Emily Swaby

The Open University


The effect of the Toarcian (Early Jurassic) extreme environmental change on insects.


  • Prof. Angela Coe (The Open University)
  • Dr Luke Mander (The Open University)
  • Dr Bryony Caswell (University of Hull)
  • Dr Scott Hayward (University of Birmingham).

PhD Summary

Insects are now one of the most diverse group of animals and are vital to nearly all terrestrial and freshwater habitats, yet studies suggest that populations are plummeting and approximately 40% of insect species are in decline due to climate change. However, to understand how perturbations to the environment are currently affecting insects, it is important to recognise how extreme environmental change affected them in the past.

The Toarcian was a time of environmental turmoil. Global temperatures rose by approximately 7-10°C, large quantities of CO2 were released into the ocean-atmosphere system, eustatic sea-level rose and organic rich mudrocks were deposited globally. The Toarcian oceanic anoxic event (T-OAE) has been estimated as lasting 0.3 – 0.5 million years, reaching a maximum during the falciferum ammonite Zone, and encapsulates a mass extinction of both marine and terrestrial biota.

My PhD research will establish and explore the relationship between accumulations of fossilised insects, global temperatures and pCO2 increases for the Toarcian palaeoenvironmental change. Through identifying insects and assessing insect leaf damage from shallow-marine successions in the UK and Denmark, I will explore the variations in the changing composition of insect communities during the event and determine if there is any link to the nutritional value of plants during this time.

Previous activity

I received a First Class BSc (Hons) degree in Palaeontology from the University of Portsmouth (2015 – 2018) and was awarded the Palaeontological Association Project Prize for the best BSc (Hons) Palaeontology dissertation; my undergraduate thesis investigated the taphonomy of ammonites from the Toarcian Whitby Mudstone Formation, North Yorkshire. I was also awarded the American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists/The Palynology Society (AASP/TPS) Student Award, and the Palaeontological Association Prize for excellence in the associated undergraduate modules.

I then undertook a stand-alone one year Masters degree at the University of Manchester (2018 – 2020) and received an MPhil in Palaeontology for a thesis that focused on a revision of Temnodontosaurus crassimanus (Reptilia: Ichthyosauria) from the Lower Jurassic (Toarcian) of Whitby, Yorkshire, UK. This research formed the basis of my first scientific paper, published in the journal Historical Biology (https://doi.org/10.1080/08912963.2020.1826469).

Why did you choose doctoral research?

After completing a couple of research projects prior to this PhD, I loved the process of producing original research and essentially improving our knowledge of the fossil record. Obtaining my PhD is a vital step in gaining/developing the skills and knowledge required to continue in academic research.

Why did you choose CENTA?

What initially attracted me to a CENTA studentship was the opportunity to work alongside a multidisciplinary supervisory team on a fascinating PhD project, that was well suited to my previous research experience and also fully funded.  Additionally, the high quality of training and support offered by CENTA will I hope prove extremely useful for my career in academia.

Future plans

After my PhD, I hope to continue in academia by undertaking post-doctoral research and perhaps go on to teach at university level. I believe that the CENTA studentship will provide me with a well-respected research degree and the skills required for any postdoctoral and research positions in the future. I believe that the support provided by The Open University will also help me to pursue this, through building contacts with people in my field of research over the course of my PhD.