Phylogeny and the fossil record
In order to make evolutionary sense of fossils, we need to accurately place them in the tree-of-life and consider how they are related to living organisms. The type of information that fossil organisms provide is, however, very different from that of their living counter-parts. Do the fundamental taphonomic processes of death, decay and preservation involved in fossil formation limit our ability to accurately place fossils in the tree-of-life? How can we accurately reconstruct evolution and phylogeny using morphological data from fossil and modern groups? When we account for biases and artefacts, do they change our understanding of the origins of groups and the nature of evolutionary processes, and if so, how can we correct for them? We investigate a broad range of questions relating to evolutionary and phylogenetic inferences from morphological data.
Experimental decomposition and taphonomic biases
Many of the most important episodes in the history of life, such as the Cambrian explosion, preceded the evolution of hard-tissues (e.g. skeletons or shells). Rare, exceptionally preserved fossils of completely soft-bodied organisms are therefore critical for reconstructing these events. Given the ephemeral nature of soft-tissues, these fossils are unfortunately not pristine representations, but collapsed and decomposed remains. Decay is a fundamental and inevitable part of the formation of these fossils, and as such, experimentally identifying sequences of decay can shed new light on their formation and evolutionary significance. In my lab, sequences of morphological decay are identified using modern proxies in order to unlock important taphonomic biases. The data provided can transform our interpretation of the anatomy and evolutionary significance of key fossils and subsequently reshape our understanding of evolutionary events.
The origin and early evolution of vertebrates
The origin and early evolution of vertebrates represents an episode of massive genetic, morphological and embryological changes – one of the most fundamental in metazoan history. The fossil record provides crucial insight into the timing and nature of morphological changes taking place, both before and after the evolution of skeleton. Through taphonomic analyses and application of decay data, our understanding of the origin of vertebrates is transformed. Furthermore, analyses of the taxonomy, diversity and phylogeny of fossil jawless fishes provide a framework our understanding of the origin and evolution of jawed fishes, an important stage of our own evolutionary history.