Drivers of marine ecosystem change during the end-Triassic mass extinction and recovery

Benthic fossils

Benthic fossils

This project aims to gain a detailed understanding of how marine ecosystems responded to climate-related abiotic changes during the end-Triassic extinction, its aftermath and subsequent recovery.

The studentship is part of the Southampton Partnership for Innovative Training of Future Investigators Researching the Environment (SPITFIRE) funded by NERC and starts 1 October 2018.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then apply via the Spitfire Online Application Service.

Application deadline: 5 January 2018

Research focus

Although a number of studies have separately investigated global changes in the biosphere and geosphere during the end-Triassic extinction event, a detailed understanding is lacking.

The student will fill this knowledge gap by generating a time series of quantitative palaeoecological data.

Multiple stratigraphic records will be analysed to tease out regional versus global signals of marine ecosystem change. Using a multivariate approach, these data will be integrated with a suite of geochemical proxy data to trace changes in land vegetation in response to climate and hydrological shifts. These geochemical proxies include:

  • algal and bacterial biomarkers, for reconstruction of surface-water ecology
  • water column chemistry
  • photic zone euxinia
  • terrestrial biomarkers

Key hypotheses to test include:

  • whether temperature change or expanding anoxic dead zones are the most important drivers of marine ecosystem change
  • whether benthic and pelagic organisms responded to similar or different drivers

Supervision and training

The SPITFIRE training programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research, industrial and policy partners.

The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at the Natural History Museum and the School of Ocean and Earth Science.

The successful candidate will be trained in basic and advanced techniques of palaeontological data collection and analysis.

Student participation in expeditions to locations in the UK and Europe[CM1]  will provide field research experience. The student will also spend significant time at the Museum, where they will receive training in macroinvertebrate taxonomy and collections and data management, as well as gain experience in outreach and public engagement.


The student will use a multidisciplinary approach to sample and analyse palaeoecological samples from coastal and mountain outcrops as well as available sediment cores from the UK (southwest England, south Wales, and Northern Ireland) and Central Europe (Austria, Germany).

Species abundance and body size data of fossil benthic and nektonic macroinvertebrates will be collected and used to quantify ecological changes in the structure and function of the marine fossil communities.

To determine which abiotic factors are most important drivers of biotic change, these data will be compared to a suite of geochemical environmental proxy data for parameters such as:

  • sea surface temperature
  • water column stratification
  • salinity
  • redox potential
  • carbon and nutrient cycling.

Samples will be selected from sedimentary sequences known to contain abundant and well-preserved fossils of relatively low thermal maturity, so that palaeontological and geochemical data can be obtained from the same samples.


Mass extinctions are critical turning points in the history of life. Those that occurred during episodes of sudden climate warming record a similar suite of co-occurring, interlinked environmental changes.

A key challenge is to determine which of these factors were most important in driving specific aspects of extinction, recovery and ecological change in marine ecosystems.

One of the most important such crises occurred at the end of the Triassic Period (approximately 201.5 million years ago) and was driven by a catastrophic release of greenhouse gases during emplacement of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP).

Although a number of studies have separately investigated global changes in the biosphere and geosphere during this event, there is a lack of detailed understanding of how marine ecosystems responded to climate-related abiotic changes during the extinction, its aftermath and subsequent recovery.


This project is open to applicants who meet the SPITFIRE eligibility and other exceptional applicants.

SPITFIRE seeks excellent prospective research students regardless of their particular scientific background. We aim to recruit the best students rather than to fill particular projects. We put a huge amount of effort into the recruitment process to meet this objective. 

Minimum Academic Eligibility Criteria: 

  • BSc/MSci 2:1
  • and/or Masters (MSc or MRes) at Merit/Distinction level (>60%).
  • and/or evidence of significant relevant professional experience equivalent to Masters level.

How to apply

Apply using the Spitfire Online Application Service, please include:

  • A short statement of your research interests and rationale for your choice of project(s) - in the Personal Statement section of the application form
  • Curriculum vitae - giving details of your academic record and stating your research interests.
  • Names of two current academic referees - with an institutional email addresses in the Reference section of the application form. On submission of your online application your referees will be automatically emailed requesting they send a reference to us directly by email.
  • Academic transcripts and IELTS/TOEFL certificate if applicable.

As far as possible please upload all documents in pdf format.

Interview dates

For successful candidates are:

  • Thursday 22 February 2018
  •  Friday 23 February 2018
  • Thursday 1 March 2018
  • Friday 2 March 2018

Please note they are all day events and will be allocated based on interview panel availability.

General enquiries should be directed to the SPITFIRE Team on

The deadline for applications is 5 January 2018.

Any questions?

You are encouraged to contact potential supervisors by email to discuss project-specific aspects of the proposed research at an early stage.

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Prof Richard Twitchett


Danise S, Twitchett RJ, Little CTS (2015) Environmental controls on Jurassic marine extinctions during global warmingGeology. 43: 263-266.

Kasprak AH, Sepúlveda J, Price-Waldman R, Williford KH, Schoepfer S, Haggart JW, Ward PD, Summons RE, Whiteside JH (2015) Episodic photic zone euxinia in the northeastern Panthalassic Ocean during the end-Triassic extinction. Geology. 43: 307-310.

Jaraula CMB, Grice K, Twitchett RJ, Böttcher ME, Lemetayer P, Dastidar AG, Opazo LF (2013) Elevated pCO2 leading to Late Triassic extinction, persistent photic zone euxinia, and rising sea levels. Geology. 41: 955-958.

Southampton Partnership for Innovative Training of Future Investigators Researching the Environment

This a joint PhD training partnership between the Natural History Museum and SPITFIRE a NERC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) creating an innovative multi-disciplinary experience for the effective training of future leaders in environmental science, engineering, technology development, business, and policy.

Funded by 

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