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Current PhD projects in Palaeontology

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29 projects found


Are molecular phylogenies really better than morphological ones? Devising tests against independent palaeontological and biogeographical data sets

Institution: University of Bath

Supervisor(s): Matthew Wills, Alex Jeffries, Araxi Urrutia, Davide Pisani

Contact: Prof 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

Despite their data-rich underpinnings, new molecular trees often contain surprises, and frequently imply relationships that are at odds with established and traditional hypotheses derived from morphological data. One such example is the phylogeny of mammal orders. How are we to view these conflicts? Should we necessarily conclude that the new molecular trees are likely to be the correct ones?

Since phylogeny cannot be known with certainty, there can be no objective test of accuracy. However, it is possible to assess the congruence of competing trees with independent sources of data on evolutionary history. Firstly, where the stratigraphic first occurrence dates are known with reasonable accuracy, the extent of implied ghosts lineages offers an index of the ‘goodness of fit’ to the fossil record. Secondly, the biogeographical or palaeobiogeographical distributions of many groups contain a residual evolutionary signal, and this can also be tested for its fit to competing trees. The project will also identify which clades under which circumstances are most prone to morphological convergence, and therefore most suitably analysed with molecular data.

Weblink: http://www.bris.ac.uk/swdtp/projects_available/2015_projects_available/2015_wcb_bath.html

Project uploaded on 2014-12-21, entry expires on 2015-01-09


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Life on the move through deep time: the origins of optimal foraging strategies in animals

Institution: Natural History Museum, London

Supervisor(s): Prof. Richard J. Twitchett and Prof. David W. Sims

Contact: Richard J. Twitchett (r.twitchett@nhm.ac.uk)

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

Critical to the survival of motile animals is the ability to locate food and other resources efficiently. Although random walks are sufficient if resources are abundant, where food is patchily distributed theory predicts that animals should develop optimal foraging strategies based on a scale-free random search known as a Lévy walk. In a recent ground-breaking study that analysed the fossil trails of extinct organisms, Sims et al. (2014; PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1405966111) showed for the first time that similar Lévy-like foraging strategies were present in echinoids at least as far back as the Eocene. Furthermore, they also demonstrated from computer simulations that Lévy-like movement could have arisen from the very simple rules of behaviour recorded in trace fossils as far back as the Cambrian.

The aims of this project are to test the hypotheses that (1) Lévy-like foraging strategies have very ancient origins; and (2) that collapses in primary productivity associated with past episodes of extinction and climate change may have triggered the evolution of Lévy-like foraging strategies in different animal groups.

Weblink: http://noc.ac.uk/gsnocs/project/life-move-through-deep-time-origins-optimal-foraging-strategies-animals

Project uploaded on 2014-11-30, entry expires on 2015-01-08


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


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

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


Quantifying diversity patterns during the rise of tetrapods

Institution: University of Birmingham

Supervisor(s): Richard Butler, Roger Benson

Contact: Richard Butler (r.butler.1@bham.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding is in place for this project

Tetrapods first invaded the land during the late Devonian, 370 million years ago. Over the next 200 million years, terrestrial tetrapods diversified into a spectacular range of body sizes and morphologies. A number of recent studies have attempted to track changes in Carboniferous–Jurassic tetrapod biodiversity, but there is widespread disagreement about major patterns of biodiversity change. These disagreements stem from ongoing debate on the importance of spatial and temporal sampling biases in distorting observed diversity signals, and how best to correct for such biases. This research project will test the patterns of terrestrial tetrapod diversification during the Carboniferous–Jurassic, and assess their possible drivers using a comprehensive, occurrence-based global dataset of early tetrapod species diversity and distribution.

Weblink: https://sites.google.com/site/archosauromorph/opportunities

Project uploaded on 2014-12-10, entry expires on 2015-01-23


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


Resolving pterosaur dietary ecology using tooth microwear and biomechanics

Institution: University of Leicester

Supervisor(s): David Unwin, Mark Purnell, Richard Butler, Donald Henderson

Contact: David Unwin (dmu1@le.ac.uk)

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

Determination of dietary ecology is fundamental to understanding the structure and evolution of ancient ecosystems, but for many groups, such as pterosaurs, there is little concensus on their dietary ecology. This project will use a novel, multidisciplinary approach to determine pterosaur feeding ecology. Textural analysis of tooth microwear will be used to assess general categories of diet. Physical parameters predicted from these dietary types will be tested against biomechanical analyses applied to teeth, jaws and the entire skull and the hypotheses thereby generated will be further tested against palaeoichnological and taphonomic datasets. This general approach will be validated by applying it to living taxa. The project will focus on a representative set of taxa including basal forms and specialised piscivorous, filter-feeding, insectivorous and durophagous pterosaurs. Dietary data will be integrated with phylogenetic analyses to reconstruct the first detailed evolutionary history of pterosaur feeding modes.

Weblink: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/geology/pgstudy/2015/unwin

Project uploaded on 2014-11-25, entry expires on 2015-01-31


The completeness of the tetrapod fossil record

Institution: University of Birmingham

Supervisor(s): Richard Butler, Philip Mannion, Paul Upchurch

Contact: Richard Butler (r.butler.1@bham.ac.uk)

Funding: Funding is in place for this project

How complete is the fossil record? This question is one of the most fundamental posed by palaeontologists. New approaches to estimating fossil record completeness estimate the proportion of the skeleton of each individual species that is known. Changes in skeletal completeness are then typically plotted against geological time. These approaches open up the possibility of assessing whether apparent peaks and troughs in species richness represent real biodiversity change, or reflect only changes in the quality of fossil material available for palaeontologists to study.

This project will draw together for the first time published and novel completeness metric datasets for numerous groups of tetrapods spanning the entire Phanerozoic and the full diversity of body sizes, ecological strategies, and habitat preferences (including marine taxa). Statistical analysis of these datasets will be used to address a series of key questions relating to fossil record completeness, tetrapod evolution, and fossil and geological sampling.

Weblink: http://www.findaphd.com/search/ProjectDetails.aspx?PJID=59578&LID=135

Project uploaded on 2014-12-03, entry expires on 2015-01-23


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


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

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

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


Uncovering the Evolution of Symmetry during the Assembly of the Echinoderm Body Plan

Institution: University of Bristol

Supervisor(s): Dr Imran Rahman (University of Bristol), Prof Philip Donoghue (University of Bristol) and Dr Tim Ewin (Natural History Museum, London)

Contact: Dr Imran Rahman (imran.rahman@bristol.ac.uk)

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

Symmetry is an integral aspect of organismal biology, which is reflected in the construction of the fundamental animal body plans that emerged over half a billion years ago. Echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins and the like) are particularly noteworthy; they are unique among bilaterians in exhibiting pentaradial symmetry as adults, having departed radically from the bilateral ancestral body plan. Moreover, the phylum possesses an extensive fossil history that includes bilateral, asymmetrical, triradial and pentaradial forms. The aim of this project is to interrogate the rich record of Palaeozoic echinoderms in order to test hypotheses relating to the pattern and process of evolution of symmetry in the phylum. This will be achieved by studying select fossil echinoderms using high-resolution X-ray tomography and state-of-the-art computer modelling, thereby revealing their form and function in unprecedented detail. The results obtained will transform our understanding of the evolution of symmetry in echinoderms in particular, with implications for animal body plan assembly in general.

Weblink: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/gw4plusdtp/media/2015/project_202.pdf

Project uploaded on 2014-11-26, entry expires on 2015-01-15


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

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


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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