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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Jason Head, Zoology

Brief summary: 
With over 10,000 extant species, Squamata (“lizards”, including snakes) represents one of the great vertebrate radiations. The clade is represented by a dense fossil record concomitant with histories of diversification and dispersal through the last 23 million years, and thus represents a key opportunity to elucidate the relative roles of environment (Grinnellian niches) and biotic interactions (Eltonian niches) in driving hyperdiverse clade diversification through time.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
Understanding the origins and drivers of biotic diversification is crucial for forecasting future responses to environmental change and for developing successful conservation strategies. The fossil record provides unique data on histories of diversification which can be combined with modern records to infer the relative contributions of biotic and abiotic components of environment to the generation of taxonomic and functional richness.
Project summary : 
The project will combine the fossil records of Cenozoic squamates with paleoclimatic and other vertebrate fossil occurrences to determine the influences environment, represented by quantified paleoclimatic proxy data, and biotic interactions, represented by fossil records of potential vertebrate predators and prey, in driving diversification. This project will build on, and contribute to, existing public databases (e.g., Paleobiology Database), will access multiple museum collections, and will combine palaeontological and spatial ecological methods to reconstruct niche occupation through time.
What will the student do?: 
The student will examine museum collections in the UK and abroad to collect occurrence data and will combine these observations with online databases to construct spatiotemporal patterns of diversity through time. The student will then compare histories with climatic and biotic records to determine relative influences of both on diversification. Niche modelling will be conducted for high-density fossil assemblages with coeval high-resolution paleoenvironmental data, and results will be compared with extant records to reconstruct the evolution niche occupation in different environments.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Head, J. J. et al. 2009. Giant boid snake from the Paleocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures. Nature, vol. 457, pp. 715-717.
Polly, P. D. & Head, J. J. 2015. Measuring earth-life transitions: Ecometric analysis of functional traits from late Cenozoic vertebrates. In P. D. Polly, Head, J. J. and Fox, D. L. (eds.), Earth-Life Transitions: Paleobiology in the Context of Earth System Evolution. The Paleontological Society Papers, vol. 21:21-46.
Vermillion, W. A., P. D. Polly, J. J. Head, J. T. Eronen, and A. M. Lawing. 2018. Ecometrics: A trait-based approach to paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental reconstruction.  Pp. 373-394 In Croft, D.A., S.W. Simpson, and D.F. Su (eds.), Methods in Paleoecology: Reconstructing Cenozoic Terrestrial Environments and Ecological Communities. Springer, Dordrecht.
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Zoology page.
Dr Jason Head
Department of Zoology Graduate Administrator