Project highlights

  • Test hypotheses of ecological and evolutionary diversification and displacement linked to environmental change over historical and longer timescales
  • Conduct the first systematic analysis dental microwear in cichlids
  • Apply quantitative dietary analyses to present day, historical and sub-fossil cichlid teeth to test and constrain hypotheses of diet and dietary responses to environmental change


Cichlids provide textbook examples of speciation driven by dietary specialisation. The link between diversity and trophic niche partitioning should mean that periods of environmental change, colonization events, and introductions of invasive fish species have a significant impact on the dietary ecology of cichlids. Rapid diversification in feeding habits, for example, is predicted by models that link adaptive radiations to relaxed competition and expansion into vacant ecospace. Shifts in dietary niche, potentially associated with character displacement, would be expected to result from introductions of invasive competitor species.

Skeletal remains and teeth of cichlids from African lake sediments are starting to be used to test evolutionary and ecological hypotheses (1, 2) but direct testing requires analysis of dietary preferences in historical and sub-fossil specimens. This is difficult to do based on morphological data, because analysis of functional morphology is hampered by the mismatch between apparent specialization in trophic morphology and actual diet (3, 4), particularly in fishes.

Recently, we developed a new approach to dietary analysis based on the application of quantitative dental microwear texture analysis (DMT; (5)) to cichlids and other vertebrates (6-8). DMT analysis of worn surfaces of fish teeth provides a powerful new tool for dietary discrimination and investigation of trophic resource exploitation in fishes. It is particularly useful because the dietary signal accumulates over several days/weeks and therefore avoids the ‘snapshot’ problem inherent in stomach contents analysis. Significantly, DMT analysis can detect subtle dietary differences between individuals and populations in historical, sub-fossil and fossil specimens, and where stomach contents or isotopic data are lacking, but it has yet to be applied to a broad range of cichlids with diverse feeding habits.

This project will develop and apply DMT analysis of cichlids, combined with other approaches based on quantitative ecometrics (9) to determine the sensitivity and degree to which these metrics can capture the range of diets among cichlids. The outcome of this analysis will allow direct testing of hypotheses of ecological and evolutionary diversification and displacement linked to environmental change over historical and longer timescales.


University of Leicester


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

  • Prof Mark Purnell, University of Leicester



  •  Prof Sarah Gabbott, University of Leicester

How to apply


The project will focus on extensive collections of cichlids in the collections of the Natural History Museum (London), Nauralis (Leiden), and research material from collaborator Lauren Chapman (Montreal). Sub-fossil material (e.g. Lake Chala (1)) will also be available for analysis through project collaborators. Further calibration of cichlid DMT through feeding experiments (10), and analysis of character displacement through morphometric analysis is also possible. Dietary analysis will employ quantitative 3D texture analysis of microwear using methods developed at Leicester (7, 8, 11), combined with other metrics (9). Our approach will allow robust analysis and hypothesis testing of the role of feeding and diet at different temporal and spatial scales, and has the potential to pick up dietary transitions that predate and potentially drive morphological adaptation of teeth.

Training and skills

Specialist training will include analytical/experimental design, quantitative tooth microwear texture analysis, and statistics. The emphasis will be on robust quantitative analysis and statistical hypothesis testing. At Leicester, you will join the Centre for Palaeobiology Research – a well-equipped and dynamic group of researchers, PhD and Masters students who meet frequently to discuss their research. This includes other students working on novel analyses of diet and trophic niche in vertebrates.

Partners and collaboration

Purnell leads research on quantitative palaeo-dietary analysis at Leicester and has developed new applications of the technique to a variety of animals, including fishes and other vertebrates (6-8). Technical development has included both collections-based and experimental approaches. Gabbott investigates primitive fossil fish, both their soft-tissue anatomy including colour patterning and their feeding ecology. More recently she has been working on fish feeding behaviour and trophic structure of cichlids in both Lake Malawi and in the laboratory.

The supervisors have collaborations and strong links into the international palaeontological community, and you will be expected to undertake data collection visits to overseas collections and collaborators. Access to critical collections of cichlids has been secured.

Further details

For further details contact:

Mark Purnell

Professor of Palaeobiology

Centre for Palaeobiology Research

School of Geography, Geology and the Environment

University of Leicester

Tel +44 116 252 3645

Ideally, applicants should have a first degree in the geological or biological sciences and an aptitude for quantitative analysis.


Possible timeline

Year 1

Basic research skills training; familiarisation with literature, existing datasets and tooth microwear techniques; formulation of specific research questions and hypotheses; commence collection and analysis of tooth microwear data focused initially on in house collections.

Year 2

Extend collection and analysis of tooth microwear in extant cichlids following visits to collections, particularly in Europe. Analysis of fossil and historical cichlid material. Conference participation and presentations of first year results.

Year 3

Synthesis of results and analysis of diet in evolutionary and broader ecological context. Writing the thesis will take place during the final year, but papers will be published throughout the project.

Further reading

. Dieleman J, Van Bocxlaer B, Nyingi WD, Lyaruu A, Verschuren D. Recurrent changes in cichlid dentition linked to climate-driven lake-level fluctuations. Ecosphere. 2019;10(4):e02664.

  1. Muschick M, Russell JM, Jemmi E, Walker J, Stewart KM, Murray AM, et al. Arrival order and release from competition does not explain why haplochromine cichlids radiated in Lake Victoria. Proc Biol Sci. 2018;285(1878).
  2. Robinson BW, Wilson DS. Optimal foraging, specialization, and a solution to Liem’s paradox. Am Nat. 1998;151:223-35.
  3. Bellwood DR, Wainwright PC, Fulton CJ, Hoey AS. Functional versatility supports coral reef biodiversity. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences. 2006;273(1582):101-7.
  4. Scott RS, Ungar PS, Bergstrom TS, Brown CA, Grine FE, Teaford MF, et al. Dental microwear texture analysis shows within-species diet variability in fossil hominins. Nature. 2005;436(7051):693-5.
  5. Purnell MA, Darras LPG. 3D tooth microwear texture analysis in fishes as a test of dietary hypotheses of durophagy. Surf Topogr. 2015;4(1):014006.
  6. Bestwick J, Unwin DM, Butler RJ, Purnell MA. Dietary diversity and evolution of the earliest flying vertebrates. Nat Commun. 2020.
  7. Purnell MA, Seehausen O, Galis F. Quantitative three-dimensional microtextural analyses of tooth wear as a tool for dietary discrimination in fishes. J R Soc Interface. 2012;9(74):2225-33.
  8. Pineda-Munoz S, Lazagabaster IA, Alroy J, Evans AR, Cooper N. Inferring diet from dental morphology in terrestrial mammals. Methods Ecol Evol. 2017;8(4):481-91.
  9. Purnell MA, Bell MA, Baines DC, Hart PJB, Travis MP. Correlated evolution and dietary change in fossil stickleback. Science. 2007;317(5846):1887.
  10. Gill PG, Purnell MA, Crumpton N, Robson Brown K, Gostling NJ, Stamponi M, et al. Dietary specializations and diversity in feeding ecology of the earliest stem mammals. Nature. 2014;512:303-5.


The University of Leicester has clear and effective guidelines and risk assessments that have allowed for safe overseas data collection during the pandemic where it is essential for PhD research to progress. If prevailing conditions during this project prevent research visits to collections, some material is already to hand in Leicester, and arrangements are in place for material to shipped to Leicester. Combined with the potential for major data collecting trips to be carried out in year 2 of the project, the impact of COVID-19 on the research can be mitigated.