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PhD Opportunities


Current PhD projects in Palaeontology

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19 projects found


Assessing fossils, fossilization and phylogeny to reconstruct the origin and evolution of arthropods

Institution: University of Manchester

Supervisor(s): Robert Sansom, Russell Garwood, Phil Manning, Roy Wogelius

Contact: Robert Sansom (robert.sansom@manchester.ac.uk)

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

Can the fossil record be reliably used to reconstruct the relationships of extinct organisms? Do the losses of morphology that occur during decay and fossilization cause biases in our interpretations of fossils? How is our understanding of evolutionary processes changed when we take fossilization filters and biases into account? This project aims to address these questions by focusing on the origin and early evolution of arthropods - one of the most important evolutionary episodes in the history of life on earth. A combination of phylogenetic simulations, modeling and laboratory experiments investigating anatomical decomposition will be undertaken to assess fossilization biases and their effect on interpretations of arthropod fossils and phylogeny. The data generated from theoretical and empirical studies will serve as a powerful and unique tool with which to re-visit the palaeontological data and the evolutionary inferences drawn from them.

Weblink: http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/people/profile/default.aspx?alias=sansomr&view=projects#1767

Application Deadline: 06 Feb 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-02-06


Biodiversity, adaptive radiation and global cooling – the evolution of sand dollars

Institution: University of Oxford

Supervisor(s): Roger Benson

Contact: Roger Benson (roger.benson@earth.ox.ac.uk)

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

Patterns of morphological evolution, species diversification/extinction, and climate change have generally been estimated from data on living taxa, or observed from fossil data. However, a better approach would combine fossil and living data to fully understand the evolutionary history of a group, and the nature of adaptive radiation in general. Diverse modern clades of invertebrates, such as echinoids (sea urchins) are well suited to these kinds of analyses because they often have rich fossil records.
In this project, a phylogeny of the Cenozoic radiation of sand dollars, including fossil taxa, will be constructed using morphological data. This will be used to analyse patterns of lineage diversification through time, using models that account for varying preservation of rock and facies that drive the availability of fossils to address the following questions:

(1) How does variation in the rock depositional record influence hypotheses of the evolution of biodiversity?

(2) What is the pattern of species diversification during the major evolutionary radiation of sand dollars?

(3) How did Cenozoic global cooling affect pattern of echinoid biodiversity?

Weblink: http://www.earth.ox.ac.uk/people/profiles/academic/rogerb

Application Deadline: 16 Dec 2014

Project uploaded on 2013-12-16, entry expires on 2014-12-16


Co-evolution of advanced plant life and river environments in the Mesozoic

Institution: University of Cambridge

Supervisor(s): Neil Davies

Contact: Neil Davies (nsd27@cam.ac.uk)

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

The sedimentary and geomorphological importance of plants with advanced ecological adaptations in modern rivers is clear. Angiosperms and grasses, aquatic life-habits and C4 carbon fixation are critical aspects of vegetation in modern rivers and yet none appeared on Earth until the Mesozoic. This project will assess how the evolution of these traits affected physical sedimentation and enable us to more fully answer fundamental questions surrounding the co-evolution of life and physical environments, the evolutionary context of present-day river functioning and the stratigraphic distribution of distinct (and often economically important) sedimentary facies.

Weblink: http://essdtp.esc.cam.ac.uk/programme/climate-theme/c110-co-evolution-of-advanced-plant-life

Application Deadline: 09 Jan 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-01-09


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

Application Deadline: 20 Nov 2015

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


Downstream sedimentary consequences of the Palaeozoic evolution of land plants

Institution: University of Cambridge

Supervisor(s): Neil Davies, Nigel Woodcock, Martin Gibling

Contact: Neil Davies (nsd27@cam.ac.uk)

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

In the Lower Palaeozoic, prior to the ‘greening of the continents’, terrestrial sedimentary facies are markedly poor in mud and silt compared to their younger counterparts, leading to a profound question: if mud was being produced on land, where did it end up? Terrigenous marine facies may be suspected to hold the answer, as a repository for many indicators of past sedimentary and biological processes, revealed in part through lithological variation, sedimentary structures and architecture, and ichnological signatures. Extensive semi-quantitative analysis of trends within published literature will be combined with focussed original fieldwork on Avalonian marine successions in order to illuminate previously unrecognised changes in the Palaeozoic record, providing new perspectives on the long term dynamics of shallow seas during a crucial interval of Earth system evolution.

