The Devonian period (419-359 million years ago) is the critical time in Earth history when land plants evolved from being ankle high simple branched naked twigs to being leafy trees growing in complex forest ecosystems (Stein et al. 2012, Berry & Marshall, 2015). The evolution of large plants during this time had a profound impact on the Earth system, affecting weathering rates, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, terrestrial sediment accumulation and ecosystem dynamics (Morris et al. 2015). However the plants which are responsible for these impacts remain relatively poorly known, especially in the palaeotropics. The fossil flora of Svalbard is important because 1) it is (palaeo) tropical (usually a hotspot of plant diversity and evolution) and 2) includes a sequence of plant fossils which probably date from the late Silurian right through to the early Late Devonian. Several seasons of fieldwork in the Devonian basin of central and northwestern Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, have yielded several hundred specimens of plant fossils, including collections of very poorly known plants, and several probable new species.
Project Aims and Methods
The Svalbard Devonian Flora has previous been systematically described by Høeg (1942) and Schweitzer (1965-8 summarised 1999), the key material having been collected by Norwegian expeditions in 1925-8. Our new and recent collections, including the first to be made from the original localities, will be supplemented by further collecting in central Spitzbergen towards the end of the first year of the PhD. The primary objective of the project is to make systematic descriptions and reconstructions of new plant fossil taxa and make redescriptions of Høeg and Schweitzer’s taxa using new fossils in the light of considerably advanced contemporary understanding of Devonian plants (as e.g. Berry 2005). Unique to this project is the prospect of familiarity with plant fossils that cover most of the evolutionary development of vascular plants before seed plants. The plant fossils will be placed into a new palyno-stratigraphic framework for the Svalbard Devonian based on the work of co-supervisors Marshall and Wellman. Where possible, in situ spores recovered from sporangia will be described using palynological techniques. The record of the Svalbard Devonian flora will then be compared with those established from other localities to assess the importance of the palaeotropics in Devonian plant evolution.
The candidate will require a background in palaeontology with geology, or evolutionary/organismal biology with an appreciation of the nature of the fossil and rock record. The candidate must be willing to spend long hours on meticulous fossil preparation and documentation. For fieldwork in remote Arctic localities, a degree of physical fitness, mobility and good health is required, but a successful project can be accomplished without fieldwork based on existing collections. Skills with drawing might be advantageous for making plant reconstructions.
CASE or Collaborative Partner
Co-supervision at the Natural History Museum will give access to world class facilities and comparative collections, and allow immersion in the research culture and outreach activities of a world class institution.
The student will be trained in all aspects of systematic documentation and analysis of Devonian plant fossils, including macrophotography, Scanning Electron Microscopy, mechanical preparation of plant fossil compressions and permineralisations, and writing systematic descriptions of plant morphology and anatomy as appropriate.
Short visits will be made to Museum collections in London, Stockholm and Oslo. A three week fieldtrip to central Spitsbergen is anticipated, and full training will be given in summer arctic field work planning and execution, including polar bear defence.
UK Research Council eligibility conditions apply
How to apply:
You should apply to the Doctor of Philosophy in Earth and Ocean Sciences with a start date of October 2020, including:
a personal statement
two references (applicants should have a third academic referee, if the two academic referees are within the same department/school)
current academic transcripts.
In the research proposal section of your application, please specify the project title and supervisors of this project and copy the project description in the text box provided. In the funding section, please select ’I will be applying for a scholarship/grant’ and specify that you are applying for advertised funding from NERC GW4+ DTP.
If you wish to apply for more than one project please email [email protected]
The deadline for applications is 16:00 on 6 January 2020.
Shortlisting for interview will be conducted by 31 January 2020.
Shortlisted candidates will then be invited to an institutional interview. Interviews will be held in Cardiff University between 10 February and 21 February 2020.
References / Background reading list
Berry, C.M., 2005, ‘Hyenia’ vogtii Høeg from the Middle Devonian of Spitsbergen – its morphology and systematic position: Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, v. 135, p. 109–116, doi:10.1016/j.revpalbo.2005.03.001.
Berry, C.M. & Marshall, J.E.A. 2015. Lycopsid forests in the early Late Devonian paleoequatorial zone of Svalbard. Geology 43, 1043-1046. https://doi.org/10.1130/G37000.1
Høeg, O.A., 1942, The Downtonian and Devonian flora of Spitsbergen: Norges Svalbard-og Ishavs-Undersøkelser Skrifter, v. 83, p. 1–228. https://brage.bibsys.no/xmlui/handle/11250/173926
Morris, J.L. et al. 2015. Investigating Devonian trees as geo-engineers of past climates: Linking palaeosols to palaeobotany and experimental geobiology. Palaeontology 58, 787–801. https://doi.org/10.1111/pala.12185
Schweitzer, H.-J., 1999: Die Devonfloren Spitzbergens: Palaeontographica Abt. B, v. 252, p. 1–122.
Stein, W.E., Berry, C.M., Hernick, L.V.A. & Mannolini, F. 2012. Surprisingly complex community discovered in the mid-Devonian fossil forest at Gilboa. Nature 483, 78–81 (2012). https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10819