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A hidden record of early animal evolution? Exploring the Cambrian diversity of acritarchs and small carbonaceous fossils (CENTA2-SGGE19-HARV2)

Project Description

Microfossils offer a rich record of early animal evolution and the attendant reconfiguring of ecosystems. This project will focus on exceptionally well-preserved acritarchs and small carbonaceous fossils (SCFs) to reach a new understanding of how animals dramatically changed the biosphere around half a billion years ago, in the Cambrian evolutionary ‘explosion’. The project aims to discriminate between animal- and non-animal microfossils, and constrain their biological affinities, modes of life, and distributions in space and time. The results will bring key insights into changes in diversity and ecology through a pivotal interval in Earth history.

Acritarchs are organic-walled microfossils of unknown affinity, extracted using standard palynological laboratory techniques. In contrast, more gentle procedures yield larger, more delicate SCFs that represent a range of organisms, including a diversity of animals. Despite this categorization, the two datasets overlap. Recently, we have begun to explore a combined approach, which promises to shed light on the affinities and significance of both acritarchs and SCFs, enhancing their application to key questions in palaeobiology, stratigraphy, and ancient ecosystems.

The project will focus initially on exceptionally well-preserved acritarchs and SCFs from the Forteau Formation of Newfoundland, Canada (Cambrian Stage 4, c. 510 million years ago). Hundreds of SCFs and thousands of acritarchs have already been prepared onto glass slides for analysis. In light of the SCFs, some palynomorphs are clearly derived from animals including arthropods, priapulid worms, and the slug-like Wiwaxia. Others remain enigmatic, such as the conical acritarchs known as Ceratophyton and Corollasphaeridium, which could represent animals or perhaps protists. At the same time, SCF-processing yields clumps, articulated arrays, and even faecal-pellets full of acritarchs, constraining their biological interpretation.

Therefore, the Forteau material offers an unrivalled opportunity to resolve the affinities and ecologies of otherwise mysterious Cambrian microfossils. Any insights can then be applied more widely to help constrain the largest-scale patterns and processes of the Cambrian ‘explosion’. For example, do animal-derived microfossils extend back into the Ediacaran? Can acritarchs tell us about the structure of the plankton? And how did ecosystems respond to major events in evolution?

Entry Requirements:

UK Bachelor Degree with at least 2:1 in a relevant subject or overseas equivalent.

Available for UK and EU applicants only.

Applicants must meet requirements for both academic qualifications and residential eligibility:

How to Apply:

Please follow refer to the How to Apply section at and use the Geography Apply button to submit your PhD application.

Upload your CENTA Studentship Form in the proposal section of the application form.

In the funding section of the application please indicate you wish to be considered for NERC CENTA Studentship.

Under the proposal section please provide the name of the supervisor and project title/project code you want to apply for.

Funding Notes

This project is one of a number of fully funded studentships available to the best UK and EU candidates available as part of the NERC DTP CENTA consortium.

For more details of the CENTA consortium please see the CENTA website: View Website.

Applicants must meet requirements for both academic qualifications and residential eligibility: View Website

The studentship includes a 3.5 year tuition fee waiver at UK/EU rates

An annual tax free stipend (For 2019/20 this is currently £15,009)

Research Training Support Grant (RTSG) of £8,000.


Butterfield, N.J. and Harvey, T.H.P. (2012) ‘Small carbonaceous fossils (SCFs): A new measure of early Paleozoic paleobiology’, Geology, 40, pp. 71–74.

Harvey, T.H.P. and Pedder, B.E. (2013) ‘Copepod mandible palynomorphs from the Nolichucky Shale (Cambrian, Tennessee): implications for the taphonomy and recovery of small carbonaceous fossils’, PALAIOS, 28, pp. 278–284.

Palacios, T., Jensen, S., Barr, S.M., White, C.E., and Myrow, P.M. (2018) ‘Organic-walled microfossils from the Ediacaran–Cambrian boundary stratotype section, Chapel Island and Random formations, Burin Peninsula, Newfoundland, Canada: Global correlation and significance for the evolution of early complex ecosystems’, Geological Journal, 53, pp. 1728–1742.

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