Weblink: http://essdtp.esc.cam.ac.uk/programme/climate-theme/c111-downstream-sedimentary-consequences

Application Deadline: 09 Jan 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-01-09


Evolutionary trends in bodyplan complexity: Testing patterns in vertebrates and arthropods

Institution: University of Bath

Supervisor(s): Prof Matthew Wills (University of Bath), Prof Michael Benton (University of Bristol), Dr Mark Wilkinson (The Natural History Museum), Dr Marcello Ruta (University of Lincoln)

Contact: Matthew Wills (m.a.wills@bath.ac.uk)

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

The student will use a variety of approaches to describe the distribution and specialization of somites across all groups of living and fossil vertebrates. These will include discrete character codings and landmark data for broad-scale analyses, coupled with 3D structured light scans of individual vertebrae for more focused studies. These data will allow us to express complexity both in terms of the serial differentiation and specialization of somites, and by plotting the morphological diversity of vertebrae within a single individual relative to empirical morphospaces encompassing all realized forms. The excellent fossil record of vertebrates means that we will be able to calibrate a supertree of major groups against the appearance of lineages in deep time, and thereby track the parallel and convergent evolution of similar morphologies and similar levels of complexity more broadly. This approach will also highlight constraints upon the evolution of bodyplans, and the manner in which different clades have circumvented these. For example, all mammals (except sloths) have just seven neck vertebrae. Elongation of the neck has been achieved by radically different mechanisms in mammals (e.g., giraffes and indricotheres) compared with birds (e.g. ostriches) and many reptiles (which have much greater developmental flexibility).

Weblink: http://www.bris.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_63.pdf

Application Deadline: 20 Apr 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-04-20


Exceptional preservation of an early Miocene lacustrine ecosystem

Institution: University of Cambridge

Supervisor(s): N. J. Butterfield

Contact: Nick Butterfield (njb1005@cam.ac.uk)

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

Laminated lacustrine sediments of the early Miocene Clarkia beds, northern Idaho, are renowned for their exceptionally preserved fossil leaves, but careful acid processing is also revealing an unprecedented range of aquatic invertebrates, fungi and insects. The quality and abundance of these ‘Small Carbonaceous Fossils’ is sufficient to reconstruct both the microscopic anatomy and ontogenetic development of key taxa. Together with associated palynomorphs, shelly fossils, coprolites and fish, they can also be used to reconstruct trophic interactions and overall community ecology. The project will focus on palaeobiological analysis of SCFs throughout the Clarkia succession. Full reconstructions of cladoceran crustaceans, chaoborid and chironomid (midge) larvae, ephemopteran (mayfly) larvae and oribatid mites will provide a unique view of microevolutionary change over the past 15 million years, while their distribution within the section can be used to track local ecological and environmental change. The exceptional preservation of these fossils also warrants detailed taphonomic analysis.

Weblink: http://essdtp.esc.cam.ac.uk/programme/biology-theme

Application Deadline: 20 Jan 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-01-20


Experimental decay and fossilization of soft tissues

Institution: University of Manchester

Supervisor(s): Robert Sansom, Jon Lloyd, Bart Van Dongen

Contact: Robert Sansom (robert.sansom@manchester.ac.uk)

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

The exceptionally preserved fossil record of soft tissues sheds unique and powerful light on evolutionary events as diverse as the Cambrian explosion of animal diversity and the colour of dinosaur feathers. Soft tissues are, however, distorted and transformed during decay and fossilization. To make sense of these changes and the data that the fossils provide, it is necessary to experimentally investigate decay in laboratory settings. The resulting patterns and processes can completely transform our understanding of fossils and the inferences drawn from them (Sansom et al 2010, Raff et al 2008). In many senses however, the links between experimental decay data and empirical fossil data remains unclear. Are the chemical, biological and physical parameters of experiments realistic given geological parameters? Can results be generalized given variability in sediments and microbial ecology? How do these considerations affect interpretations of the fossil data? This project aims to test the validity of experimental taphonomy by investigating processes of decay, their applicability to the fossil record and thus the evolutionary inferences drawn.

