Devonian Tropical Plant Assemblages from Arctic Svalbard

This PhD project project will document the early evolution of a unique palaeotropical flora from Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago.

The studentship is part of the Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by NERC and starts October 2019.

Apply for this course

Applications for this PhD are processed via the Cardiff University Online Application Service.

Application deadline: 7 January 2019


The Devonian period (419-359 million years ago) is the critical time in Earth history when land plants evolved from being ankle high simple branched naked twigs to being leafy trees growing in complex forest ecosystems (Stein et al. 2012, Berry & Marshall, 2015). The evolution of large plants during this time had a profound impact on the Earth system, affecting weathering rates, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, terrestrial sediment accumulation and ecosystem dynamics (Morris et al. 2015).

However the plants which are responsible for these impacts remain relatively poorly known, especially in the palaeotropics. The fossil flora of Svalbard is important because:

  • it is (palaeo) tropical (usually a hotspot of plant diversity and evolution) 
  • includes a sequence of plant fossils which probably date from the late Silurian right through to the early Late Devonian

Several seasons of fieldwork in the Devonian basin of central and northwestern Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago, have yielded several hundred specimens of plant fossils, including collections of very poorly known plants, and several probable new species.

Project aims and methods

The Svalbard Devonian Flora has previous been systematically described by Høeg (1942) and Schweitzer (1965-8 summarised 1999), the key material having been collected by Norwegian expeditions in 1925-8. Our new and recent collections, including the first to be made from the original localities, will be supplemented by further collecting in central Spitzbergen towards the end of the first year of the PhD.

The primary objective of the project is to make systematic descriptions and reconstructions of new plant fossil taxa and make redescriptions of Høeg and Schweitzer’s taxa using new fossils in the light of considerably advanced contemporary understanding of Devonian plants (as e.g. Berry 2005). Unique to this project is the prospect of familiarity with plant fossils that cover most of the evolutionary development of vascular plants before seed plants.

The plant fossils will be placed into a new palyno-stratigraphic framework for the Svalbard Devonian based on the work of co-supervisors Marshall and Wellman. Where possible, in situ spores recovered from sporangia will be described using palynological techniques.

The record of the Svalbard Devonian flora will then be compared with those established from other localities to assess the importance of the palaeotropics in Devonian plant evolution.

Candidate requirements

You will require a background in palaeontology with geology, or evolutionary/organismal biology with an appreciation of the nature of the fossil and rock record. You must be willing to spend long hours on meticulous fossil preparation and documentation.

For fieldwork in remote Arctic localities, a degree of physical fitness, mobility and good health is required, but a successful project can be accomplished without fieldwork based on existing collections. Skills with drawing might be advantageous for making plant reconstructions.


You will be trained in all aspects of systematic documentation and analysis of Devonian plant fossils, including macrophotography, Scanning Electron Microscopy, mechanical preparation of plant fossil compressions and permineralisations, and writing systematic descriptions of plant morphology and anatomy as appropriate.

Short visits will be made to Museum collections in London, Stockholm and Oslo. A three week fieldtrip to central Spitsbergen is anticipated, and full training will be given in summer arctic field work planning and execution, including polar bear defence.


Open to UK and EU students. All EU applicants must have been ordinarily resident in the EU for at least 3 years prior to the start of their proposed programme of study.

Applicants from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award.

Applicants should have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.

Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a master's degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants need to comply with the registered university's English-language requirements.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed via the Cardiff University Online Application Service. You will need to include:

  • an upload of your CV
  • a personal statement/covering letter
  • two references (applicants are recommended to have a third academic referee, if the two academic referees are within the same department/school)
  • Current academic transcripts

The deadline for applications is 7 January 2019.

Shortlisted candidates will then be invited to an institutional interview. Interviews will be held in Cardiff University between 4-15 February 2019.

Visit the Cardiff University website for more information.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Dr Chris Barry, Cardiff University


Cardiff University

Main supervisor: Dr Chris Berry

Co-supervisor: Prof Dianne Edwards

Co-supervisor: Dr Lesley Cherns

The Natural History Museum

Co-supervisor: Dr Paul Kenrick

Southampton University

Co-supervisor: Prof John Marshall

Sheffield University

Co-supervisor: Prof Charles Wellman


Berry, C.M., 2005, ‘Hyenia’ vogtii Høeg from the Middle Devonian of Spitsbergen – its morphology and systematic position: Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, v. 135, p. 109–116

Berry, C.M. & Marshall, J.E.A. 2015. Lycopsid forests in the early Late Devonian paleoequatorial zone of Svalbard. Geology 43, 1043-1046

Høeg, O.A., 1942, The Downtonian and Devonian flora of Spitsbergen: Norges Svalbard-og Ishavs-Undersøkelser Skrifter, v. 83, p. 1–228

Morris, J.L. et al. 2015. Investigating Devonian trees as geo-engineers of past climates: Linking palaeosols to palaeobotany and experimental geobiology. Palaeontology 58, 787–801

Schweitzer, H.-J., 1999: Die Devonfloren Spitzbergens: Palaeontographica Abt. B, v. 252, p. 1–122.

Stein, W.E., Berry, C.M., Hernick, L.V.A. & Mannolini, F. 2012. Surprisingly complex community discovered in the mid-Devonian fossil forest at Gilboa. Nature 483, 78–81 (2012)

Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Great Western Four, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter universities.

Funded by 

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