Taphonomy of the exceptionally-preserved Cambrian Chengjiang biota, Yunnan Province, China: how fossilization affects ecological and evolutionary interpretations

Qualification: PhD

Department: Geology

Application deadline: 21st November 2019

Start date: 28th September 2020



Professor Sarah Gabbott and Professor Mark Williams

Project Description

The Early Cambrian Chengjiang biota in Yunnan Province, China preserves the fossilized remains of a diverse and ecologically complex early Cambrian marine ecosystem. Not only are fossils exceptionally preserved, revealing intimate ecological animal interactions such as predation and symbiosis but their age occurring in the immediate aftermath of the Cambrian evolutionary ‘explosion’ makes them our most valuable resource in exploring early animal evolution in deeptime.

However, all the ecological and evolutionary narrative that we can extract from the biota must be viewed with an understanding of the preservation processes (taphonomy) that led to carcasses becoming fossils. Without this we risk seriously biasing and distorting our view of Cambrian life in this interval. Initial work showed that decay inhibition and the growth of iron pyrite on decaying carcasses was important in preserving the fossils, but now the opportunity is ripe to take these studies much further. In this project the student will use new state-of-the art micro-CT techniques, combined with Scanning Electron Microscopy to investigate the preservational processes in more detail and across a wider range of fossil groups than has been done previously. Selected fossils will provide information on how a variety of anatomical features are preserved and comparisons across fossils and different depositional basins will reveal how fossils became preserved allowing the student to determine: how much anatomy is lost to decay and where it is preserved which tissue types are preserved and how?;

Our ultimate goal, and one which in the Chengjiang is achievable, is to be able to explore how fossilization affects the evolutionary position of taxa on the tree of life (especially arthropods), and to what extent the Chengjiang biota represents the complete living community, or a biased version of this with taxa being absent owing to non-preservation.

The student will benefit from joining a dynamic group of palaeontologists who investigate the Chengjiang biota. Sarah Gabbott and Mark Williams will provide supervision of the taphonomy and arthropod anatomy, respectively. In Yunnan University Dayou Zhai and Lio Liu (from Yunnan Key Laboratory for Palaeontology, YKLP) will teach the student micro-CT and fluorescence imaging. In addition, a new Chinese PhD studentship (funded by Yunnan University) will investigate a different but related project. We plan exchange visits and close collaboration between both students to support their scientific training and development and to foster strong, mutually-beneficial collaboration between research groups.


1. Hou, X.-G., Siveter, D. J., Siveter, D. J., Aldridge, R. J., Cong, P.-Y., Gabbott, S. E., Ma, X., Purnell, M. A.; Williams, M. 2017: The Cambrian fossils of Chengjiang, China. The flowering of early animal life (2nd edition). 328 pp. Wiley-Blackwell.

2. Gaines, R.R., Emma U. Hammarlund, E.U., Xianguang Hou, Changshi Qie, Gabbott, S.E., Yuanlong Zhaog, Jin Pengg, and Canfield, D.E. (2012). Mechanism for Burgess Shale-type preservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 109, E1902.

3. Gabbott., S. E., Norry., J, M., Hou., Xian-guang., Siveter, D. J. (2004). Preservation of Lower Cambrian animals of the Chengjiang biota. Geology, 32(10), 901-904.



UK/EU applicants

This research project is eligible for a fully funded College of Science and Engineering studentship which includes:
A full UK/EU fee waiver for 3.5 years
An annual tax free stipend (For 2019/20 this is currently £15,009)
Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)

International Applicants

This project is eligible for a partially funded College of Science and Engineering studentship which includes:
A full UK/EU fee waiver for 3.5 years (applicants will need to provide evidence they can fund the difference between the UK/EU fee and International fee for the duration of their studies)
An annual tax free stipend of £15,009 (2019/20)
Research Training Support Grant (RTSG)

Entry requirements

Entry requirements

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject or overseas equivalent.
The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable.

Informal enquiries

Informal enquiries

Project / Funding Enquiries: csepgr@le.ac.uk 
Application enquiries to pgradmissions@le.ac.uk

How to apply

How to apply

Please use the Apply button at the bottom of the page.
Select September 2020 entry.

Application Notes

We recommend you apply as early as possible so that any missing information can be obtained before the deadline.

In the funding section of the form state CSE2020 Gabbott Studentship

In the research proposal section include the name of the supervisors and project title.  If you are applying for more than one project within Geology include details of each project.

In the personal statement section upload your completed CSE Studentship Form.  If you are applying for more than one Geology project complete a form for each project and email the additional forms to csepgr@le.ac.uk together with your application ID number.  If you are applying for projects in other subject areas please submit separate PhD applications online.

Upload a copy of your CV, copies of your degree certificates and transcripts if awarded and evidence of English language proficiency if applicable and available.

If you already have reference letters please upload these. If not enter the contact details of your referees in the reference section. Please ask your referees if they can submit their references as quickly as possible, ideally within two weeks of receipt of our reference request.

Application timetable

21st November Deadline for applications and all supporting documents 
9th December Interview invitations to be sent out by email
w/c 13th January 2020  Interviews
21st January 2020 Informal offers to be made
31st January 2020 Deadline for acceptable of informal offers 

The PGR Admissions Office will notify unsuccessful applicants once a decision has been made.



UK/EU applicants

International applicants who can demonstrate that they can fund the difference between UK/EU and International fees.