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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Nick Butterfield, Earth Sciences

Co-Supervisor: Tom Harvey, University of Leicester 

Brief summary: 
Small carbonaceous fossils (SCFs) offer a novel means of reconstructing the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of early animal evolution.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
The Cambrian “explosion” of large animals marks the onset of the modern marine biosphere, but the record is biased heavily towards shelly fossils and sedimentary traces. Burgess Shale-type macrofossils capture an important component of the 'soft-body' record, but are still missing much of the story, not least those smaller forms that constitute the base of marine food webs. Our identification of a common, but largely overlooked category of organic-walled fossils – those too small to be seen on bedding surfaces, but too large or delicate to be recovered by conventional palynological processing – offers a novel means of tracking real evolutionary patterns through the early Palaeozoic.
Project summary : 
Small Carbonaceous Fossils (SCFs) include a rich diversity of metazoan remains, some of which derive from taxa known only from Burgess Shale-type biotas, but others that are unique to science. Most importantly, SCFs are far more common than 'typical' Burgess Shale-type biotas, offering a unique opportunity to fill in the stratigraphic, environmental and palaeogeographial gaps in the early Palaeozoic record. Middle to late Cambrian strata extend over much of North America, but are particularly well preserved in outcrops and drillcore in western Canada and the U.S.A This project will combine a study of identified SCF assemblages in the Deadwood Formation of North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Alberta, with a focussed interrogation of what they represent, and how the contribute to our evolving view or early animal evolution.
What will the student do?: 
The student will conduct at least one field season investigating Cambrian strata in drillcore and/or outcrop. SCFs will be isolated from unoxidized mudstone samples using a gentle HF acid extraction technique, and individually picked for microscopic analysis. Systematic work will be aimed at resolving/reconstructing biologically meaningful taxa based on (mostly disarticulated) fossil remains. Assembly of a global database of SCFs will allow broader scale ecological and evolutionary patterns to be resolved, and integrated with contemporaneous geobiolgical signatures. Opportunties are available to combine this work with molecular biomarker analysis.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Butterfield NJ, Harvey THP. 2012. Small carbonaceous fossils (SCFs): a new measure of Paleozoic palaeobiology. Geology 40:71–74.
Harvey THP, Vélez MI, Butterfield NJ. 2012. Exceptionally preserved crustaceans from western Canada reveal a cryptic Cambrian radiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A 109:1589–1594.
Harvey, T.H.P. & Butterfield, N.J. 2017. Exceptionally preserved Cambrian loriciferans and the early animal invasion of the meiobenthos. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1:1–5.
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Earth Sciences page.
Prof Nick Butterfield
Department of Earth Sciences Graduate Administrator