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Research Fellows Directory

Gavin Thomas

Dr Gavin Thomas

Research Fellow


University of Sheffield

Research summary

“How fast, as a matter of fact, do animals evolve in Nature?” This question, posed by George Simpson in his influential book Tempo and Mode in Evolution, poses a seemingly straightforward question. It is a question that is yet to be answered and its resolution has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of the origins of biological diversity. My research focuses on two ways in which organisms might vary in their rate of evolution. The first is in the evolution of species traits. Species traits encompass the physical and behavioural attributes of species, such as the shape of a plant’s leaves, or the frequency and pitch of a bird’s song. Differences in rates of evolution of traits determine how the form of life varies between and among groups of related species and from one part of the world to another. The second way in which organisms vary in rates of evolution is in how fast new species arise (speciation) or die (extinction). Variation in rates of speciation and extinction determine how numbers of species wax and wane over time and where species are distributed around the world.

My work tests how and why evolutionary rates vary across the tree of life, particularly among the world’s 10,000 species of birds. I use museum collections to measure species traits. This serves the dual purpose of generating extensive new data and provides valuable resources with the potential for curating online virtual museum collections. The overarching aim is to understand how and why rates of evolution vary and ultimately influence global biodiversity patterns both through geological time, spanning hundreds of millions of years and across the geographic space spanning entirety of the Earth’s land surface.

Interests and expertise (Subject groups)

Grants awarded

Understanding variation in evolutionary rates on the Tree of Life

Scheme: University Research Fellowship

Dates: Oct 2013 - Sep 2018

Value: £436,667.66