At the Feet of the Dinosaurs

Summer training programme for undergraduates

An opportunity for undergraduate students who are keen about palaeontology, and want to develop their career skills. For the past three years we have run a summer research programme, in which students from all over the world (well, UK, USA, Italy, Netherlands) have spent six to 15 weeks working on their own project, learning practical skills, and finishing with a published scientific paper. This is a huge achievement in each case, and it is probably the best way for you to decide whether you want to try out a career in research.


[Above] August 2017: From left to right, Sam Cross (Bristol), Iacopo Cavicchini (Rome), and Emily Green (Bristol) check the geology at Aust Cliff, part of Sam’s summer project.
Why do some research work like this? Two reasons – it’s fun and it gives you some real achievements to add to your cv. If you are interested in applying for a PhD, the single best thing on your cv is a first-author publication. Think about it. Every other candidate will have a Bachelor and Master degree. Every other candidate will have volunteered in museums and schools. What’s the best evidence you’ve got what it takes to do a PhD? A published first-author paper!

Does it work? Well, look at the case studies below: 15 students have entered PhD programmes so far!

Skills you will acquire: Practical skills include sorting and cataloguing fossil collections, learning the relevant scientific terminology, writing formal descriptions and systematic determinations, and photomicroscopy. The most transferable skills are all those involved in turning your work into a published paper, which is a demanding piece of organisation, writing, and high-quality technical illustration.

Writing a scientific paper is a tough task, but we try to help with personal mentoring every day, as well as close support in technical aspects. Here are two ‘top tips’ documents the summer trainees use:

Instruction Sheet 1: how to make professional plates of fossil microphotographs, as used by students in this programme.

Instruction Sheet 2: how to produce professional graphics of geological maps and sedimentary logs.


Occasionally we can secure funding for these training positions, but this is rare because there are not many funds available. Two options are:

  1. The Bristol Summer Diversity Internship, especially for BAME and other under-represented students (closing date is usually May).
  2. The Palaeontological Association Undergraduate Research Bursary (closing date is usually March).

More often, students have funded their research by working part-time for a few days a week, and spending a few days on the research project. Students based in Bristol frequently have to pay rental for their flat over summer in any case, whether they occupy it or not. We would love to be able to pay you to take your training, but regrettably we have not found a generous sponsor yet!


The projects are closely connected, and we are building a solid body of knowledge. Staff teach students, and students teach students and staff, and we do field work and laboratory work together. Discoveries from one project can help all the others, and we work together to understand the fossils and their meanings, and to learn new research methods.

June 2015: From left to right, Tiffany Slater (Worcester), Laurence Kinnersley (Bristol), Valentina Rossi (Rome), Emma Landon (Durham), and Emily Hall (Bristol) enjoying a sunny day of field work on the Triassic-Jurassic boundary at Aust Cliff, near Bristol.

September 2014: Klara Nordén (left) and Harry Allard (right) at their microscopes, and Dr Chris Duffin, in the background, speaks to Gareth Coleman and Heather Thiel about their mysterious microfossils.

