Neil Adams, Postgraduate Researcher

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

Contact DetailsNeil Adams

Project Overview

The Paleocene (66-56 million years ago) is one of the most important intervals in the history of mammalian evolution. It marks the start of the Cenozoic ‘Age of Mammals’, when adaptive radiation occurred among many placental mammal groups, and it follows the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction that wiped out all non-avian dinosaur groups. It is often presumed that Paleocene mammals were colonising ecospace left vacant after the K-Pg mass extinction, but drivers and mechanisms of mammalian adaptive radiation have remained largely speculative. Studies of taxonomic diversity alone are unlikely to be able to unpick such complex macroevolutionary processes, but this may be possible using measures of ecological diversity.

Resource use and partitioning, as reflected in diet, are integral to ecosystem function, and reconstructing dietary diversity is a useful proxy for ecological diversity within an ecosystem. My project will use new multi-proxy techniques in quantitative dietary reconstruction (including dental microwear texture analysis and 3D morphological analyses of tooth shape) to examine the dietary diversity of mammals through the Paleocene in North America. This approach will enable independent testing of previous dietary hypotheses, and evaluation of specific roles of mammals within broader dietary guilds, with the potential to pick up dietary transitions that predate and potentially drive morphological adaptation of teeth to new functional roles. It will also allow me to test hypotheses and theories related to adaptive radiation on continents, and allow me to examine ecological responses of mammals to rapid environmental changes that have occurred in the past. The focus of the project will be on the fossil record from the San Juan Basin in New Mexico, which has yielded an unparalleled collection of early Paleocene mammals, and on the mammal groups that make up much of the diversification in the early Paleocene (including “archaic ungulates” known as condylarths and the earliest primates).

Research Theme

Evolution and Past Environments

Research Questions

  • What drove the adaptive radiation of placental mammals after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction? Did competition force the establishment of new niches, or was radiation driven by rapid adaptation to vacant ecospace?
  • Was there progressively increased dietary niche partitioning and specialism through the Paleocene as taxonomic diversity increased? Were dietary/ecological diversity and taxonomic diversity coupled during the Paleocene adaptive radiation of mammals?
  • Was the radiation from a few narrow dietary categories to other narrow categories (specialist to specialist), or from more generalist categories with increasing specialism?
  • To what extent do quantitative methods of dietary analysis (including dental microwear and tooth shape analyses) support past dietary interpretations based on other/traditional lines of evidence?
  • Did mammalian dietary diversity respond to known palaeoenvironmental changes that occurred during the Paleocene?
  • Can dental microwear textural analysis (DMTA) identify possible dietary and ecological changes that may have driven subsequent morphological changes in tooth shape among rapidly evolving mammalian lineages?
  • Are similar trends of dietary evolution borne out using DMTA when compared with 3D morphological proxies of tooth shape (such as multi-proxy dental morphological analysis, orientation patch count, etc.)?


Peer-reviewed papers:

(8) Adams, N.F., Candy, I. and Schreve, D.C. (2021) An Early Pleistocene hippopotamus from Westbury Cave, Somerset, England: support for a previously unrecognized temperate interval in the British Quaternary record. Journal of Quaternary Science. doi:10.1002/jqs.3375.

(7) Dobbins, K., Adams, N.F., Bishop, E., Ismayilli, M., Papadopoulou, M., Phillips, M.L., Tauchner, N., van Wessem, E. and Watkins, J. (2021) The power of peers in GTA development of practice: evaluation of an equal-status teaching observation project. Compass: Journal of Learning and Teaching, 14: 1203. doi:10.21100/compass.v14i2.1203.

(6) Adams, N.F., Gray, T. and Purnell, M.A. (2020) Dietary signals in dental microwear of predatory small mammals appear unaffected by extremes in environmental abrasive load. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 558: 109929. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2020.109929.

(5) Adams, N.F., Rayfield, E.J., Cox, P.G., Cobb, S.N. and Corfe, I.J. (2019) Functional tests of the competitive exclusion hypothesis for multituberculate extinction. Royal Society Open Science, 6: 181536. doi:10.1098/rsos.181536.

(4) Adams, N.F., Candy, I., Schreve, D.C. and Barendregt, R.W. (2019) Deposition and provenance of the Early Pleistocene Siliceous Member in Westbury Cave, Somerset, England. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 130: 210-226. doi:10.1016/j.pgeola.2019.02.005.

(3) Adams, N.F., Collinson, M.E., Smith, S.Y., Bamford, M.K., Forest, F., Malakasi, P., Marone, F. and Sykes, D. (2016) X-rays and virtual taphonomy resolve the first Cissus (Vitaceae) macrofossils from Africa as early-diverging members of the genus. American Journal of Botany, 103: 1657-1677. doi:10.3732/ajb.1600177.

(2) Stull, G.W., Adams, N.F., Manchester, S.R., Sykes, D. and Collinson, M.E. (2016) Revision of Icacinaceae from the Early Eocene London Clay flora based on X-ray micro-CT. Botany, 94: 713-745. doi:10.1139/cjb-2016-0063.

(1) Collinson, M.E., Adams, N.F., Manchester, S.R., Stull, G.W., Herrera, F., Smith, S.Y., Andrew, M.J., Kenrick, P. and Sykes, D. (2016) X-ray micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) of pyrite-permineralized fruits and seeds from the London Clay Formation (Ypresian) conserved in silicone oil: a critical evaluation. Botany, 94: 697-711. doi:10.1139/cjb-2016-0078.


Magazine and other articles:

(2) Pierpoint, N., Brown, E., Adams, N., Vallance, M., Keedy, L. and Sims, R. (2021) In and out of the deep freeze - Part 2 (Pitstone Quarry SSSI, Marsworth). Earth Heritage, 55: 42-44. pdf

(1) Adams, N. (2018) Descended testicles: DNA study drops new hints on secrets of low hanging glands. The Conversation, link

Academic Awards

  • Student Lightning Talk Prize – Crossing the Palaeontological-Ecological Gap conference, University of Leeds (Aug 2018)
  • David Dineley Prize – School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol (Dec 2017)
  • QRA Undergraduate Dissertation Prize – Quaternary Research Association and Royal Geographical Society (Jan 2016)
  • Marjorie Alford Prize in Geography – Department of Geography, Royal Holloway University of London [RHUL] (Jul 2015)
  • Harrison Prize – Faculty of Science, RHUL (Jul 2015)
  • Wang Jing Tai Prize – Department of Geography, RHUL (Jul 2015)
  • Mary MacPherson Essay Prize – RHUL (Apr 2015)
  • Ede & Ravenscroft College Prize – RHUL (Feb 2015)
  • Harry & Kate Harper Chelsea Prize – Department of Earth Sciences, RHUL (Jul 2014)
  • Hosgood Prize in Geography – Department of Geography, RHUL (Jul 2014)
  • Palaeontological Association Prize – Palaeontological Association (Jul 2014)
  • Murgoci Prize in Science – Faculty of Science, RHUL (Jul 2013)
  • Tennant Exhibition – Department of Earth Sciences, RHUL (Jul 2013)

Professional Affiliations

  • Palaeontological Association (Student Member, 2013-present)
  • Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (Student Member, 2018-present)
  • Paleontological Society (Student Member, 2018-present)
  • Advance HE / Higher Education Academy (Associate Fellow, 2016-present)

Further Links




Share this page: