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A hidden record of early animal evolution? Exploring the Cambrian diversity of acritarchs and small carbonaceous fossils

School of Geography, Geology and the Environment

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Dr T Harvey , Prof M Williams No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
Leicester United Kingdom Archaeology Ecology Other Palaeontology

About the Project

Funding Source: CENTA DTP

Proposed start date: 27th September 2021

Project Highlights:

• Working with new, undescribed assemblages of exceptionally preserved Cambrian microfossils

• Geological fieldwork and sample-collection in Newfoundland, Canada

• Using top-of-the-range microscope facilities and working with an international team of expert supervisors


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?


The first step is to document and identify the diverse acritarchs and SCFs from the Forteau Formation, using advanced light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, measurements and shape analysis. Constraints on biological affinity will be provided by analysis of variability, identification of key characters, comparisons to articulated material, and patterns of distribution in space (reef edge vs. lagoonal vs. open shelf settings) and time (correlating via olenellid trilobites). Fieldwork is recommended for a detailed understanding of the stratigraphy and palaeoenvironment, and for additional sampling, as required. Insights will be tested using other assemblages from Laurentia and beyond, with visits to co-supervisors in Spain, and to museums elsewhere, to view comparative material. Further fieldwork is also encouraged, to prospect for new assemblages. Depending on the interests of the student, the project could be steered towards animals or non-animal acritarchs, palaeobiology or biostratigraphy, and lab-based, field-based, or literature-based/computational approaches.

Training and skills:

You will become proficient in a range of specialist skills in microscopy, imaging, laboratory processing, and field-work, and you will gain a detailed knowledge of various groups of Cambrian fossils. Leicester is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities for microfossil processing and imaging, including a range of scanning electron microscopes, and a palynological microscope with differential interference contrast, oil immersion lenses, and fluorescence capabilities. In the lab, you will be trained in processing, picking and mounting SCFs. In the field, you will be trained in sedimentary logging and sample collection. Furthermore, you will develop valuable transferrable skills in data analysis and problem-solving.

Entry requirements:

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject.

The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable:

Application advice:

To apply please refer to

Funding Notes

This studentship 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:


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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