Dr Xiaoya Ma

Xiaoya Ma
  • NERC Research Fellow
  • Earth Sciences department
  • Invertebrates and Plants Division
Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road


Academic positions

Aug 2014-present           NERC Independent Research Fellow, Department of Earth Sciences, 
                                            Natural History Museum, London, UK

Feb 2011-Apr 2014         Postdoctoral Research Assistant (Leverhulme Research Grant)
                                            Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum, London, UK

Aug 2009-Jan 2012        Honorary Researcher, Department of Geology, University of Leicester


Oct 2005-July 2009         PhD in Palaeontology, University of Leicester, UK. “Vermiform fossils 
                                            from the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang Biota, Yunnan, Southwest 

Sept 2003-July 2005      MSc (Hons) in Zoology, Yunnan University, China.
                                           Geological modules, Beijing University, China.

Sept 1999-July 2003      BSc (Hons) in Biology, Yunnan University, China.

Professional Roles


2013      Highly commended talk for the President’s Prize at the 57th Annual Meeting of the 
                Palaeontological Association, University of Zurich, Switzerland.

2008      “The Sylvester-Bradley Award” of the Department of Geology, University of Leicester, UK.

2007      1) Personal Development Award from Royal Dutch Shell plc.
                2) “One of the best Master’s Degree Thesis in Yunnan Province” prize of the Yunnan 
                Province Government, China.

2006      1) “Council Award for the Best Poster” prize at The Palaeontological Association 50th 
                Annual Meeting at Sheffield University, UK.
2) “One of the best Students of Provincial Level” prize of the Yunnan Province 
                Government, China.


2014        NERC Independent Research Fellowship for a five-year project “Cambrian Nervous 
                 Systems for Reconstructing the Arthropod Tree of Life”.

2013        Palaeontological Association (UK) Grant-in-aid funding and Paleontological Society 
                 (USA) sponsorship to support our topic session T243 “Konservat-Lagerstätten: 
                 morphology, ecology, and taphonomy of exceptionally preserved fossils” at the GSA 
                 125th Annual Meeting in Denver, 27­–30 October 2013.

2012        ASSEMBLE (Association of European Marine Biological Laboratories) project funding 
                 to collect living priapulid specimens and further lab work at the Kristineberg Marine 
                 Research Station, Fiskebäckskil, Sweden.

2011        Leverhulme Research Grant for a three-year project “Extrapolating the central nervous 
                 system of Cambrian ecdysozoans”, co-written with Dr. Greg Edgecombe (PI) and Prof. 
                 Nick Strausfeld (Co-I).

2009        1) Co-Investigator in projects on Chengjiang Lagerstätte research, funded by National 
                 Natural Foundation of China (40730211) and 973 Program of China (2006CB806400)

                 2) Student Travel Grant Award from the Scientific and Organizing Committee of 
                 “International Conference on the Cambrian Explosion”

2007        1) SYNTHESYS (European Union-funded Integrated Infrastructure Initiative) grant 
                  for a research visit at the Swedish Museum of Natural History

                 2) Aggregate Industries Scholarship to attend a geology field trip to Isle of Arran, 

2006       1) John Whitaker Award of the Department of Geology, University of Leicester

                2) Travel award from the Palaeontological Association for 2nd International 
                Palaeontological Congress in Beijing

                3) Aggregate Industries Scholarship to attend a geology field trip to the Welsh 
                Basin, Wales


My primary research interest is to understand the origin and early evolution of animal life, especially the major branching events during animal evolution. The sudden appearance of all major animal phyla in the fossil record around 520 million years ago, known as the “Cambrian Explosion”, remains one of the most difficult and pressing issues in palaeontology. 

Cambrian fossils provide direct insight into the early radiation of animal life and are crucial for addressing some fundamental questions: When and how did major animal groups evolve? What were the evolutionary sequences of key morphological innovations? How did animals adapt to their ecological and environmental changes?

Cambrian lobopodian animal morphology.

Cambrian lobopodian animal Luolishania longicruris (Ma et al., 2009 in ASD). Photo by Xiaoya Ma and reconstruction drawing by David Baines.

I use interdisciplinary approaches to study the morphology, phylogeny, taphonomy and paleoecology of a broad range of Cambrian ecdysozoans from exceptionally well-preserved fossil assemblages, such as the Chengjiang and the Burgess Shale Lagerstätten.


  • My research mainly focuses on Cambrian ecdysozoans, including cycloneuralians (e.g. priapulids) and panarthropods (e.g. arthropods, dinocaridids and lobopodians)
  • My current project is to investigate the exceptionally preserved nervous systems (e.g. brains and nerve cords) and sensory structures (e.g. eyes and antennae) from Cambrian ecdysozoans in a new research avenue called Neuropalaeontology
  • I am also working on a wide range of Cambrian worms and other enigmatic taxa
Phylogenetic relationships.

Phylogenetic relationships between Cambrian lobopodians and other ecdysozoan taxa (modified after Ma et al., 2013 in JSP).


