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B314: Pre-Cryogenian palaeobiology in arctic Canada (Lead Supervisor: Nick Butterfield, Earth Sciences)

Supervisor: Nick Butterfield (Earth Sciences)

Importance of the area of research:

The middle Neoproterozoic Cyrogenian Period hosted the Earth’s most intense glaciations, and witnessed the demise of a conspicuously non-uniformitarian biosphere dominated by prokaryotes and microbial eukaryotes.  Few of these pre-Cryogenian (Tonian) fossils have been subject to comprehensive study, and little is known about the interplay of biological and planetary evolution as their era drew to a close.  Arctic Canada hosts a wealth of fossiliferous deposits of appropriate age, offering a unique opportunity to reconstruct the biology of individual taxa, and to track macroevolutionary patterns in the context of an unfamiliar and soon-to-be perturbed Earth system.         

Project summary:

Accurate reconstruction of the pre-Cryogenian biosphere requires comprehensive understanding of its fossil record.  This project will focus on a number of exceptionally well preserved fossil assemblages in NW Canada.  Biologically realistic taxa will be resolved by recognizing natural variation within assembled populations, and phylogenetic affiliations determined via microstructural and geochemical analysis.  In addition to its clarification of local palaeontological issues, these new data will be set in the broader context of middle-late Neoproterozoic Earth history, including unprecedented shifts in global climate, marine oxygenation, and eukaryotic evolution.         

What the student will do:

The student will be involved in at least one extended field season in the Mackenzie Mountains and western Yukon, NW Canada.  Returned field samples will be studied in petrographic thin section and/or acid-processed to release individual microfossils.  Individual fossils will be analysed using a combination of high-resolution imaging and geochemical techniques.  Intellectually, the research will involve substantial engagement with protist biology, macroecological theory, geobiology and general Earth history.     

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Butterfield NJ. 2015. Early evolution of the Eukaryota. Palaeontology 58:5–17.

Butterfield NJ. 2015. The Neoproterozoic. Current Biology 25:R859–R863.

Cohen PA, Schopf JW, Butterfield NJ, Kudryavtsev AB, Macdonald FA. 2011. Phosphate biomineralization in mid-Neoproterozoic protists. Geology 39:539–542.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project

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