The Evolutionary and biogeographic impact of the break up of Gondwana during the Cretaceous and Cenozoic

This project is available from the academic year 2024/25 onwards.

Theme: Past Life & Environments

Primary Supervisor:

Paul Upchurch

Earth Sciences, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Julia Day

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Project Description:

The break up of the supercontinent Gondwana started ~160 Million years ago and resulted in the southern continents we know today (Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Madagascar, India and South America). These events are widely believed to have had a major impact on the evolutionary history and biogeographic distributions of animals and plants, resulting in vicariance and dispersal patterns that can still be detected today. A range of new methods have become available recently, including approaches for uniting fossil and extant taxa in dated phylogenetic trees, and the analysis of biogeographic history using Maximum Likelihood and Bayesian approaches. In this project, the student will gather information on the phylogenetic relationships and analyze these for biogeographic patterns in order to test major hypotheses about the roles of vicariance and trans-oceanic dispersal in determining the geographic distributions of southern hemisphere vertebrates. There will be an opportunity to select a vertebrate clade of particular interest (e.g. turtles) and focus on them in order to create new morphological and molecular data sets for the generation of dated phylogenies. Aside from contributing to the wider biogeographic data set, such trees will yield valuable information on divergence times and diversification rates that can be used to examine how Gondwanan break- up promoted or retarded evolutionary radiations. This project will provide an excellent opportunity for the student to learn: vertebrate anatomy and systematics; cutting-edge analytical phylogenetic and biogeographic tools; wider statistical skills; molecular and palaeobiological data collection methods; and oral and written presentation skills.

Policy Impact of Research:

This project will look at interactions between Earth System processes (e.g. plate tectonics and sea level) and the biosphere (i.e. the evolution, extinction and dispersal of vertebrates). This fits current NERC themes relating to ecosystem evolution and resilience, Earth-Life co-evolution, and the generation and maintenance of biodiversity.

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