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PhD Opportunities


Current PhD projects in Palaeontology

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13 projects found


Competition over geological time: a case study of competitive interactions and trait evolution in bryozoans from the Cretaceous Chalk

Institution: Natural History Museum

Supervisor(s): Paul Taylor, Beth Okamura, Mike Benton

Contact: Paul Taylor (p.taylor@nhm.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

Direct evidence for competition is seldom available in the fossil record. However, competitive interactions for substrate space between encrusting organisms such as bryozoans on shells can be 'frozen' in time as skeletal overgrowths. These have the potential to provide information on the long-term dynamics of competition, and to address issues concerned with the stability of competitive dominance, the evolution of adaptations for winning space (trait evolution), and the consequences of success on taxon longevity. Trait evolution in neontological
research is constrained by the requirement to infer ancestral character states along with modes and rates of trait
evolution. This constraint is avoided if the evolution of traits can be examined over an extended period in the
fossil record. One of the best candidates for a study of
competition over a longer duration is the Late Cretaceous Chalk of northern Europe, representing almost 35
million years of deposition in a relatively stable setting.

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_28.pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-29, entry expires on 2015-11-29


Decay and mineralization in exceptional fossil preservation

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Dr John Cunningham and Prof Philip Donoghue

Contact: Dr John Cunningham and Prof Philip Donoghue (john.cunningham@bristol.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

The fossils that provide the most information about important events in the evolution of life are invariably the remains of soft-bodied organisms. One of the major problems with interpreting soft-bodied fossils is that they have invariably undergone decay before they are fossilized. It is therefore vital that palaeobiologists take decay processes into consideration when interpreting such fossil remains. Decay experiments have made important inroads by helping to show what can feasibly be preserved and by identifying biases. On-going experiments are providing important information for interpreting the fossil record. However, there are limits to this approach. The fact that these features survive decay experiments does not necessarily mean that they will be preserved in the fossil record. Features that are recalcitrant in decay experiments may still be rare or absent from the fossil record and more rapidly decaying structures can be preserved in their absence. It is therefore critical to understand the relationship between resistance to decay and fossilization potential.

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_32.pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-11-20


Decay and mineralization in exceptional fossil preservation

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Professor Phil Donoghue and Dr John Cunningham

Contact: Phil Donoghue (phil.donoghue@bristol.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

One of the major problems with interpreting soft-bodied fossils is that they have invariably undergone decay before they are fossilized. Decay experiments help to show what can feasibly be preserved and by identifying biases. However, there are limits to this approach.The fact that these features survive decay experiments does not necessarily mean that they will be preserved in the fossil record. Features that are recalcitrant in decay experiments may still be rare or absent from the fossil record and more rapidly decaying structures can be preserved in their absence. It is therefore critical to understand the relationship between resistance to decay and fossilization potential.
This project aims to elucidate this relationship in three common preservational modes: phosphatization,silicification and carbonization. This will include establishing the roles of heat and pressure in these processes,which are currently very poorly understood. These experiments will be based on three model systems: the brine shrimp Artemia, the lancelet Branchiostoma and embryos of the ascidian Ciona, key to understanding the origin of metazoans.

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/projects/

Project uploaded on 2014-12-13, entry expires on 2015-10-13


Early Palaeozoic radiolarian evolution

Institution: The University of Queensland, Australia

Supervisor(s): Prof Jonathan Aitchison (and others)

Contact: Prof Jonathan Aitchison (jona@uq.edu.au)

Funding: Funding is in place for this project

PhD and post doc opportunities in project that will apply a new transformative technology; X-ray micro computed tomography (3D micro-CT) to the study of Early Palaeozoic (530-300 million year old) radiolarian microfossils. This will for the first time allow non-destructive examination to elucidate the internal skeletal architecture of these fossils that is critical to understanding their evolution. Computer reconstruction of 3D images will reveal details upon which an understanding of early phylogenetic relationships within this phylum can be developed. This in turn will allow realisation of the full biostratigraphic potential of this important long-ranging group of marine protozoans that commonly occur in great abundance in deep marine sedimentary rocks.

Project uploaded on 2015-04-15, entry expires on 2015-10-14


Evolution of the feeding apparatus in the basal iguanodontian-hadrosaurid dinosaur transition

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Michael Benton, Albert Prieto-Márquez

Contact: Albert Prieto-Márquez (ap14844@bristol.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

Some of the most successful dinosaurs were the hadrosaurs, which diversified as dozens of species in the Late Cretaceous, This project aims at elucidating how hadrosaurids acquired their unique suite of feeding-related attributes and why they became dominant herbivores. Recent work shows that hadrosaurids had an unusual six-tissue dental microstructure and that most dental tissues evolved sequentially in the outgroup taxa to hadrosaurids. In this project, the student will work first to characterize the morphological and functional feeding-related traits of the 70 known iguanodontian dinosaurs. These characters include anatomical features, simple mechanical calculations, and statistical microwear analysis of teeth. These will be mapped on a new phylogeny of iguanodontian taxa leading to Hadrosauridae, compiled based on previous cladistic analyses, but updated and corrected by study of original specimens. Functional characters will then be integrated over the new phylogeny to determine when and where in the phylogeny each of the array of feeding-related adaptations in hadrosaurs was achieved.