  • I use phylogenetic analysis to reconstruct the relationships between Cambrian stem-lineage arthropods (lobopodians, dinocaridids and stem arthropods) and extant panarthropods (Onychophora, Tardigrada and Arthropoda)
  • I am also interested in the phylogenetic positions of Cambrian priapulid-like worms and their relationship with extant scalidophorans (Priapulida, Loricifera and Kinorhycha)
  • My recent work use neural characters to resolve how the Cambrian arthropods related to extant major arthropod groups


  • I use various analytical techniques to carry out geochemical analysis on exceptionally preserved Cambrian fossils
  • Decay experiments to explore preservation potential of different anatomical structures
Exceptionally preserved brain from Cambrian arthropod.

Exceptionally preserved brain from Cambrian arthropod Fuxianhuia protensa showing iron enrichment (Fe=red, Si+Al=blue). © Nature Publishing Group 2012.


  • Modes of life, such as feeding, locomotion and ecological niche
  • Functional morphology
  • Composition of community and living interactions

Related news stories

Oldest fossil of complex brain identified 2012

Complete 520 million-year-old nervous system discovered 2013

Earliest cardiovascular system discovered 2014

King of Cambrian predators had brain of a worm 2014



Cong, P.Y., Ma, X.Y., Hou, X.G., Edgecombe, G.D. and Strausfeld, N.J. 2014. Brain structure resolves the segmental affinity of anomalocaridid appendages. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature13486

Ma, X.Y., Cong, P.Y., Hou, X.G., Edgecombe, G.D. and Strausfeld, N.J. 2014. An exceptionally preserved arthropod cardiovascular system from the early Cambrian. Nature Communications, 5: 3560. doi:10.1038/ncomms4560.

Ma, X.Y., Aldridge, R.J., Siveter, D.J., Siveter, D.J., Hou, X.G. and Edgecombe, G.D. 2014. A new exceptionally preserved Cambrian priapulid from the Chengjiang Lagerstätte. Journal of Paleontology, 88: 371-384. doi: http//dx.doi.org/10.1666/13-082.


Tanaka, G., Hou, X.G., Ma, X.Y., Edgecombe, G.D. and Strausfeld, N.J. 2013. Chelicerate neural ground pattern in a Cambrian ‘great appendage’ arthropod. Nature, 502: 364-367. doi:10.1038/nature12520

Ma, X.Y., Edgecombe, G.D., Legg, D.A. and Hou, X.G. 2013. The morphology and phylogenetic position of Cambrian lobopodian Diania cactiformis. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 12: 445-457. doi:10.1080/14772019.2013.770418

García-Bellido, D.C., Edgecombe, G.D., Paterson, J.R. and Ma, X.Y. 2013. A ‘Collins’ monster’-type lobopodian from the Emu Bay Shale Konservat-Lagerstätte (Cambrian), South Australia. Alcheringa, 37: 474-478. doi:10.1080/03115518.2013.792456


Ma, X.Y., Hou, X.G., Edgecombe, G.D., Strausfeld, N.J. 2012. Complex brain and optic lobes in an early Cambrian arthropod. Nature, 490: 258-261. doi:10.1038/nature11495

Ma, X.Y., Hou, X.G., Aldridge, R.J., Siveter, D.J., Siveter, D.J., Gabbott, S.E., Purnell, M.A., Parker, A.R. and Edgecombe, G.D. 2012. Morphology of Cambrian lobopodian eyes from the Chengjiang Lagerstätte and their evolutionary significance. Arthropod Structure & Development, 41: 495-504. doi:10.1016/j.asd.2012.03.002


Legg, D.A., Ma, X.Y., Wolfe, J.M., Ortega-Hernández, J., Edgecombe G.D. and Sutton, M.D. 2011. Lobopodian phylogeny reanalysed. Nature, 476, E1. doi:10.1038/nature10267.

Hou, X.G., Aldridge, R.J., Siveter, D.J., Siveter, D.J., Williams, M., Zalasiewicz, J. and Ma, X.Y. 2011. An Early Cambrian Hemichordate Zooid. Current Biology, 21: 612-616. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2011.03.005.


Ma, X.Y., Hou, X.G. and Baines, D. 2010. Phylogeny and evolutionary significance of vermiform animals from the Early Cambrian Chengjiang Lagerstätte. Science China: Earth Sciences, 53 (12): 1774-1783. doi:10.1007/s11430-010-4084-y.


Ma, X.Y., Hou, X.G. and Bergström, J. 2009. Morphology of Luolishania longicruris (Lower Cambrian, Chengjiang Lagerstätte, SW China) and the phylogenetic relationships within lobopodians. Arthropod Structure & Development, 38: 271-291. doi:10.1016/j.asd.2009.03.001


Hou, X.G., Bergström, J., Ma, X.Y. and Zhao, J. 2006. The Lower Cambrian Phlogites Luo & Hu re-considered. GFF, 128: 47-51. doi:10.1080/11035890601281047


Hou, X.G., Stanley, G.D., Zhao, J. and Ma, X.Y. 2005. Cambrian anemones with preserved soft tissue from the Chengjiang biota, China. Lethaia, 38 (3): 193-203. doi:10.1080/00241160510013295


Hou, X.G., Ma, X.Y., Zhao, J. and Bergström, J. 2004. The lobopodian Paucipodia inermis from the Lower Cambrian Chengjiang fauna, Yunnan, China. Lethaia, 37 (3): 235-244. doi:10.1080/00241160410006555