Ecosystem response to environmental change

Fossil burrows

Fossil burrows can be used to measure size change in the soft-bodied burrowing animals that inhabited ancient seafloors

Principal Investigator

Prof Richard Twitchett

Project summary

Focus: Understanding the response of ancient ecosystems to major environmental changes of the past

Museum scientists are investigating the response of ancient ecosystems to major environmental changes of the past, particularly those associated with climate change, global warming and the mass extinction episodes of the Phanerozoic.

This multidisciplinary work involves stratigraphy, sedimentology and geochemistry, with a strong focus on the analysis of fossil specimens, whether through fieldwork or using museum collections.

Research themes

  • Trace fossils through time: Using fossil burrows, tracks and trails as records of the responses of benthic animals to past climate change. The patterns of these trace fossils reflect changes in bioturbation and foraging through past extinction events.
  • Environmental change during the Permian and Mesozoic: Studying the evidence for, and consequences of, changes in atmospheric CO2, temperature, marine hypoxia, and continental weathering associated with the Late Permian, Late Triassic and early Jurassic extinction events.
  • Palaeoecology of mass extinction events: Patterns and drivers of ecological change through Phanerozoic extinction events, including size change and the Lilliput effect, marine ecosystem functioning and fossil and rock record biases.

Size is a key trait preserved in fossils, such as these 250 million year old marine bivalves

Size matters: responding to environmental change

Body size research led by Prof Adrian Lister and Prof Richard Twitchett could help predict the impact of our rapidly changing climate.

Selected publications

Garilli V, Rodolfo-Metalpa R, Scuderi D, Brusca L, Parrinello D, Rastrick SPS, Foggo A, Twitchett RJ, Hall-Spencer JM and Milazzo M (2015). Physiological advantages of dwarfing in surviving extinctions in high-CO2 oceans. Nature Climate Change.

Chen YL, Twitchett RJ, Jiang HS, Richoz S, Lai XL, Yan CB, Sun YD, Liu XD and Wang L (2013). Size variation of conodonts during the Smithian-Spathian (Early Triassic) global warming event. Geology, 41, 823-826. 

Metcalfe B, Twitchett RJ and Price-Lloyd N (2011). Size and growth rate of ‘Lilliput’ animals in the earliest Triassic. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 308, 171-180.

Morten SD and Twitchett RJ (2009). Fluctuations in the body size of marine invertebrates through the Pliensbachian-Toarcian extinction event. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 284, 29-38.

Twitchett RJ (2007). The Lilliput effect in the aftermath of the end-Permian extinction event. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 252, 132-144.