The students and their projects

Tamara van den Berg worked on the microvertebrate fossils from Tytherington Quarry, north-east of Bristol. She completed this project as part of the requirements for her MSc in Palaeobiology at Bristol in 2011. She was advised and helped in this project by David Whiteside, who completed his PhD on the Tytherington faunas in 1983, and by Remmert Schouten, Preparator in the Palaeobiology laboratories at Bristol. Tamara studied first at Groningen University in the Netherlands, and then came to Bristol to study for her Masters. You can download Tamara’s paper here. Davide Foffa worked on microvertebrate fossils from Durdham Down, Clifton, Bristol, close to the original site of discovery of Thecodontosaurus in the 1830s. He processed sediment from the original 1830s specimens, as well as freshly collected sediment, and found a variety of small reptile bones. Davide studied first at the Università di Pisa in Italy, and then came to Bristol to study for the MSc in Palaeobiology. He completed his PhD on fossil crocodiles at the University of Edinburgh in 2018, and Dr Foffa is now a postdoc at the National Museum of Scotland working on CT study of the Triassic Elgin reptiles. You can download Davide’s paper here Dana Korneisel, an undergraduate from Iowa State University, worked on the Rhaetic microvertebrates from Charton Bay in Devon. Unexpectedly, these tiny fossils were found preserved within burrow systems constructed by shrimps. Field work in Devon showed how the Rhaetic transgression had brought with it a flurry of bone concentrate as well as marine shrimps. The shrimps constructed complex burrow systems on the sea floor, and the bone-rich sediment washed into the burrows, and was even packed and reworked by the shrimps. Dana is now doing a PhD at Carleton University, Ottawa on early tetrapod evolution. You can download Dana’s paper here. Bristol undergraduate Catherine Klein worked on a new Triassic fissure site, Woodleaze in 2013 and 2014, and presented a poster at the meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy in York in 2014. She discovered a new species of sphenodontian, which she named Clevosaurus sectumsemper, referring to its ‘ever sharp’ teeth. Catherine comes from Luxembourg, and completed the MSci in Palaeontology and Evolution in Bristol in 2015, and is now working on her PhD at the University of Bath on lizard evolution. You can download Catherine’s paper here.
Klara Norden, then studying for the MSci in Palaeobiology and Evolution, tackled collections from a classic quarry south of Bristol, Marston Road, near Holwell. This site was first mentioned by Charles Moore in his 1867 paper. During fieldwork in August 2014, we were able to retrace Moore’s steps and identify the classic Marston Road Quarry. It had been re-excavated by Mike Curtis in 1983, but is now covered with a tangle of brambles, having been largely obscured by a road-widening scheme in the 1990s. The bone bed produced a unique mix of marine species with remains of some terrestrial reptiles mixed in. Klara is now working on her PhD at Cornell University. You can download Klara’s paper here. Harry Allard, an undergraduate student from the University of Exeter, worked on a further Mike Curtis collection, from Manor Farm quarry, near Aust cliff. This quarry was opened in 1995 as a source of materials for motorway construction nearby, and a Rhaetian section was preserved for geologists and enthusiasts to study, as an excellent ‘demonstration’ section through the entire Penarth Group. The fossil collections came from five distinct levels through the Rhaetian, including the well known basal Westbury Formation bonebed, and four levels higher. Harry was able to make a comparative study of the succession of bone beds, and these show considerable faunal differences. Harry did a Masters in marine biology at Glasgow, and is now studying for his PhD in Auckland, New Zealand. You can download Harry’s paper here. The most long-running project concerns Hampstead Farm Quarry, based on enormous collections made in the 1970s and 1980s by local fossil collector Mike Curtis. We counted 20,000 specimens, all carefully boxed and labelled, in the collections of Bristol City Museum and Bristol University. Work on this site began in summer 2013, when volunteers Ellen Mears, an undergraduate at the University of Leeds, and Alana Weir, a Bristol undergraduate, began sorting through the materials and writing up the fish teeth, scales and vertebrae. The work continued in summer 2014, when Bristol undergraduates Gareth ColemanEllen MacDonald, and Heather Thiel made an overview of the vast collection. We also re-located the site, logged it, and collected twenty bags of bone-rich sediment, which were acid-processed and picked by Caterine Arias-Riesgo, a visiting preparator-in-training, supported by EU Leonardo funds. Finally, Valentina Rossi, a volunteer student from University of Rome in Italy, spent all of summer 2015 drawing together the vast amount of information and drafted the paper. The paper was finally completed in February 2016 (too many collaborators), and was published in June 2016. Valentina is now working on her PhD at University of Cork on preservation potential of keratin and pigmentation in feathers and hair, and Gareth is now working on his PhD at University of Bristol on molecular methods to reconstruct the earliest life. You can download the Hampstead Farm paper here.
Rebecca Lakin, an undergraduate studying Biology at Reading, spent the summer of 2015 working on Rhaetian bonebed samples from Barnhill Quarry and the nearby Chipping Sodbury railway cutting. This was interesting for Rebecca, who was able to put her knowledge of Victorian railways to use to investigate how the samples were taken during building of the track from Swindon to the Severn railway tunnel in 1903. Publications from 1904 and 1938 helped us re-locate the fossil site in Barnhill Quarry, and we did some new fieldwork. Rebecca has now completed her PhD at University of Bath on the evolution of parental care in birds and dinosaurs. You can download Rebecca’s paper here. Tiffany Slater began a project in summer 2015 on some mystery specimens labelled as from boreholes along the M5 motorway north of Bristol. These came from shallow boreholes made in 2001 and 2002 when gantries were installed, and they document several Rhaetian bonebeds in each borehole, and we later found some of the borehole core, and tracked down further records from Geotechnical Engineering, a firm in Gloucester. Tiffany is a United States citizen, and was studying biology at the University of Worcester when she did this work. Her paper was published in August, 2016. Tiffany has just completed her PhD at University of Cork on the preservation potential of keratin and pigmentation in feathers and hair. You can download Tiffany’s paper here. Emma Landon, who had just graduated with a geology degree from Durham, worked in summer 2015 on samples from localities around Filton and Parkway stations, north of Bristol. Some samples were from engineering works in the 1980s and 1990s, and Emma collected new material. She made the amazing find of some small hooklets from cephalopods, perhaps some of the earliest known. We recruited additional expert authors to help describe some unusual new discoveries of crinoids in association with the bones and teeth – it turns out these are the first crinoids ever found in the British Triassic – quite a find! Her paper was published in April, 2017. Emma has just completed her PhD at University of Bristol on the palaeobiology and preservation of the Ediacaran Weng’an Biota from South China. You can download Emma’s paper here. Joseph Flannery Sutherland, then a first-year undergraduate, worked on a very different theme in summer 2016 – otoliths (ear bones of bony fishes) from a Wealden bone bed locality. Peter Austen, an expert collector on Wealden fossils had assembled dozens of specimens with assemblages of these unusual fossils – they commonly occur in concentrations, being perhaps ejected stomach contents of predators. Joseph wrote up his work in short order, and it was published in June, 2017. Joseph has completed his fourth year of the MSci in Palaeobiology & Evolution at Bristol, and begins a PhD at the University of Bristol in September 2019. You can download Joseph’s paper here.
Iacopo Cavicchini from the University of Rome began a project in summer 2017 on a collection of microvertebrates from Stowey Quarry, south of Bristol, near Chew Valley Lake. The project had been started in summer 2016 by Cecilia Heyworth, a Biology undergraduate student at the University of York, and passed to Iacopo, who completed the study. Mike Curtis had studied samples from four boreholes taken in the floor of the quarry, and Iacopo identified that these penetrated at least two bone beds. Iacopo is back in Italy now, where he finished the paper, published in early 2018. He began his PhD at the University of Birmingham in 2020. You can download Iacopo’s paper here. Emily Keeble carried out a study of the famous Pant-y-Ffynnon fissure fauna from South Wales as her fourth-year research project for the MSci in Palaeontology and Evolution, during 2017 and 2018. The fissure site had been found in the 1950s in a limestone quarry, where Triassic red soil (and bones) had washed into karst fissures in Carboniferous Limestone. Emily identified a range of small beasts in her fissure sample, but most exciting were the skull and other remains of a new sphenodontian, which she called Clevosaurus cambrica, from the old name for Wales. Emily begins her job as Research technician at the Royal Veterinary College in late 2020, working on 3D digital rendering of Triassic reptiles. Emily’s paper was published in early 2018, and you can download it here. Sam Cross [above], Nikola Ivanovski, and other undergraduate students just finishing the first year of their Palaeontology and Evolution programme, took on a project in summer 2017 to describe the microvertebrates from Aust Cliff. This is the most famous of the Triassic-Jurassic sections around Bristol (see photos above), and dozens of papers have been published describing the bones. However, nobody has described the microvertebrates trapped among the larger bones of marine reptiles and fishes. Adam Parker processed a lot of Aust bonebed sediment, and the students have identified some 5000 specimens; the paper was a bit of a monster, and it was published in July 2018. You can download Sam and Nikola’s paper here.

