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The timing and evolution of the annelid body plan – a synthesis of fossils, morhology and molecules

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  • Full or part time
    Dr J Vinther
  • Application Deadline
    Applications accepted all year round
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Annelids are among the most diverse invertebrate groups, which have utilized a uniquely segmented bodyplan in order to explore essentially, all realms of the sea as well as terrestrial and freshwater environments.
Their piecemeal evolution is documented in Palæozoic localities with exceptional preservation. The oldest stem group annelids are from the Early Cambrian (520 ma) (1, 2), but they did not increase in disparity until the Ordovician period (~480 ma).
It seems that modern annelids diversified much later than other invertebrate groups did. What is the likely cause of such disjunct timing?
In order to get a comprehensive picture of the evolution of annelids the fossil record can not suffice. Molecular systematics provide a powerful means to establish and test the reliability of the fossil record (3), provide a temporal framework for groups with a poor fossil record and establish their phylogenetic relationships (4).
This project will seek to flesh out the phylogenetic relationships of modern annelids using molecular systematics and molecular divergence estimation techniques. The student will also get an intimate understanding of extant and fossil annelid morphology from field work and museum collections in order to understand their evolution and the biospheric events that led to their diversity and success.
The successful candidate would need a solid foundation in either Earth sciences and palaeontology interested in increasing her/his repertoire of skills with molecular biology and bioinformatics, or from Biological sciences with an interest in historical biology and geology.
Training: The student will learn to use essential molecular biological techniques and computational bioinformatics as well getting a hands on approach to the study of zoomorphology and fossils. These skills will equip the student for an academic career as well as attaining a breadth of skills that also would attract the industry.

Funding Notes

Applicants should hold an undergraduate degree with first class distinctions or a Masters degree with distinction to be competitive for the faculty studentships.


1. S. Conway Morris, J. S. Peel, The earliest Annelids. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 53, 137 (2008).
2. J. Vinther, D. Eibye-Jacobsen, D. Harper, An Early Cambrian stem polychaete with pygidial cirri. Biology Letters published online, (2011).
3. J. Vinther, E. A. Sperling, D. E. G. Briggs, K. J. Peterson, A molecular palaeobiological hypothesis for the origin of aplacophoran molluscs and their derivation from chiton-like ancestors. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279, 1259 (April 7, 2012, 2012).
4. E. A. Sperling et al., MicroRNAs resolve an apparent conflict between annelid systematics and their fossil record. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 276, 4315 (December 22, 2009, 2009).

How good is research at University of Bristol in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 64.60

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