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B420: The Ediacaran biota in miniature: palaeoecological and palaeobiological insights from sub-centimetre fossils. (Lead Supervisor: Alexander Liu, Earth Sciences)

Supervisors: Alexander Liu (Earth Sciences) and Nick Butterfield (Earth Sciences)

Importance of the area of research:

Fossils of the Ediacaran macrobiota are found globally in strata of ~580-541 million years in age, and offer a remarkable record of the early evolution of complex, macroscopic organisms. The precise phylogenetic positions of many Ediacaran taxa remain uncertain, but determination of Ediacaran biological affinities is critical to our understanding of two key evolutionary events, namely the rise of complex multicellularity, and the origin and early diversification of animals. The oldest assemblages of Ediacara-type macrofossils, from Newfoundland (Canada), are particularly problematic, being dominated by frondose forms that share few morphological similarities with modern taxa. Identifying the phylogenetic positions of such taxa will fill a significant gap in knowledge of the patterns and processes underlying early metazoan evolution. Studies into growth and palaeoecology in Ediacaran assemblages have in recent years provided important insights into the biology of Ediacaran taxa, but are often hampered by a paucity of well-preserved juvenile specimens.

Project summary:

This project will investigate growth and palaeoecology in recently discovered assemblages of small (<30mm length) specimens of Ediacaran macrofossil taxa from Newfoundland, to more accurately characterize inter- and intra-specific interactions, and to test previous hypotheses relating to reproduction and community succession. A primary focus will be to elucidate the role of filamentous connective structures in Ediacaran ecosystems. Small specimens reflect a significant but previously undocumented component of Ediacaran marine palaeoenvironments, and include both known and undescribed taxa. Additional assessment of ontogeny and development within specific understudied Ediacaran taxa will aim to better constrain their biological affinities.

What the student will do:

The student will collect palaeobiological data both from existing collections of casts at the University of Cambridge, and from field sites in Newfoundland, to assess spatial and temporal ecological interactions amongst Ediacaran macrofossil taxa. Measurements of morphological features within populations will inform debates surrounding ontogeny and reproduction. Field sites are located within the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve World Heritage Site, and on the Bonavista Peninsula. Casts will be studied under the binocular microscope and using x-ray tomography (micro-CT scanning) to obtain sub-millimetric morphological data. This research will complement large-scale palaeoecological studies into Ediacaran fossil assemblages currently being undertaken within the Department, which are based on spatial statistical techniques.

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.

References:

Liu, A.G., Matthews, J.J. & McIlroy, D. 2016. The Beothukis/Culmofrons problem and its bearing on Ediacaran macrofossil taxonomy: evidence from an exceptional new fossil locality. ;Palaeontology, vol. 59(1), pp. 45-58.

Liu, A.G., Kenchington, C.G. & Mitchell, E.G. 2015. Remarkable insights into the paleoecology of the Avalonian Ediacaran macrobiota. Gondwana Research, vol. 27(4), pp. 1355-1380.

Liu, A.G., McIlroy, D., Matthews, J.J. & Brasier, M.D. 2012. A new assemblage of juvenile Ediacaran fronds from the Drook Formation, Newfoundland. Journal of the Geological Society, vol. 169(4), pp. 395-403.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project.

Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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