Weblink: http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/people/profile/default.aspx?alias=sansomr&view=projects#1860

Application Deadline: 06 Feb 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-02-06


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

Application Deadline: 20 Nov 2015

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


Integrating morphology, fossils and molecules to evaluate major evolutionary events

Institution: University of Manchester

Supervisor(s): Robert Sansom, Chris Klingeberg, David Robertson

Contact: Robert Sansom (robert.sansom@manchester.ac.uk)

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

Recent advances have provided a wealth of molecular data with which to build phylogenies and study evolutionary processes. Morphology, however, remains fundamental for reconstructing how organisms have changed and evolved through time. Indeed, it is usually the only kind of data yielded by fossils. However, a large gap exists between genomic and phenomic data limiting our ability to use either to evaluate evolutionary hypotheses. For example, which aspects of morphology are in accordance with molecular data and can be used to reliably reconstruct major evolutionary events? Do genetic innovations such as gene and genome duplication events match morphological innovation, integration or radiation? This project aims to address these outstanding questions by collating and integrating genetic, morphological, and morphometric datasets from across the tree of life. The combined datasets will not only provide a tool kit with which to better reconstruct morphological phylogenies but also to better evaluate the nature and tempo of evolutionary processes.

Weblink: http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/people/profile/default.aspx?alias=sansomr&view=projects#1835

Application Deadline: 26 Nov 2014

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2014-11-26


Investigating preservation bias and taphonomy at deep-sea methane seeps

Institution: University of Leeds

Supervisor(s): Dr Crispin Little (Leeds), Dr Charlie Paull (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institution)

Contact: Crispin Little (earctl@leeds.ac.uk)

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

See Leeds DTP website for details.

Weblink: http://www.nercdtp.leeds.ac.uk/projects/index.php?id=204

Application Deadline: 02 Feb 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-02-02


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

Application Deadline: 20 Nov 2015

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

Application Deadline: 20 Nov 2015

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


Pyritization Of Shelly Fossils

Institution: University of Cambridge

Supervisor(s): N. J. Butterfield

Contact: Nick Butterfield (njb1005@cam.ac.uk)

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

Diagenetic replacement of shelly fossils with pyrite is a widespread phenomenon in the geological record, but the processes by which it occurs are poorly understood. Unlike the replacement of non-mineralized anatomy, pyritization of hard-tissue requires a precise correspondence between sulphide precipitation and dissolution of the original carbonate/phosphate/silica phases. Palaeontological data reveal that some biominerals and microstructures are conspicuously more susceptible to pyritization than others, though the fidelity and degree of replacement is sensitive to local diagenetic conditions. The aim of this study is to reconstruct the taphonomic pathways responsible for such fossils, and to consider their palaeobiological implications.

Weblink: http://essdtp.esc.cam.ac.uk/programme/biology-theme

Application Deadline: 20 Jan 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-01-20


The early evolution of marine turtles based on exceptional British fossils

Institution: University of Oxford

Supervisor(s): Roger Benson

Contact: Roger Benson (roger.benson@earth.ox.ac.uk)

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

Sea turtles first appeared in the Early Cretaceous (~110 million years ago), at a time when marine reptiles were abundant in Earth’s oceans. Since then, substantial physical changes have influenced the biosphere, encompassing the extinction of other marine reptile groups with Mesozoic origins. The antiquity of turtles, and their status as a secondarily aquatic tetrapod lineage, suggests that understanding their diversity and evolution should yield insight into adaptation to marine life in tetrapods. Their survival in extant faunas provides soft tissue and other data not available for the majority of ancient marine reptile groups.
The project focuses on understanding the anatomy and diversity of marine turtles from two exceptional British fossil faunas – the Eocene London Clay and the Early Cretaceous Cambridge Greensand. The student will acquire CT scan data of fossil specimens, especially cranial material, and produce digital renderings of the anatomy, especially that relevant to taxonomy and sensory systems and functional anatomy. The data will be used to analyse chelonioid phylogeny and evolution, including data from both extant and extinct species.

