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Department of Earth Sciences

Evolutionary biology


My primary research interest lies on the internal drivers of organismal evolution that have shaped the tremendous phenotypic diversity of living organisms. I focus on birds as a study system, employing various approaches, such as collections research, fieldwork, dissection, morphometrics, and statistical analysis including multivariate analyses, phylogenetic comparative methods, and model selection approaches. Other fields of interest include anatomy, evolutionary biology, systematics, and palaeobiology in general.
I was originally trained as a palaeontologist, with a particular focus on systematic relationships among modern and fossil birds. Since I was a graduate student, I have been working with my colleagues on the Pleistocene seabird fossils from Shiriya, northeast Japan, and have described two species new to science. In a series of recent papers, I have documented the entire bird assemblage from the locality, and proposed a hypothesis on the potential relationship between local extinction of some species and oceanographic fluctuations in the Pleistocene, combining current knowledge on seabird ecology and palaeoclimate. I envisage these descriptive works being a basis for studies of evolutionary morphology, historical biogeography, and evolution and extinction in marine ecosystems.
My Ph.D. dissertation focused on postnatal ontogeny of the avian limb skeleton, with two main implications. For this project, I collected ontogenetic series of five species of modern birds through fieldwork, and described ontogenetic variation of the macroscopic morphology, surface texture, and histology of their limb bones. These data were synthesised to establish a reliable criterion to assess ontogenetic stages of avian fossil/skeletal specimens. Next, focusing on the avian limb skeleton as a study system, I explored the potential relationship between evolutionary variability and ontogenetic trajectory. I compiled a dataset from measurement of >2500 specimens from museum collections, and conducted multivariate morphometric analyses. The primary finding is the presence of clade-specific association between evolutionary and ontogenetic major axes of variation. The results imply that evolutionary diversification in this system might have been biased in the direction of ontogenetic trajectories, hinting potential predictability of evolution with information on ontogeny.


Key publications: 

Watanabe, J., Field, D. J., Matsuoka, H., 2020. Wing musculature reconstruction in extinct flightless auks (Pinguinus and Mancalla) reveals incomplete convergence with penguins (Spheniscidae) due to differing ancestral states. Integrative Organismal Biology, obaa040. doi: 10.1093/iob/obaa040.

Watanabe, J., Koizumi, A., Nakagawa, R., Takahashi, K., Tanaka, T., Matsuoka, H., 2020. Seabirds (Aves) from the Pleistocene Kazusa and Shimosa groups, central Japan. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 39: e1697277. doi: 10.1080/02724634.2019.1697277.

Watanabe, J., Matsuoka, H., Hasegawa, Y., 2020. Pleistocene seabirds from Shiriya, northeast Japan: systematics and oceanographic context. Historical Biology, 32: 671–729. doi: 10.1080/08912963.2018.1529764

Watanabe, J., 2018. Clade-specific evolutionary diversification along ontogenetic major axes in avian limb skeleton. Evolution, 72: 2632–2652. doi: 10.1111/evo.13627.

Watanabe, J., Matsuoka, H., Hasegawa, Y., 2018. Pleistocene non-passeriform landbirds from Shiriya, northeast Japan. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 63: 469–491. doi: 10.4202/app.00509.2018.

Watanabe, J., Matsuoka, H., Hasegawa, Y., 2018. Pleistocene fossils from Japan show the recently extinct spectacled cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus) was a relict. The Auk: Ornithological Advances, 135: 895–907. doi: 10.1642/AUK-18-54.1.

Watanabe, J., 2018. Ontogeny of macroscopic morphology of limb bones in modern aquatic birds and their implications for ontogenetic ageing. In: Acosta Hospitaleche, C., Agnolin, F. L., Haidr, N., Noriega, J. I. and Tambussi, C. P. (eds.), Paleontología y Evolución las Aves. Contribuciones del Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales Bernardino Rivadavia, 7. Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales "Bernardino Rivadavia," Buenos Aires. pp. 183–220. URL:

Watanabe, J., 2018. Ontogeny of surface texture of limb bones in modern aquatic birds and applicability of textural ageing. Anatomical Record, 301: 1026–1045. doi: 10.1002/ar.23736.

Watanabe, J., 2017. Quantitative discrimination of flightlessness in fossil Anatidae from skeletal proportions. The Auk: Ornithological Advances, 134: 672–695. doi: 10.1642/AUK-17-23.1.

Watanabe, J., Matsuoka, H., Hasegawa, Y., 2016. Two species of Uria (Aves: Alcidae) from the Pleistocene of Shiriya, northeast Japan, with description and body mass estimation of a new species. Bulletin of Gunma Museum of Natural History, 20: 59–72. URL:

Kaiser, G., Watanabe, J., Johns, M., 2015. A new member of the family Plotopteridae (Aves) from the late Oligocene of British Columbia, Canada. Palaeontologia Electronica, 18: 18.3.52A. doi: 10.26879/563.

Watanabe, J., Matsuoka, H., 2015. Flightless diving duck (Aves, Anatidae) from the Pleistocene of Shiriya, northeast Japan. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 35: e994745. doi: 10.1080/02724634.2014.994745.

Watanabe, J., Matsuoka, H., 2013. Ontogenetic change of morphology and surface texture of long bones in the Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea, Ardeidae). In: Göhlich, U. and Kroh, A. (eds.), Paleornithological Research 2013: Proceedings of the 8th International Meeting of the Society of Avian Paleontology and Evolution, Vienna, 2012. Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna. pp. 279–306. URL:

Royal Society- Newton International Fellow
Dr Junya  Watanabe

Contact Details

Email address: 
+44 (0)1223 333493


Collaborator profiles: 
Person keywords: 
Systematics and Phylogenetics
Comparative morphology
Functional Morphology