In a different kind of study, Sophie Chambi-Trowell, a final-year Bristol MSci student, worked on CT scans of skulls of the sphenodontian Clevosaurus. In summer 2017 and 2018, she segmented the X-rays to generate 3D models, and compared the dentitions of two species, C. hudsoni and C. cambrica, that lived together, and yet had different diets. This was the beginning of something new: some of these Triassic clevosaur sphenodontians had quite complex teeth and might have competed with early mammals around the time as specialist insect-eaters. These ideas developed into a thesis topic for Sophie, and she began her PhD at the University of Bristol in 2019, working on evolution and dietary adaptation of Triassic-Jurassic sphenodontians. Her paper was published in February 2019, and you can read it here.

Emily Green [above], an undergraduate studying Palaeontology and Evolution at Bristol, took on a very brave theme in summer 2017, namely the Rhaetian coprolites from bone beds around Bristol, primarily Hampstead Farm and Manor Farm. The project was taken forward by French student Marie Cueille in 2020, and is currently in revision. We CT scanned three coprolites, and these showed large numbers of identifiable scales and bones inside each – as many as 20 large bony scales in some. Ouch! One coprolite contained two tail vertebrae of the small marine reptile Pachystropheus – the fish must have nipped off its tail. Otherwise, it seems everything was eating Gyrolepis! Emily began her PhD at the University of Lincoln in 2019.

