Lisa Schnetz

University of Birmingham


The completeness of the early shark fossil record


Dr. Ivan Sansom & Prof. Richard Butler

PhD Summary

My main research will focus around the question ‘How complete is the early fossil record of sharks?’. Sharks have inhabited this planet for over 400 million years and have maintained their status as top predators up until today. While we know a substantial amount about their history and diversification patterns from later geological periods, little is known about both their early history and diversity. There is a 50-million-year gap between the earliest findings of scales and the first shark teeth, where we have no indication of shark-like properties in the fossil record. Fossils of sharks are rarely preserved beyond the teeth and jaw sections, thus making it more difficult to investigate them. This project will aim to assess and investigate the quality of the fossil record of early sharks using new approaches to estimate the fossil record completeness of early sharks in order to address a series of key questions, including: (1) How complete is the early shark fossil record in comparison with other groups? (2) Is completeness impacted by ecological categories, habitat preferences, and/or body sizes? (3) Are changes in completeness correlated with major changes and shifts in global marine diversity, including evolutionary radiations and mass extinctions? (4) How do changes in completeness correlate with broader estimates of fossil record sampling through time and space?

What inspires you

I have been interested in the natural world since childhood. When I was nine, my parents triggered my specific fascination with sharks and rays when they handed me my first biological book about these creatures. Ever since, I have wanted to deepen my knowledge on the natural world in general and these creatures in particular. My other interest, which was already planted when I was little, was to reconstruct ecosystems that existed millions and millions of years ago. To see what kind of organisms inhabited our planet and how they interacted with each other and why they disappeared. Both of these interests are the reason why I pursued an education in the natural sciences.

Previous activity

I obtained my bachelor degree in Biology with specialisation in zoology at the University of Vienna in 2013. I continued at the University of Vienna with a master degree in Ecology, with the main focus on Marine Biology, from which I graduated from in 2015. Within my master thesis, I investigated the development of morphological key structures such as teeth within sharks of the order Lamniformes, which consists of apex predators such as the great white, mako and porbeagle sharks. Out of this thesis, I was able to publish two research articles in peer reviewed journals in 2016. Additionally, I have been working on an independent project within my research group at the University of Vienna for the past year and a half and attended three conferences in 2017 and 2018.

Why did you choose doctoral research?

I knew that in order to become a professional scientist in biology there is usually only one pathway that professionally prepares one for a career in science. When I started my master degree I already knew that I wanted to continue my career in academia and thus would continue with a doctoral degree. But most importantly, the aspect of conducting a prolonged research project within the timeline of a PhD and being able to fully submerge in one’s project was my main motivation to continue my studies with a doctoral degree.

Why did you choose CENTA?

I have always wanted to continue my scientific education through research on cartilaginous fish. The NERC CENTA project at the University of Birmingham allowed me to combine my pre-existing fascination of Palaeobiology with my knowledge of marine biology. The financial security CENTA provides allows me to focus 100% on my research towards a doctoral degree and to experience the scientific community in another country other than my home country. However, what interested me the most about CENTA were all the additional trainings and opportunities that allow me to infuse my career with the personal growth needed to keep up with a rapidly evolving scientific research community.

Future plans

Completing a doctoral degree funded by NERC CENTA, together with all the additional professional trainings, will provide me with a profound education and grant me more confidence when applying for future positions. I plan to stay in academia, either by immediately applying to a post-doctoral fellowship or any other opportunity that might arise during my time at the University of Birmingham and CENTA. I want to be able to consider myself a true expert in my field and for others to acknowledge me as one as well.