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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities

Lead supervisor: Alex Liu, Earth Sciences

Co-supervisor: Collen-Issia Uahengo, University of Namibia

Brief summary: 
Obtain new insights into the early evolution of animals from exceptional fossil sites in Namibia.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
Fossils of the Ediacaran biota are found globally in sedimentary rocks of ~580–539 million years in age, and offer a remarkable record of the early evolution of complex, macroscopic organisms. Although they include representatives of early stem- and crown-group animals, the precise phylogenetic affinities of many Ediacaran taxa remain unresolved. Rocks of terminal Ediacaran (550–539 million years) age offer our best hopes of finding clear ancestors to many Cambrian animal clades, but the low diversity of this interval has proven challenging for researchers attempting to track the early evolution of metazoan crown groups prior to the basal Cambrian boundary. Newly discovered fossil assemblages in Namibia, southern Africa, offer an unprecedented opportunity to expand the known diversity of the latest Ediacaran fossil record.
Project summary : 
This project will study newly discovered bedding plane assemblages of fossils from the Nama Group of southern Namibia, and will use insights gleaned from the palaeobiology and palaeoecology of the fossilised organisms to resolve key questions regarding early animal evolution. Formal taxonomic description of novel taxa, in addition to detailed study of exceptionally preserved material, will offer opportunities to determine the phylogenetic position of these taxa and resolve the early diversification of major animal clades during latest Ediacaran time. The project could evolve either in a palaeoecological direction (exploring how these taxa lived, and their interactions with each other), or towards broad meta-analyses involving the grades/clades of organisms to which these taxa most closely relate.
What will the student do?: 
You will study of fossil material in Cambridge, and later in museum collections and field sites in Namibia, using morphometric approaches supplemented by analysis of certain exceptional samples by X-ray CT scanning and SEM microanalysis, to reconstruct the anatomy of the original organisms, and to identify characters that can be used to score the taxa within phylogenetic analyses. Ecological and sedimentological information will also be collected in the field, to develop and then test hypotheses relating to the mode of life of the studied organisms. Opportunities are available to investigate the ontogeny and/or environmental preferences of the studied organisms, and the evolutionary trajectories of the morphogroups to which they belong. It is anticipated that the student will present their results in a series of first author scientific papers, as well as at academic conferences and to the general public, using a variety of media.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Xiao, S., & Laflamme, M. (2009). On the eve of animal radiation: phylogeny, ecology and evolution of the Ediacara biota. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 31-40. DOI:
Wood, R.A., Poulton, S.W., Prave, A.R., Hoffmann, K.H., Clarkson, M.O., Guilbaud, R., Lyne, J.W., Tostevin, R., Bowyer, F., Penny, A.M. and Curtis, A. (2015). Dynamic redox conditions control late Ediacaran metazoan ecosystems in the Nama Group, Namibia. Precambrian Research, 261, 252-271. DOI:
Wood, R., Liu, A. G., Bowyer, F., Wilby, P. R., Dunn, F. S., Kenchington, C. G., ... & Penny, A. (2019). Integrated records of environmental change and evolution challenge the Cambrian Explosion. Nature ecology & evolution, 3, 528-538. DOI:
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Earth Sciences page.