Professor Zhang earned his first degrees (BSc, 1989; MSc, 1993) in Biology and Zoology, respectively, at the Northeast Normal University (Changchun, PR China), and his doctorate (PhD, 1996) in Ecology at Beijing Normal University (Beijing, PR China), for his studies on the ecology and behaviour of extant birds. With a postdoctoral research fellowship, he joined the faculty of the IVPP in 1996, where he began to study fossil birds. He was appointed Associate Professor and Professor at IVPP in 1998 and 2003, respectively. He was also a Research Fellow at the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol in 2005-6, supported by the Royal Society.
His research interests cover the origin and early evolution of birds and feathers, and the origin of avian flight. His current research themes focus on the description of remarkable new bird fossils, including skeletons with feathers and skin, as well as eggs, and other fossils from the astonishing Early Cretaceous fossil deposits of the Jehol Group in NE China. He is working with a team from the University of Bristol on the colour of Mesozoic birds and dinosaurs, using scanning electron microscopy and geochemical means to investigate the remarkable fine-scale detail of skin and feathers of these 125-million-year old fossils.
Recently, he was first author of a paper in Nature in which the IVPP-Bristol team was first to announce evidence for colour in the feathers of dinosaurs. The ancient feathers preserve organelles in the keratin matrix of the feathers called melanosomes, exactly as in modern birds, that contain the colouring agent melanin in different forms, corresponding to a variety of colours. This discovery was hailed as one of the top-100 scientific discoveries of 2010 by Discovery magazine.
Professor Zhang will continue his work with Professor Michael Benton and Dr Stuart Kearns in the School of Earth Sciences, exploring the ultrastructures of feathers of a variety of ancient Chinese birds and dinosaurs. The key focus now is to determine how feathers evolved in the first place, and the steps to full complexity of this remarkable structure.
Professor Zhang will present a talk, Early Feathers and their Kin, on Chinese fossil feathers and their implications on the origin of birds, feathers, and flight to the School of Earth Sciences' Palaeobiology and Biodiversity Research Discussion Group on Friday 4 March, 1pm - 2pm, Room G25, Wills Memorial Building, Queen's Road.
For more information on Professor Zhang's visit, please contact Professor Mike Benton.