Current Research Activities

I am broadly interested in all fossil vertebrates, but have chosen to focus my research effort on a single group: pterosaurs, extinct flying reptiles also known as pterodactyls. During the last 30 years I have published on many different aspects of pterosaurs including their anatomy, flight, walking abilities, tracks, respiration, reproductive biology, growth, origins, interrelationships and evolutionary history. By integrating the results of these studies with the large and rapidly expanding body of research on pterosaurs my aim is to develop a more comprehensive and consistent understanding of the palaeobiology of these extraordinary animals.

Since arriving at Leicester in 2006 much of my research has focused on projects involving the taxonomy and phylogeny of pterosaurs. The principal achievement here has been the discovery and description of Darwinopterus a pterosaur from the Jurassic of China, that my colleagues and I named after Charles Darwin on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘On the origin of species’. This remarkable pterosaur has an almost perfect ‘transitionary’ anatomy that shows, for the first time, how long-tailed basal pterosaurs evolved into short tailed, relatively advanced pterodactyloid pterosaurs. It also points to an unusual ‘modular’ mode of evolution that helps to explain some surprising patterns in the fossil record such as evidence for rapid, large-scale changes. In addition to Darwinopterus I have also helped to describe several new pterosaurs including Shenzhoupterus and Qinglongopterus from China and Alanqa from Africa, and am currently involved in co-editing the first comprehensive volume on pterosaur systematics, The Pterosauria with Dave Martill (University of Portsmouth).

Contemporaneous with systematic studies I have also been leading a series of related projects on the reproductive biology and growth of pterosaurs funded by a Royal Society International Joint Project Grant and involving colleagues from China and the UK. A highlight of this work has been the discovery of a female example of Darwinopterus, ‘Mrs T’ preserved in association with an egg . This spectacular find demonstrates that the showy head crests borne by many male pterosaurs were used for display, either to attract a mate or intimidate rivals. ‘Mrs T’ also shows that pterosaurs laid relatively small eggs with pliable shells. So, as in some living reptiles, pterosaur eggs were likely incubated by burial in vegetation or soil, rather than brooded as happens in birds.

In 2009 I was invited to contribute to a 3D film project on pterosaurs hosted by David Attenborough and produced by Sky Atlantic. Following filming in 2010 ‘Flying Monsters’ was released across an array of media platforms including Imax cinemas, TV, DVD’s and on the web. Content can also be viewed via an app for the iPad and Android. The film, which has already generated more than $10 million in revenue, met with critical acclaim and has won a string of prizes including a BAFTA  in 2011 for the best specialist factual film. ‘Flying Monsters’ also achieved impact in other ways acting as a ‘showcase for 3D moviemaking as applied to documentaries’ and providing content for educational websites such as that hosted by the National Geographic.

Share this page: