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PhD: Ecology and evolution of early life on land: arthropod diversity and interactions

Project Title

Ecology and evolution of early life on land: arthropod diversity and interactions


University of Exeter

Supervisors and Institutions

Dr. Xiaoya Ma (University of Exeter), Dr. Paul Kenrick (Natural History Museum, London), Dr. Greg Edgecombe FRS (Natural History Museum, London)

Funding Status

Funding is in competition with other projects and students

Project Description

The Rhynie chert is an Early Devonian geological site in Scotland (circa 407 million-years old), which preserves the oldest known land ecosystem, including plants, animals, fungi, algae and bacteria. The quality of fossil preservation in the Rhynie chert is astonishing, encompassing the most intact fossilised remains from a Palaeozoic terrestrial ecosystem, including preservation of cellular and ultrastructural details.

Together, this fossil assemblage provides crucial insights into early life on land. In the past 100 years, research on the Rhynie chert has largely focused on its land plant-based components, but there are still major gaps in our understanding of its fauna and environment. However, in the past few years, the successful application of new methods and analytical techniques (e.g. Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy) have prompted fundamental breakthroughs in fungal research, demonstrating the importance of interactions between fungi and the plant and animal elements of the system.

We will employ the latest imaging and image processing techniques to systematically investigate the fauna of the Rhynie chert in order to gain a fuller picture of the biodiversity and the nature of the interactions between different organisms and their palaeoenvironments.

Project Aims:
• Determine the full biodiversity of the invertebrate fauna in the Rhynie chert
• Reveal detailed anatomical structures of these animals and reconstruct them
• Contribute to our understanding of early land colonisation by invertebrates
• Identify the interactions between invertebrate animals and their associated plants and fungi
• Investigate the palaeoenvironment and palaeoecology of the Rhynie chert

Project Methods:
• Examine the huge thin section collection of Rhynie chert material at the Natural History Museum in London, the Hunterian Museum, the University of Aberdeen and the University of Münster
• Process field collections of Rhynie chert at the Natural History Museum
• Using new imaging and analytical techniques to review the detailed structures of the organisms in the thin sections, such as confocal laser scanning microscopy
• Carrying out 3D reconstruction of these ancient organisms and their community
• Using statistical and other ecological research methods, investigate the palaeoecology of the Rhynie chert fossil bed

The doctoral researcher in this project is encouraged to assist in developing the overall research direction and experimental designs.

The researcher will receive training in palaeontologcial research methods, microscope-based imaging techniques and associated software (e.g., confocal laser scanning microscopy), statistical analysis, preparation of fossil materials and research and outreach work in museums. The student will have the opportunity to visit important museum and university collections in the UK and Germany. All the skills they will learn are highly transferrable and will be useful to them irrespective of their precise career path within evolutionary biology and biological/environmental/palaeobiological sciences more generally.

Candidate Requirements:
This project would suit a researcher with a passion for understanding evolutionary history. An excellent undergraduate degree in a relevant area is essential (e.g. biology, zoology, palaeontology), as is a desire for travel to view collections in the UK and German. An interest and ability to acquire skills in imaging and image analysis. Excellent written and verbal communication.

References / Background reading list:
• Edwards et al. 2017. History and contemporary significance of the Rhynie cherts—our earliest preserved terrestrial ecosystem. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 373: 20160489.
• Strullu-Derrien et al. 2016. A New Chytridiomycete Fungus Intermixed with Crustacean Resting Eggs in a 407-Million-Year-Old Continental Freshwater Environment. PLOS ONE 11: e0167301.
• Dunlop & Garwood. 2017. Terrestrial invertebrates in the Rhynie chert ecosystem. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 373: 20160493.
• Morris JL, et al 2018. The timescale of early land plant evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(10): E2274-E2283. (NE/N002067/1)
• Ma et al. 2012. Complex brain and optic lobes in an early Cambrian arthropod. Nature, 490 (7419): 258-261.

Contact Name

Xiaoya Ma

Contact Email

Link to More Information

Closing Date

Monday, January 7, 2019

Expiry Date

Thursday, January 10, 2019
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