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QUADRAT DTP: Co-evolution of Earth and Life: are land plants good for coral reefs?

Project Description

For the first four billion years of its history, the Earth was a fundamentally different planet to that which we know today: the only green covering on land (if any) was provided by mats of microbes. This changed dramatically in the early Palaeozoic, driven by the origin and subsequent evolution of land plants with their roots and symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. These newly evolved organisms were responsible for enhanced carbonate weathering (Brasier, 2011); establishment of abundant meandering river systems, and for an increase in the amount of mud produced and stored on land (Davies and McMahon, 2018).

But if early Palaeozoic land plants were producing, trapping and binding voluminous amounts of mud on land then this raises questions about the effects that plant evolution may have had on coastal marine systems. First we ask whether there is geological evidence that the amount of mud transported into shallow marine environments changed from the Ordovician onwards? Second, if there have indeed been significant changes in the amount of mud in coastal waters through time, then has this had any effects on the types of organisms (e.g. photoautotrophs vs heterotrophs) inhabiting shallow marine environments in proximity to coasts and rivers?

These questions are geologically interesting but also directly relevant to the modern world because many endangered shallow marine species including reef-building hermatypic corals and bivalve molluscs are thought to be threatened by inputs of mud, silt and anthropogenic waste to their coastal habitats (Gattuso et al., 2014).

In this project the student will develop and test a hypothesis that from the Ordovician onwards early land plants dramatically reduced the export of mud to shallow marine environments. The student will search for any trends in volumes of terrigenous mud vs sand and/or limestone that may be deduced from examination of Earth’s sedimentary rock record. They will similarly explore the rock record for changes in types and lifestyles of organisms that might have been related to variations in mud exported to shallow marine environments through the Phanerozoic.

The student will use a proven combination of field and laboratory studies to explore the ancient rock record, beginning with construction of a database from a literature search, and then using this to select appropriate field sites for further sedimentological, petrographic (advanced microscopy) and geochemical investigations. Trends identified from this search will be verified using appropriate statistical and computer modelling techniques.


Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Master’s level.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Geosciences
• State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Name of Proposed Supervisor’ on application
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• Select the https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pgap/login.php to apply now

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit View Website for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.


Brasier, A. T. "Searching for travertines, calcretes and speleothems in deep time: Processes, appearances, predictions and the impact of plants." Earth-Science Reviews 104.4 (2011): 213-239.

McMahon, William J., and Neil S. Davies. "Evolution of alluvial mudrock forced by early land plants." Science 359.6379 (2018): 1022-1024.

Gattuso, J. P. et al., "Cross-chapter box on coral reefs." Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, 2014. 97-100.

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