Drivers of marine ecosystem change during an ancient abrupt global warming event

SEM images of some ubiquitous Ypresian (lower Eocene) foraminifera species  Arreguín-Rodríguez GJ et al (2018) PLoS ONE 13(2) licenced by CC BY 4.0. Image cropped and numerals removed.

This project will investigate the global changes to the marine ecosystem that occured during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum and the relative influence of abiotic factors on biotic change.

The studentship is part of the CENTA doctoral training partnership, funded by NERC and starts October 2019.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then apply through the University of Birmingham's online application service.

Please submit your CENTA studentship application form as part of the application procedure.

Application deadline: 21 January 2019

Project Highlights

  • Join a world-class team of scientists working to understand the links between extreme climate events and ecosystem dynamics
  • Constrain the dominant patterns, responses and driver(s) of marine ecosystem change
  • Learn a diverse range of key statistical, palaeobiological and geochemical techniques to investigate controls on past life and relevance to modern communities


The Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) ~56 million years ago, is the largest of a series of abrupt global warming events known from the Cenozoic. During this event, the oceans rapidly warmed by >5 °C and became more acidic, and the world became wetter and stormier with profound consequences for life on land and in the oceans.

The PETM was driven by the injection of isotopically light carbon (e.g., from volcanoes or methane hydrates) into the atmosphere, and many of the associated environmental changes are similar to those occurring today. Therefore, the PETM is often considered the best geological analogue to help us understand anthropogenic environmental change and its impacts.

However, whilst a large number of studies have investigated biotic and environmental change at the PETM, these have primarily focussed on individual sites or single organismal groups, preventing an understanding of both the spatial patterns of change (e.g., development of tropical exclusion zones) and ecosystem functioning before, during and after abrupt environmental change, and the relative role of abiotic drivers on these changes.

The student will address this deficit by generating/compiling datasets to quantify marine ecosystem change globally. These data will be integrated with extensive palaeoenvironmental datasets, in many cases from the same sites.

Key questions that will be addressed include:

  • Was there a change in ecosystem function during the PETM?
  • Was temperature the dominant driver of marine ecosystem change?
  • How do organisms with different ecologies and habitat preferences respond to the same environmental drivers?


The student will collate existing species abundance and diversity datasets alongside co-occurring environmental datasets spanning the PETM. In the first instance, marine benthos and nekton will be targeted and supplemented by new data collection where significant gaps are identified (e.g., ichnofossils, fish, sharks, corals). This new data collection will utilise NHM and IODP materials, including new material recovered by Edgar during IODP Expedition 369 in the SW Indian Ocean and may involve fieldwork.These data will be supplemented by morphological data as appropriate (e.g., body size).

The resulting data compilation will be used to quantity changes in the ecological structure and function of marine communities across the PETM.

Data will be compared with multiple geochemical and sedimentological proxies detailing marine environmental change, including bottom water temperature, water column stratification, carbon and nutrient cycling, and oxygenation. These will be used to assess the relative influence of abiotic factors on biotic change.

Training and Skills

The student will gain experience in data synthesis, creating new and using existing databases, taxonomic identification of fossil marine organisms and in applying geochemical, sedimentological and palaeoecological techniques to address key questions in earth system sciences. The student will develop skills in multivariate statistical techniques, graphing and mapping in the free R environment. Opportunities for travel to visit museum collections, core repositories or fieldwork are possible, and relevant training will be provided.

These skills are highly transferable within academia and industry, and will enable the student to specialise as a palaeontologist or palaeoclimatologist.


Year 1: Complete literature review and initial data compilation of marine benthos and/or nekton as well as corresponding environmental records across the PETM. Identify key gaps in existing organismal or spatial coverage and fill where possible. Presentation of initial results at Palaeontological Association annual meeting in 2019/2020, e.g., Valencia, Spain. You will have regular meetings with your co-supervisor at the NHM, London throughout the PhD.

Year 2: Continued data collection, interpretation, and develop manuscript 1. Presentation of results at large international meeting in 2020/2021 such as the Geological Society of America (GSA) annual meeting in Canada and a UK based meeting, e.g., Palaeontological Association.

Year 3: Complete outstanding data collection, analyses, and interpretation. Prepare remaining manuscripts and thesis write-up. Presentation of final results at European Geosciences Union Meeting in Vienna or GSA, and Palaeontological Association annual meeting.

Partners and collaboration

This project brings together expertise from different areas to maximise the value of existing datasets to tackle pressing questions relating to the impact of abrupt environmental change on marine communities. Each supervisor brings a complimentary skill set: Edgar is a Cenozoic microfossil specialist and palaeoceanographer specialising in abrupt ancient global warming events; Twitchett specialises in the early Mesozoic warming-related mass extinction events and effects on marine ecosystems; Butler is a vertebrate palaeontologist with relevant expertise in building and using palaeontological databases (especially the Paleobiology Database) and quantitative analysis of macroevolution.

Check out the University of Birmingham's Palaeobiology and Palaeoclimate group webpages for more information on the group that you would be joining.


CENTA studentships are available to UK and EU applicants only.

Residency rules apply. UK and EU students with qualifying residence in the UK are eligible for full-cost awards. Non-UK students from the EU who do not have qualifying residence are eligible for fees-only awards, which covers the tuition fees and Research Training Support Grant (RTSG), but not stipend. 

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

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.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed through the University of Birmingham's online application service.

You will also need to complete and submit the CENTA studentship application form as part of the online application procedure.

The deadline for applications is 21 January 2019.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Dr Kirsty Edgar


University of Birmingham

Main supervisor: Dr Kirsty Edgar

Co-supervisor: Prof Richard Butler

Natural History Museum

Co-supervisor: Prof Richard Twitchett


Danise, S. et al., (2014). ‘Environmental controls on Jurassic marine ecosystems during global warming’. Geology, 43, pp. 263-266.

Foster, W., and Twitchett, R. J. (2014). ‘Functional diversity of marine ecosystems after the Late Permian mass extinction event’. Nature Geoscience, 7, pp. 233-238.

Kunzig, R. (2011). World Without Ice. National Geographic.

McInerney, F.A. and Wing, S.L. (2011). ‘The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal maximum: A Perturbation of Carbon Cycle, Climate and Biosphere with Implications for the Future’. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 39, pp. 489-516.

CENTA Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships involving the Universities of Birmingham, Leicester,  Warwick, Loughborough, Cranfield and The Open University and four NERC research organisations.

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