible timeline

Year 1

Field data collection, sedimentological analysis, preliminary chronostratigraphic framework development. Training: facies analysis, sequence stratigraphy, handling of fossils. Conferences: UK (BSRG, SVPCA)

Year 2

Field data collection and analysis to test and confirm preliminary framework. Dinosaur occurrence database to be built.  Training: databases, spatial analysis. Conferences: UK (BSRG, SVPCA)

Year 3

Spatial and quantitative analyses of fossil record bias and diversity through time. Training: quantitative methods in palaeocological analysis. Conferences: USA (GSA, SVP).

Further reading

Batten, D. B. English Wealden Fossils. Field Guide to Fossils 14. The Palaeontological Association.

Weissmann, G. S., Hartley, A. J., Nichols, G. J., Scuderi, L. A., Olson, M., Buehler, H. and Banteah, R. (2010) ‘Fluvial form in modern continental sedimentary basons: distributive fluvial systems’, Geology, 38 (1), pp. 39­­­-42. ­­

Radley, J. D. (1994) ‘Stratigraphy, palaeontology and palaeoenvironment of the Wessex Formation (Wealden Group, Lower Cretaceous) at Yaverland, Isle of Wight, southern England’, Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 105, pp. 199-208.

Stewart, D. J., Ruffell, A., Wach, G., and Goldring, R. (1991) ‘Lagoonal sedimentation and fluctuating salinities in the Vectis Formation (Wealden Group, Lower Cretaceous) of the Isle of Wight, southern England’, Sedimentary Geology, 72, pp. 117-134.


This project is entirely focused on the UK and does not require international travel, somewhat mitigating travel issues and quarantine requirements that might arise. Although substantial fieldwork will be required, all of this can be carried out in a socially-distanced manner with one field assistant only. Dinosaur occurrence data collection will be from the literature and can be done entirely online. If necessary, this part of the project can be carried out first.