My main research interests lie in the field of fossil preservation – ‘taphonomy’. I’m especially interested in the preservation of non-biomineralised ‘soft’ tissues (e.g. integument, muscle, internal organs) in fossils, and what these exceptional fossil remains tell us about the anatomy, physiology, ecology and behaviour of ancient animals. A current major focus of my research is the taphonomy of colour in fossil insects and feathers. I’m investigating the preservation, evolutionary origins and functions of structural and pigmentary coloration in various animal groups, in particular, insects and feathered taxa, throughout the Phanerozoic.
In my research I use both fossils and experiments to investigate the processes of soft tissue degradation and preservation. By understanding the various biological, sedimentological and diagenetic factors that control soft tissue preservation, we can begin to tease apart patterns (biases) in the fossil record.
My fossil-based research leans heavily on electron microscopy (scanning- and transmission, focussed ion beam techniques) and rigorous statistical analysis of taphonomic data. Research highlights include:
– the discovery of organic preservation of very decay-prone tissues
– resolution of the link between the chemistry of tissues and how they are preserved in fossils
– elucidation of the controls upon the skeletal and soft tissue taphonomy of exceptionally preserved amphibians.
Highlights of my fossil-based research on colour include:
– the discovery that insect structural colours alter during fossilisation
– reconstruction of the original colours and ecology of fossil moths
– elucidation of the controls on preservation of structural colours in fossil insects.
My experimental research encompasses two main types of study. Taphonomic experimentats at room temperatures and pressures – ‘conventional’ decay experiments – simulate the processes of autolytic and microbial decay that take place from the time of death and during transport and deposition at the Earth’s surface. Autoclave experiments at elevated temperatures and pressures – ‘maturation’ experiments – simulate conditions within the Earth’s crust, i.e. burial. Research highlights include:
– explanation of key biases in the fossil record of insect structural colour, including why colours change during fossilisation
– the discovery that feather melanosomes shrink during fossilisation
Our research is currently funded through two main projects, a Marie Curie Career Integration Grant and a European Research Council Starting Grant (ANICOLEVO).