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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Supervisors: Nicholas Butterfield (Earth Sciences)  

Importance of the area of research:

The Cambrian “explosion” of large animals marks the onset of the modern marine biosphere, but the immediately preceding stages, in the earliest Cambrian and latest Ediacaran, remain poorly resolved.  Part of the problem lies in the very different styles of fossil representation through this critical interval.  Our recent identification of a common, but largely overlooked category of organic-walled fossils -'small carbonaceous fossils' or SCFs (Butterfield & Harvey 2012)-offers a novel and potentially continuous view of accruing biological novelty through the Ediacaran-Cambrian transition.

Project summary:

Small Carbonaceous Fossils (SCFs) include a rich diversity of metazoan, protistan and bacterial remains that are filling in many of the gaps in Cambrian evolution.  A similar search image in terminal Proterozoic strata will yield a broadly continuous SCF record through the critical transition, from the late Ediacaran through the earliest Cambrian.  Newly acquired drillcore and outcrop samples from Ukraine and Moldova will be the initial focus of this study, but the project could be developed in any number of directions depending on initial results and student interest

What the student will do:

Depending on circumstances, the student will spend at least one field season investigating late Ediacaran outcrop and drillcore in Ukraine, Belorussia and/or Lithuania.  SCFs will be recovered from unoxidized mudstone samples using a gentle HF acid extraction technique and reconstructed as biologically meaningful taxa based on the analysis of large assembled populations.  A combination of sedimentology and redox geochemistry will provide a measure of local palaeonenvironments, with larger-scale stratrigraphic patterns yielding macroevolutionary trends across the Ediacaran-Cambrian transition.

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, Harvey THP. 2012. Small carbonaceous fossils (SCFs): a new measure of Paleozoic palaeobiology. Geology 40:71-74.

Harvey THP, Butterfield NJ. 2017. Exceptionally preserved Cambrian loriciferans and the early animal invasion of the meiobenthos. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1:0022

Slater BJ, Harvey THP, Guilbaud R, Butterfield, N. J. 2017. A cryptic record of Burgess Shale-type diversity from the early Cambrian of Baltica. Palaeontology 60:117-140.

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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