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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Alex Liu, Earth Sciences

Co-Supervisors: Neil Davies, Earth Sciences & Philip Wilby, British Geological Survey

Collaborative Partner: British Geological Survey

Brief summary: 
Determine the impact that the smallest animals have had on sedimentary environments through time by investigating links between their burrowing activity and sediment physical and chemical properties.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
The burrowing activity of macroscopic benthic organisms has had a profound impact on the fabric, porosity and geochemistry of sediments throughout the Phanerozoic geological record. However, the physical and geochemical impact of meiofaunal burrowers — organisms of ~50–1000 µm in size — on sediments is critically overlooked. The meiofauna include diverse groups such as metazoans, bacteria, and protists (e.g. foraminifera and amoebae), and in modern settings they are abundant in many depositional environments, particularly under low oxygen conditions where larger metazoans are excluded. Reports of fossil meiofaunal activity include the presence of discrete burrows, and cryptobioturbation (the total reworking of sediments with no distinct traces). However, the extent to which meiofaunal organisms engineered ecosystems in deep time remains poorly known. Also unknown is their environmental tolerance, their substrate preference, their impact on fluid flow through sediments, and their response to major environmental perturbations through Earth history.
Project summary : 
This project will assess how meiofaunal communities impacted the physical and chemical properties of sediments in deep time, and address the question of whether their activity was necessary to ‘condition’ substrates ready for macro-faunal habitation. Investigation of the extent and distribution of meiofaunal burrows in Triassic and Jurassic mudrocks of the UK will constrain how burrowing intensity varies as a function of fluctuating redox conditions and sediment composition, as well as relative to changes in macroscopic ichnofossil diversity and ichnofabric intensity. The project will explore sections through the end Triassic mass extinction, documenting the meiofaunal response to extreme biosphere perturbation. Laboratory aquarium experiments investigating changes to physical and chemical sediment properties imparted by meiofaunal activity will provide necessary context.
What will the student do?: 
The project will involve fieldwork on the Jurassic Coast of the UK, where reference sections will be logged and hand samples collected, and logging of core material at the National Geological Repository, British Geological Survey. Samples of this material will be analysed with x-ray CT scanning and SEM microanalysis. Digital reconstruction of CT data, combined with geochemical (XRF) and microfacies analysis, will enable investigation of relationships between meiofaunal burrowing, substrate, redox geochemistry and resulting sedimentary fabric. Measurement of variables including total organic carbon, porosity, microfabric and clay mineral content in beds exhibiting a full spectrum of meiofaunal activity will enable comparison of burrowed versus non-burrowed substrates. Experimental work will be undertaken using aquaria in Supervisor Liu’s laboratory at the Department of Earth Sciences, Cambridge. The student will lead the design of experimental set-ups to determine the impact of modern meiofaunal organisms on physical and chemical sediment properties.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Giere, O. 2009. Meiobenthology, 2nd Edition. Springer, 527 p.
McIlroy, D. 2004. Some ichnological concepts, methodologies, applications and frontiers. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, vol. 228, pp. 3-27.
Pemberton, S. G., MacEachern, J. A., Gingras, M. K., & Saunders, T. D. 2008. Biogenic chaos: cryptobioturbation and the work of sedimentologically friendly organisms. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, vol. 270, pp. 273-279.
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Earth Sciences page.
Dr Alex Liu
Department of Earth Sciences Graduate Administrator
Dr Neil Davies