Will Crabbe

University of Leicester


Growth, form and function in problematic Cambrian paraconodonts


Dr Tom Harvey (University of Leicester), Prof. Mark Purnell (University of Leicester), Dr Duncan Murdock (University of Oxford), Prof. Phil Donoghue (University of Bristol)

PhD Summary

The Cambrian evolutionary ‘explosion’ is recorded by the proliferation of biomineralized structures in the fossil record. However, many ‘small shelly fossils’, remain difficult to interpret in anatomical, phylogenetic and functional terms, limiting their utility for reconstructing evolutionary patterns and processes. Middle to upper Cambrian assemblages of ‘paraconodont’ microfossils are suggested to include the evolutionary precursors to euconodont feeding elements, which are tooth-like structures that evolved independently of teeth in other vertebrates. Simple, conical paraconodont elements strongly support this evolutionary scenario, but other paraconodont elements are more structurally complex, with unresolved growth modes and functional roles. Were the earliest conodonts more ecologically disparate than has been appreciated, or are ‘complex’ paraconodont elements anatomically or phylogenetically unrelated to conodonts? Resolution of this question will either constrain the origins of an extraordinary convergent radiation of ‘toothy’ vertebrates or reveal previously unknown Cambrian bodyplans. This project will take advantage of a recently discovered assemblage of diverse, abundant and exceptionally well-preserved paraconodont elements from the upper Cambrian Deadwood Formation of western Canada.

What inspires you

Growing up in the rural area of the Yorkshire Dales I was constantly surrounded by beautiful landscapes and wonderful Carboniferous Limestones with the Jurassic Coast just a stone throws away. This naturally piqued my interest in the natural world and made me want to learn more about how our planet and the life that inhabited it has changed over time.

Previous activity

I originally started on the BSc Geology with Palaeobiology course at the University of Leicester but switched onto the MGeol (integrated masters) course during my second year in order to pursue my interest in research, as well as maximise my learning in palaeontology. During my degree I undertook two independent research projects, the first looking into anthropogenic climate change and its utility as marker point for the start of the ‘Anthropocene’ epoch and a second looking into mudstone sedimentology and fossil ecosystems during the latest Ediacaran (~548Ma) of Estonia. I also undertook some outreach work including presenting microwear research at the Yorkshire Fossil Festival and working as part of the education team on the ‘Vardyquake’ project during Leicester City’s famous 2016 title winning campaign.

Why did you choose doctoral research?

I have always had a passion for uncovering new knowledge and a PhD is the perfect opportunity to help me further understanding in an area of great interest to me. I also hope to develop a career in palaeobiological research and a doctoral degree is an essential stepping stone on that path.

Why did you choose CENTA?

I was interested in the CENTA studentship program not only because it offered full funding for a fascinating research program at a leading research institution, but also because it offered a training program in a multitude of areas including statistical computing and media engagement. These skills, on top of those gained through the research project, will train me to be a front-line scientist and will be of vital importance to any career I choose to enter following my PhD.

Future plans

Leicester is one the leading palaeobiological research institutions in the UK and a research qualification from here will be of vital importance when I look to apply for post docs and research positions in the future.