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_59.pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-30, entry expires on 2015-11-30


Fossils versus molecular clocks: which performs best in establishing a timescale for recent and ancient episodes in our evolutionary history?

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Dr Davide Pisani (University of Bristol), Prof Philip Donoghue (University of Bristol), Dr Jakob Vinther (University of Bristol), Dr Nick Longrich (University of Bath)

Contact: Dr Davide Pisani (davide.pisani@bristol.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

Establishing a reliable and precise evolutionary timescale (e.g. the origins of animals and humans) is an essential prerequisite to understand the processes underpinning biological evolution. Recently, the coupling of genomic and fossil information (through the use of molecular clocks) has improved our ability to reconstruct an accurate timescale of for the evolution of life. However, the temporal limits of current molecular clock methods are unclear, and while there is evidence that they work well when dealing with relatively recent divergence events it is not that clear how accurate they are in dating really ancient divergences, such as that of animals, eukaryotes, and of Life itself. In such instances, it might be possible that the fossil constraints on the timing of evolutionary events are much more influential that are the genomic data

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_67.pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-11-20


Models of morphological evolution accross basal crown amniote clades: a combined comparative phylogenetic and morphometric framework

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Michael Benton (University of Bristol), Marcello Ruta (University of Lincoln)

Contact: Marcello Ruta (mruta@lincoln.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

One of the key diversifications in vertebrate evolution was the clade Amniota. The aim is to explore how the radiation unfolded, across Amniota as a whole, and within the individual subclades. The project addresses broader issues in macroevolution, namely the role of diversifications, and whether such events happen typically in a gradual way or explosively, and whether diversity and disparity (= morphological diversity) are coupled or decoupled. Could it be that new clades expand first by exploring the limits of morphospace, and then diversity catches up later? The study seeks to determine whether common patterns of shape changes emerge in the analysis of skull features across groups, whether directionality is a dominant component of trait change, and whether early crown amniote evolution was
characterized by early burst of evolution or later major shifts in evolutionary rates. The student will study original fossil material in museums in Europe and North America,. Comparisons will be made between existing discrete cladistic character data sets, and the outputs of landmark-based continuous, and discrete shape-based characters, to explore disparity in numerous ways.

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_118.pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-30, entry expires on 2015-11-30


Morphogenesis and development in the Ediacaran macrobiota

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Dr Alex Liu and Prof Philip Donoghue

Contact: Dr Alex Liu (alex.liu@bristol.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

This project focusses on the study of abundant new exceptionally preserved material from Newfoundland, Canada, to determine, via largely morphometric techniques, the patterns of growth in a selection of key Ediacaran taxa. Newfoundland possesses some of the oldest Ediacaran macrofossils yet described, revealing the early stages in the evolution of megascopic, complex multicellular organisms. The Newfoundland fossil assemblages are dominated by frond-shaped organisms assigned to the rangeomorphs (Narbonne 2004) or arboreomorphs (see Laflamme et al., 2013 for discussion of higher order taxonomy within the Ediacaran biota), but in recent years a host of additional body plans have been documented (e.g. Hofmann et al., 2008; Liu et al., 2014). This project will largely focus on the frondose components of the biota.

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_121.pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-11-20


New ways of looking at Earth

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Prof Philip Donoghue (University of Bristol), Dr David Wacey (University of Bristol), Prof Martin Saunders (University of Western Australia, Perth)

Contact: Dr David Wacey (david.wacey@uwa.edu.au)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

Determining what is and what is not life in Earth's oldest rocks, and identifying what type of life was present in specific environments is vital in order to understand the origin of life on Earth, the role biology played in shaping early Earth environments, and to evaluate potential extra-terrestrial life. These questions can only readily be addressed using fossil data, but these data are at present often the subject of controversy [1-2] since there are few reliable criteria on which to interpret them. The primary aim of this project is to develop new protocols and more robust criteria for differentiating ancient cellular life from non-biological cell-like artefacts and then to apply this knowledge to determine the biogenicity of controversial cell-like objects from early Archean (c. 3.5-3.0 billion-year-old) rocks.