Weblink: http://www.earth.ox.ac.uk/people/profiles/academic/rogerb

Application Deadline: 16 Dec 2014

Project uploaded on 2013-12-16, entry expires on 2014-12-16


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

Application Deadline: 20 Nov 2015

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


The origin and early evolution of mammals: study of an exceptional skeleton from the Middle Jurassic of Skye, Scotland

Institution: University of Edinburgh

Supervisor(s): Stephen Brusatte, Nicholas Fraser, Stig Walsh, Zhe-Xi Luo

Contact: Stephen Brusatte (Stephen.Brusatte@ed.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding is in place for this project

The Middle Jurassic fossil record of Britain is critical for understanding the formative stages of mammal evolution. One of the best specimens is a skeleton of a rat-sized docodont (a basal mammaliaform: one of the closest relatives of true mammals) from the Kilmaluag Formation of Skye. This specimen is only the third fossil worldwide of a docodont that includes a large portion of the postcranium, and of these, is the best preserved. It promises to reveal important insights into the feeding habits, locomotor abilities, and habitats of early mammals and close relatives, but frustratingly, it has gone undescribed for over 30 years. This project will comprise a detailed study of the British Middle Jurassic mammaliaform fossil record, based on a specimen-level analysis of all fossils from the Scottish and English sites that are currently known, with a particular focus on providing the first detailed description of the Skye docodont. The goals of the project are to understand the diversity of British Middle Jurassic mammaliaforms and use these specimens to better understand the diets, locomotion, preferred environments, and evolutionary history of the oldest mammals.

Weblink: http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/geosciences/postgraduate/phd/programmes-supervisors/physical-sciences/e3-phd-projects

Application Deadline: 20 Aug 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-08-20


Tracking the aftermath of the Cambrian Explosion with Small Carbonaceous Fossils

Institution: University of Cambridge

Supervisor(s): N. J. Butterfield

Contact: Nick Butterfield (njb1005@cam.ac.uk)

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

The Cambrian “explosion” of large animals initiated key aspects of the modern marine biosphere, but the system remained conspicuously archaic until the mid-Ordovician. Although relatively well documented in terms of shelly fossils, the record of non-biomineralizing diversity through this interval is limited to rare, exceptionally preserved biotas, typically associated with unusual or extreme environments. Recent identification of a common, but largely overlooked category of organic-walled fossils – those too small to be seen on bedding surfaces, but too large or delicate to be recovered by conventional palynological processing – offers a novel means of tracking real evolutionary patterns through the early Palaeozoic (Butterfield & Harvey 2012). This project will focus on diverse middle-late Cambrian SCF assemblages from the subsurface of North Dakota and correlative outcrop in Montana and Wyoming.

Weblink: http://essdtp.esc.cam.ac.uk/programme/biology-theme

Application Deadline: 20 Jan 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-01-20


Understanding the theatre of terrestrialization: Ordovician-Silurian sedimentary landscapes and continental ecosystems

Institution: University of Cambridge

Supervisor(s): Neil Davies, Ken McNamara

Contact: Neil Davies (nsd27@cam.ac.uk)

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

The colonization of non-marine environments by complex organisms such as land plants, fungi and arthropods was unquestionably one of the most significant events in the history of planet Earth. The copious sedimentary record of Late Silurian and Devonian non-marine facies demonstrates that complex ecosystems and biotic-abiotic interactions were well-established across the Earth by at least 425 Ma ago. However, a relative global paucity of non-marine strata of Ordovician and Early-Mid Silurian age means that our current understanding of the interval separating the comparatively barren Precambrian-Cambrian and the rich palaeoenvironments of the Siluro-Devonian is acutely limited. Furthermore, as the few non-marine successions of this age remain understudied, many long-standing uncertainties persist regarding continental ecosystems and sedimentary environments during Late Ordovician and Early Silurian: the critical interval during which the terrestrialization process exploded.

Weblink: http://essdtp.esc.cam.ac.uk/programme/biology-theme/b116-understanding-the-theatre-of-terrestrialization

Application Deadline: 09 Jan 2015

Project uploaded on 2014-11-20, entry expires on 2015-01-09


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