Project highlights

  • Use cutting edge approaches to analyse conodont feeding mechanisms and interpret the conodont fossil record in terms of their functional ecology and differential evolutionary success and survival of ecological guilds
  • Exploit the exceptionally good fossil record of conodonts to analyse major evolutionary drivers before, during and after major perturbations in the biosphere
  • Opportunities to travel to collect data from fossil collections (e.g. China, USA).


Functional ecology, analysis of dietary niche and trophic interactions provide powerful lenses through which to view major events in the history of life, but robust, fossil-based analysis of evolutionary patterns, and changes through major extinctions, is challenging. Conodont teeth are abundant and diverse, and the fossil record of this long-lived group of primitive vertebrates is among the best of any group of organisms. In many ways conodonts are ideal for investigating links between ecological and evolutionary patterns and major extinctions through the Palaeozoic and Triassic, but such research has been hampered by our lack of palaeobiological understanding. How conodont tooth morphology is related to diet, for example, was effectively unknown. New methods of analysis are changing this.

Work pioneered in Leicester (Purnell 1995; Purnell and Jones 2012) has demonstrated that wear and surface damage on conodont teeth is common and informative regarding feeding mechanisms and diet. Analysis can thus reveal dietary changes through time, and differences between taxa. Current work has demonstrated how new approaches to quantitative 3D analysis of mammal tooth shape are informative in dietary analysis of other animals (Stockey et al. in review) and can be applied to conodonts, providing powerful insights into trophic ecology (Figure 1).

By combining analyses of conodont feeding mechanisms and diet with robust tests for biases in their fossil record, this project will investigate the relationship between functional ecology (primarily feeding mechanisms and dietary niche), diversity, and evolutionary patterns. This novel approach will determine how extinction risk varies between different trophic guilds of conodonts, and how survival and diversification vary with trophic ecology. The results will provide a new proxy for ecosystem collapse and recovery through the Palaeozoic.

Quantitative approaches lie at the core of this project, so you should be numerate and keen to engage with mechanical and statistical methods of analysis. Although there are key questions and a series of well-constrained analyses at its core, this project also offers scope for an excellent student to develop the research in new directions.


University of Leicester


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator


How to apply


Evolutionary patterns will be investigated quantitatively using both phylogenetic and stratigraphic range data. Dietary and functional analysis will be based on: 1. Analysis of dental topography (Pineda-Munoz 2017; Stockey et al. in review; see Figure 1) applied to 3D morphological data; 2. Quantitative analysis of surface damage and wear using approaches developed by Purnell and Jones (2012); 3. Development of new analyses of tooth function in non-platform elements, based on techniques developed by Murdock and Donoghue (Murdock et al. 2013). New approaches to taphonomic analysis of post-mortem wear in conodont elements (pre- and post-burial) will be developed.

Training and skills

In addition to standard micropalaeontological techniques, project specific training will include optical, Scanning Electron, and focus variation microscopy, both 2D and 3D; quantitative analysis of 3D complexity (using OPC) and surface wear and damage; techniques for phylogenetic testing and analysis of macroevolutionary patterns. 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.

This project is ideal for applicants with a first degree in geological or biological sciences and an aptitude for quantitative analysis.


Partners and collaboration

Professors Mark Purnell and Phil Donoghue have a long track record of innovative research in conodont palaeobiology and taphonomy. Purnell has expertise in the use of tooth wear and damage, and dental topographic analysis to infer diet and dietary change, while Donoghue has pioneered phylogenetic analysis of conodonts. Dr Duncan Murdock has developed new approaches to analysis of conodont function and established how they evolved from paraconodont ancestors. There are close links between respective research groups. The supervisors have collaborations and strong links into the international palaeontological community, and you will undertake data collection visits to overseas collaborators (e.g. USA, Europe and China).

Further details

Any questions? Contact Mark Purnell, University of Leicester, [email protected]

To apply to this project please visit:

Possible timeline

Year 1

Formulate sampling strategy and acquire specimens for analysis in Leicester, including visits to overseas collections (China and USA). Supplement existing data sets with 3D data and topographic analysis of conodonts and analogues, combined with analysis of functional morphology. Develop generic level database of conodont diversity through time. Start data collection for analysis of damage and wear.

Year 2

Continued data collection. Publication of first results of functional and topographic analysis.

Year 3

Finish data collection; focus on analysis of evolutionary patterns and establishing the relationships with diet and trophic niche. Writing the thesis will take place during the final year, but papers will be published throughout the project. There will also be opportunties to give presentations at international meetings in the UK and overseas.

Further reading

Murdock, D. J. E., Sansom, I. J. & Donoghue, P. C. J. 2013: Cutting the first ‘teeth’: a new approach to functional analysis of conodont elements. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280,

Pineda-Munoz, S., I. A. Lazagabaster, J. Alroy, A. R. Evans & N. Cooper 2017: Inferring diet from dental morphology in terrestrial mammals. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 8, 481-491.

Purnell, M. A. 1995: Microwear on conodont elements and macrophagy in the first vertebrates. Nature 374, 798-800.

Purnell, M. A. & Donoghue, P. C. J. 2005: Between death and data: biases in interpretation of the fossil record of conodonts. In Purnell, M. A. & Donoghue, P. C. J. (ed.): Conodont biology and phylogeny – interpreting the fossil record. Special Papers in Palaeontology 73, 7-25. Palaeontological Association,

Purnell, M. A. & Jones, D. O. 2012: Quantitative analysis of conodont tooth wear and damage as a test of ecological and functional hypotheses. Paleobiology 38, 605-626.

Stockey, C., N. F. Adams, T. H. P. Harvey, P. C. J. Donoghue & M. A. Purnell in review: Dental topographic analysis of feeding tools allows dietary inference in diverse animals. Methods in Ecology and Evolution.


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 US collections, 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.