*2020-2021Severe disruption during COVID-19 pandemic given childcare crises (caring responsibility for two children below 6 years old) and move to online teaching; *2015, 2018 Combined 4 months of parental leave
Senior Lecturer, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester
Lecturer, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester
Research Fellow (NERC), Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester
Research Fellow (NERC), Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Geology, University of Leicester
PhD, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol and Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum
BA, Biological Sciences, St. John's College, University of Oxford
Phylogeny and the fossil record
In order to make evolutionary sense of fossils, we need to accurately place them in the tree-of-life and consider how they are related to living organisms. The type of information that fossil organisms provide is, however, very different from that of their living counter-parts. Do the fundamental taphonomic processes of death, decay and preservation involved in fossil formation limit our ability to accurately place fossils in the tree-of-life? How can we accurately reconstruct evolution and phylogeny using morphological data from fossil and modern groups? When we account for biases and artefacts, do they change our understanding of the origins of groups and the nature of evolutionary processes, and if so, how can we correct for them? We investigate a broad range of questions relating to evolutionary and phylogenetic inferences from morphological data.
Experimental decomposition and taphonomic biases
Many of the most important episodes in the history of life, such as the Cambrian explosion, preceded the evolution of hard-tissues (e.g. skeletons or shells). Rare, exceptionally preserved fossils of completely soft-bodied organisms are therefore critical for reconstructing these events. Given the ephemeral nature of soft-tissues, these fossils are unfortunately not pristine representations, but collapsed and decomposed remains. Decay is a fundamental and inevitable part of the formation of these fossils, and as such, experimentally identifying sequences of decay can shed new light on their formation and evolutionary significance. In my lab, sequences of morphological decay are identified using modern proxies in order to unlock important taphonomic biases. The data provided can transform our interpretation of the anatomy and evolutionary significance of key fossils and subsequently reshape our understanding of evolutionary events.
The origin and early evolution of vertebrates
The origin and early evolution of vertebrates represents an episode of massive genetic, morphological and embryological changes – one of the most fundamental in metazoan history. The fossil record provides crucial insight into the timing and nature of morphological changes taking place, both before and after the evolution of skeleton. Through taphonomic analyses and application of decay data, our understanding of the origin of vertebrates is transformed. Furthermore, analyses of the taxonomy, diversity and phylogeny of fossil jawless fishes provide a framework our understanding of the origin and evolution of jawed fishes, an important stage of our own evolutionary history.
I am a palaeobiologist interested in using the fossil record to address big evolutionary problems such as the origin and early evolution of vertebrates, and the Cambrian diversification of animals. More broadly I am interested how macroevolutionary inferences are drawn from fossil data, particularly the role of morphology in phylogenetics and the role of preservation and incompleteness in shaping our understanding. To do this I use a range of techniques from phylogenetics, laboratory investigations of decay and preservation, and direct analyses of fossil material. As such, projects in my lab include both experimental and theoretical approaches. More informtion can be found here.
A range of projects are available for research students in my lab (undergraduate, postgraduate MPhil, MRes, PhD). An indication of the sort of project available can be found at on the ICAL website (Interdisciplinary Centre for Ancient Life at the University of Manchester).
Potential candidates interested in pursuing the project below as a self-funded student should get in contact.
Linking experimental decay to the fossil record
The exceptionally preserved fossil record of soft tissues provides unique insights on a range of important evolutionary events, from the Cambrian explosion to the feathers of dinosaurs. Interpretation of the soft tissue fossil record is more challenging than the conventional fossil record. Anatomy is incomplete and distorted, having been subjected to loss and change through decay and preservation. Those processes of decay can be experimentally investigated on a laboratory timescale under controlled conditions. A recent resurgence in experimental decay had revealed important sources of bias and a new understanding of preservation processes. However, in many respects the applicability of experimental data to the actual fossil record remains unclear; many fundamental experimental parameters have not been tested. Are the chemical, biological and physical parameters of experiments realistic given geological parameters? Can results be generalized given variability in sediments and microbial ecology? How do these considerations affect interpretations of the fossil data? This project aims to test the validity of experimental taphonomy by investigating processes of decay, their applicability to the fossil record and thus the evolutionary inferences drawn.