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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead Supervisor: Neil Davies, Earth Sciences

Co-Supervisors: Anthony Shillito, University of Oxford and Alex Liu, Earth Sciences

Brief summary: 
The Carboniferous is a crucial period in Earth history, during which forests spread across the globe, driving climatic and landscape shifts in the Earth System, and arthropods, fish, and tetrapods expanded their non-marine range - this project will unravel what the trace fossil record can tell us about how this ancestral biosphere terraformed the planet into an analogously 'modern' Earth.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
The colonization of the land by animal and plant communities was a crucial event in the evolution of life on Earth. A large amount of existing research into this area has previously been focussed on pushing back the earliest evidence of life on land or on understanding the crucial juncture of the Silurian (444-419 Ma) , when continental trace fossils rapidly increased in abundance and disparity across the globe. However, the climax of the terrestrialization process has been relatively overlooked. It was only much later, in the Carboniferous (359-299 Ma), that certain key continental habitats began to be colonized (e.g., deep lakes), or even evolve (e.g., plant-stabilized river islands or mires). This project aims to provide a new global perspective on the ichnology of this understudied but crucial interval of Earth history: arguably more significant than the first tentative footsteps on land, this was the interval in which nonmarine life became 'modern' and triggered cascade effects in shaping Earth Surface processes and landforms.
Project summary : 
The climax of the terrestrialization of life has been overlooked in comparison to its inception. The filling of nonmarine niches was a milestone in the evolution of the Earth system. For the first time, this interval will be the focus of a comprehensive study that will enable a new understanding of how new landscapes were created and populated, and provide insights into the development of feedback loops between life, landscape and surface processes in non-marine environments.
What will the student do?: 
The student will undertake extensive fieldwork to collect new ichnological, palaeontological and sedimentological data from Carboniferous continental strata: most notably from localities in the Northumberland Basin and adjacent areas (UK) and within the Maritimes Basin (eastern Canada). By focussing on the understudied Carboniferous interval through advanced ichnological approaches, database construction, classical facies analysis, mapping and stratigraphic fieldwork, the project will resolve our understanding of sedimentary landscapes during a transitional period which was crucial to the evolution of life on Earth.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Davies, N.S., & Gibling, M.R., 2013. The sedimentary record of Carboniferous rivers: Continuing influence of land plant evolution on alluvial processes and Palaeozoic ecosystems, Earth-Science Reviews, vol. 120, pp. 40-79.
Minter, N., Buatois, L., Mángano, G., Davies, N.S., Gibling, M. & Labandeira, C., 2016, The establishment of continental ecosystems. In: The trace-fossil record of major evolutionary events, volume 1: Precambrian and Paleozoic. Mángano, G. & Buatois, L. (eds.). Springer, (Topics in Geobiology; vol. 39)
Davies, N.S., Shillito, A.P., Slater, B.J., Liu, A.G. and McMahon, W.J., 2020. Evolutionary synchrony of Earth’s biosphere and sedimentary-stratigraphic record. Earth-Science Reviews, 201, p.102979.
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