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_124.pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-11-20


Recovery from the end-Triassic mass extinction and the role of temperature and anoxia in European shelf seas

Institution: University of Leeds

Supervisor(s): Paul Wignall, Tracy Aze and Rob Newton

Contact: Paul Wignall (p.wignall@see.leeds.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

The end-Triassic mass extinction was one of the five biggest crises in the history of life. The culprit is generally regarded to have been a huge phase of volcanism. This project will look at what happened afterwards.
Amongst the remarkable aspects of the recovery is a consistent size increase in many groups over the next few million years. The cause of these trends is not known. High stress conditions, such as oxygen-poor waters, can cause both stunting (slow growth) and high juvenile mortality. However, smaller body sizes are also associated with high temperatures (Bergman’s Rule) and so the trend could equally record climatic cooling. Proxies are available to determine past temperature and oxygenation trends and thus test these alternatives but they have yet to be used in the assessment of Jurassic recovery.
This project will therefore look at the role of temperature and marine oxygenation in controlling the recovery from mass extinction. It will use a combined palaeoecological and geochemical approach. The student will work under the supervision of an expert multidisciplinary team of palaeontologists and geochemists.

Weblink: http://www.nercdtp.leeds.ac.uk/projects/index.php?id=190

Project uploaded on 2014-12-03, entry expires on 2015-12-03


The evolution and function of the avian skull

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Professor Emily Rayfield and Dr Joanne Cooper (NHM)

Contact: Emily Rayfield (e.rayfield@bristol.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

There is still much to be deciphered about the evolution of the avian skull. The aim of this PhD project is to quantify the morphological and functional evolution of bird skulls to determine how size, phylogeny and feeding ecology relate to cranial evolution across avian clades. Sampling will involve collecting CT, laser scanning and microscribe data at the Natural History Museum London from a wide array of clades, including owls, clades with highly variable bills such as woodpeckers, toucans and hornbills, and clades who vary little in size, such as finches, to name but a few. To evaluate the extent to which morphology is underpinned by adaptation to feeding ecology, behaviour, morphological integration (e.g. allometric-size), and/or phylogenetic constraints, the project will utilize 3D shape analytical tools (Geometric Morphometrics, see Klingenberg 2010)
and multivariate statistics, including phylogenetic data and phylogenetic comparative methods. Finite element
modelling (Rayfield 2007) will be used to ascertain how form relates to function of the bird skull in different lineages.

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/projects/

Project uploaded on 2014-12-13, entry expires on 2015-12-13


The evolutionary origin of Ecdysozoa

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Prof Philip Donoghue (University of Bristol), Prof Diying Huang (Nanjing Institute of Geology & Palaeontology), Dr Davide Pisani (University of Bristol), Dr Jakob Vinther (University of Bristol), Dr Greg Edgecombe (Natural History Museum)

Contact: Prof Philip Donoghue (phil.donoghue@bristol.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

Arthropods are united with roundworms, penis worms, mud dragons and loriciferans, into the superphylum Ecdysozoa, which includes the bulk of animal biodiversity. While the origin of arthropods has been the subject of intense investigation, by both palaeontologists, comparative anatomists, molecular phylogeneticists, and genome biologists alike, the origin of Ecdysozoa has received very little attention. This is surprising since resolving the nature of the ancestral Ecdysozoan is key to resolving debate over so many of the key issues in animal evolutionary history, including constraining interpretation on the primitive nature of arthropods and the Urbilaterian the ancestor of bilaterally symmetrical (i.e. almost all) animals. Were these organisms segmented? Did they possess appendages? Were they small and cryptic, or large bodied? Did they possess a cuticularised exoskeleton, or a centralized nervous system? How did they locomote? Are these anatomical interpretations compatible with the Cambrian Explosion hypothesis of animal origins, or with the deep Precambrian diversification predicted by molecular clock analyses?

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_174.pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-11-20


Virtual habitats, fossil preservation and estimates of dinosaur biodiversity in the Cretaceous of North America

Institution: Imperial College London

Supervisor(s): Peter Allison, Philip Mannion, Paul Markwick and Dan Lunt

Contact: Peter Allison (p.a.allison@imperial.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding not guaranteed for this project, but is available in competition with other projects and students

The archive of fossils and the sedimentary rocks that enclose them preserve an extensive record of climate change and associated fluctuations of biodiversity, but it has long been recognised that this record is biased. This project will use detailed, hi-resolution topographic and climatic maps, as well as fieldwork, to produce a series of “virtual” habitat maps for North America during the lead-up to the K/Pg mass extinction. These data will then be used to define those environments where fossils were most likely to be preserved. Comparisons with databases of fossil occurrences and sedimentary outcrop will allow the student to statistically evaluate whether the available data coverage is adequate to capture progressively finer grained patterns in the spatiotemporal variability in biodiversity (e.g. total and beta diversity, latitudinal gradients, and records of particular habitats) of tetrapods.

Weblink: https://workspace.imperial.ac.uk/earthscienceandengineering/Public/PhDProjects/2014-15/Virtual%20habitats(PAA).pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-27, entry expires on 2015-11-27


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