Bristol undergraduate Richard Wilks began a project on a rich Wealden (Early Cretaceous) bone bed from Ashdown Brickworks, near Bexhill, West Sussex. Numerous fossils had already been reported from the site, including dinosaurs such as Iguanodon, Baryonyx, Polacanthus, and a small theropod, as well as salamanders, frogs, and lizards, but less attention had been paid to the fishes. Then, French student Pernelle Juhel [above] came to Bristol in spring 2019 as an internship associated with her MSc at the University of Rennes. Pernelle said she was ‘mad about Cretaceous sharks’, so she continued the work on the large collection made from Ashdown by Dave Brockhurst and Peter Austen, and she completed the work, and you can read it here.

First-year biology student Giovanni Mussini, from Oxford University (but originally from Italy) undertook an unusual, quite geological project, in summer 2019. He worked through collections of samples taken years ago by David Whiteside and Mike Curtis from a single large fissure at Tytherington Quarry. These samples had been mapped precisely and so the sediment and contained microvertebrate bones can be documented to show how the complex fissure system filled up in several phases, and to document different samples of small tetrapods in each region of the cave system. Giovanni got this finished super-fast and it was published early in 2020. You can read Giovanni’s paper here. Biology student from UCL, Adhiyan Jeevathol carried out a different kind of project, studying the macroecology of the anomodonts, a group of herbivores that were key elements of terrestrial faunas in the Permian and Triassic. The aim was to understand how the body size and dietary preferences of these early beasts changed throiugh time, and especially before and after the devastating end-Permian mass extinction. This was a computational project that tested Adhiyan’s skills in the progamming language R, and he made great discoveries about how their diversity, and especially their trait diversity changed through time. Adhiyan is currently finishing off his paper, now his undergraduate studies are complete. He was funded as our first BME Diversity Intern. Read more on his blog.
Another project from 2019 is by James Ronan, who had just graduated from the University of Plymouth, and is now doing the MSc in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol. His topic was the Rhaetian bonebed of Hapsford Bridge, at the east end of Vallis Vale. Here, the Mesozoic sediments rest directly on the Carboniferous limestone, and the sequence begins with the Rhaetian at the east end of Vallis Vale, and steps up to Middle Jurassic at the west end. In our field work, we supplemented earlier collections by Charles Copp to show that the Rhaetian Transgression at Hapsford Bridge swept over the Carboniferous which became a hardground with borings, and then pebbles were ripped up and became colonised by oysters. Two bone bed layers contain the usual sharks and bony fishes, as well as quite abundant large barnacles. James’s paper will be published in April 2020.

The press releases

The press loves dinosaurs and ancient life, and so the University of Bristol does all it can to promote the efforts of its students. Here are examples of press releases from some of the published projects:

The publications

These are the outputs, the scientific publications that mark the endpoint of the achievements of each student.


In September 2013, we held a mini-symposium, with contributions from students involved in the summer projects, including Davide Foffa, Catherine Klein, Ellen Mears, and Alana Weir.In a further symposium in September 2014, talks were given by Catherine Klein, Harry Allard, Gareth Coleman, Ellen Macdonald, Heather Thiel, and Klara Norden to a wider audience, and Dr Chris Duffin came to offer advice and guidance in identifying tricky bones and teeth (see image at the top).

The third conference, in September 2015, included contributions from the summer students, Valentina Rossi, Rebecca Lakin, Tiffany Slater, Emma Landon, and Sophie Chambi-Trowell.

The fourth conference, in August 2017, well attended by staff and students, included contributions from the summer undergraduate students, Iacopo Cavicchini, Sophie Chambi-Trowell, Ciaran Clark, Sam Cross, Will Deakin, Joseph Flannery Sutherland, and Emily Green.

The advisers

The project is supervised by Professor Mike Benton at the University of Bristol, and special advice is provided on the fossil fishes by Dr Chris Duffin and on the reptiles by Dr David Whiteside. Claudia Hildebrandt is curator of the Bristol University collections, and she looks after the specimens and practical microscope work. Dr Tom Davies is Palaeobiology Laboratory Manager, and he provides training and support in acid digestion of rocks and microfossils and microphotography. These five variously help formulate the projects, provide detailed advice and training, and help in enhancing the papers during the write-up phase.

Mike Benton Chris Duffin David Whiteside Claudia Hildebrandt Tom Davies