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’Wait a minute! How did it...?’ Unravelling the causes and consequences of the evolution of larval development in invertebrates (Distance Learning Project)

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr J Morimoto, Dr Kara Layton, Dr M Wenzel  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Aberdeen United Kingdom Bioinformatics Climate Science Ecology Endocrinology Environmental Biology Marine Biology Molecular Biology Food Sciences Zoology

About the Project

Invertebrates that possess modular development – composed of a larval and an adult stage that are different morpho-ecologically – appear to have been the most successful amongst all invertebrates in conquering marine and terrestrial habitats. In fact, insects are the most diverse living creatures ever to appear on this planet (and perhaps, in the entire Universe!). This suggests that the evolution of larval stages during development provides an important advantage to groups where this trait evolves. Imagine, for instance, beetles, which are orders of magnitude more diverse in terms of number of species than any other group. Or perhaps corals, which form important habitats that support diverse and healthy marine life throughout the planet. Or fruit flies, which the larvae cause billions of dollars in economic damage to countries worldwide as a result of loss in trade markets. Thus, the evolution of larval development can perhaps be the most significant eco-evolutionary trait to evolve in life on Earth, with implications to biodiversity and conservation but also to societies’ economic systems. It is not surprising that invertebrate larvae contribute, even if unknowingly to us, to many UN Sustainable Development Goals (e.g. #2 Zero Hunger, #13 Climate Change, #14 Life below Water, #15 Life on Land). Thus, better understanding the evolution of larval stage in invertebrates has broad implications to biodiversity and sustainability.

This project will use a combination of genomics, phylogenetic inference, and statistical models to better understand the causes and consequences of the evolution of larval development in marine and terrestrial invertebrates. The student will gather and curate data available in databases (e.g., NCBI) and publications to assemble a ‘tree of larval development’, for both marine and terrestrial groups. Mining the data, the candidate will then extract key insights on the potential ways through which larval development evolves, as well as how this allowed for adaptive radiation of marine and terrestrial species in parallel. The candidate will use bioinformatic tools and statistical modelling to extract similarities and differences in genetic and life-history characteristics (e.g., lifespan, reproduction) between species, creating a phylogenetically accurate description of the evolution of larval development across taxa.

This project is primarily designed to be desk-based, where the student will make use of the unprecedented number of datasets available in the public domain, synthesise existing knowledge, create new solutions, and if possible, use modelling to revolutionise our understanding of larval development. The project will be conducted primarily as Distance Learning, allowing the student to undertake the project away from the University of Aberdeen. Students will be in regular contact with their supervisory team by Virtual Conference and encouraged to visit Aberdeen if feasible. The student will be supported by regular meetings with the supervisors and through social events with other graduate students at SBS (e.g. journal club). Within the group, the student will have the opportunity to develop quantitative skills through online/MOOC courses in platforms (e.g., DataCamp), genetic skills through online courses (e.g., Physalia) and writing skills for academic audiences and general public. The student is expected to engage in outreach projects throughout the PhD.

The successful applicant will have a high level of self-discipline to work long-periods of time at home, showing strong commitment to the project and understanding the broad impacts of the project to the wider community. Willingness to learn new skills and make an impact in local communities are essential. Quantitative skills are not mandatory, although the applicant should be passionate about the opportunity of working with data science. Part-time PhD is possible as long as the candidate has a clear understanding of the requirements and workload necessary for completing a successful PhD.

Funding Notes

This PhD project is only open to sponsored students and those who have their own funding. Supervisors will not be able to respond to requests to source funding.

To submit an application please visit
-Apply for 'PhD in Biological Science- Distance Learning'
-State the name of the lead supervisor on your application
-State the name of the project

Please note that we will not proceed with applications that have not stated their intended funding source. Applicants will be expected to have suitable computing materials to enable them to work from home at a distance to undertake this project.


Strathmann, R.R. and Eernisse, D.J., 1994. What molecular phylogenies tell us about the evolution of larval forms. American Zoologist, 34(4), pp.502-512.

Havenhand, J.N., 1993. Egg to juvenile period, generation time, and the evolution of larval type in marine invertebrates. Marine ecology progress series. Oldendorf, 97(3), pp.247-260.

Emlet, R.B., 1991. Functional constraints on the evolution of larval forms of marine invertebrates: experimental and comparative evidence. American Zoologist, 31(4), pp.707-725.

Wang, J., Zhang, L., Lian, S., Qin, Z., Zhu, X., Dai, X., Huang, Z., Ke, C., Zhou, Z., Wei, J. and Liu, P., 2020. Evolutionary transcriptomics of metazoan biphasic life cycle supports a single intercalation origin of metazoan larvae. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4(5), pp.725-736.

Haug, J.T., 2020. Why the term “larva” is ambiguous, or what makes a larva?. Acta Zoologica, 101(2), pp.167-188.

Khalturin, K., 2020. The origin of metazoan larvae. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 4(5), pp.674-675.