Project highlights

  • Join a world-class team of scientists working to understand the links between extreme climate events and ecosystem dynamics
  • Constrain the dominant patterns, responses and driver(s) of marine ecosystem change
  • Learn a diverse range of key statistical, palaeobiological and geochemical techniques to investigate controls on past life and relevance to modern communities


The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), ~56 million years ago, is the largest and most abrupt global warming event in Earth history, and the best geological analogue for understanding anthropogenic climate change and its impacts. Injection of carbon into the atmosphere led to major changes in the oceans, including: rapid warming (>5°C), reduced pH and dissolved oxygen content, and large changes in nutrient availability and stratification as seasonality and the hydrological cycle intensified. Such dramatic environmental change should have had a substantive impact on marine ecosystems. However, at present there is little or no evidence for widespread extinction across multiple marine groups. Our understanding of the impact of the PETM on the diversity and functioning of ecosystems is surprisingly limited given ~30 years of study, and it being arguably the most highly resolved and best sampled of the major deep-time climatic events. This is because researchers primarily focus on individual sites or organismal groups, working within traditional disciplinary silos (e.g., micropalaeontology vs macropalaeontology; stratigraphy vs palaeontology; ecologists vs taxonomists). Thus, the full potential of this exceptional event to answer questions about the resilience of marine ecosystems to abrupt environmental change has yet to be realised.

We will address this, knowledge gap, by integrating disparate marine microfossil, macrofossil, and environmental records from across the globe from before, during and after the PETM for the first time (~55-57 Myrs; Fig. 1). These data will be synthesised in a cutting-edge statistical framework drawn from the fields of palaeobiology and palaeoecology to best quantify changes in biodiversity and ecosystem function. Together with state-of-the-art climate model outputs, we will determine the relative roles of physical versus biological drivers of PETM biodiversity change. Our research will answer fundamental questions about how and why marine ecosystems are impacted by past abrupt environmental change, of direct relevance to understanding the patterns and mechanisms of major warming events throughout Earth history and today.


University of Birmingham


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

  • Dr Kirsty Edgar (University of Birmingham)


  • Prof. Richard Twitchett (Natural History Museum, London)
  • Prof. Richard Butler (University of Birmingham)

How to apply


The student will collate existing species abundance and diversity datasets alongside co-occurring environmental datasets spanning the PETM. In the first instance, marine benthos and plankton will be targeted and supplemented by new data collection where significant spatial or organismal gaps are identified (e.g., ichnofossils, corals, ostracods). This new data collection will utilise NHM and IODP materials, including new material recovered by Edgar during IODP Expedition 369 in the SW Indian Ocean and may involve fieldwork. These data will be supplemented by morphological data as appropriate (e.g., body size). The resulting data compilation will be used to quantity changes in the ecological structure and function of marine communities across the PETM.

Data will be compared with multiple geochemical and sedimentological proxies detailing marine environmental change, including bottom water temperature, water column stratification, carbon and nutrient cycling, and oxygenation. These will be used to assess the relative influence of abiotic factors on biotic change.

Training and skills

The student will gain experience in data synthesis, creating new and using existing databases, taxonomic identification of fossil marine organisms and in applying geochemical, sedimentological and palaeoecological techniques to address key questions in earth system sciences. The student will develop skills in multivariate statistical techniques, graphing and mapping in the free R environment. Opportunities for travel to visit museum collections, core repositories or fieldwork are possible (COVID-19 dependent), and relevant training will be provided. These skills are highly transferable within academia and industry and will enable the student to specialise as a palaeontologist or palaeoclimatologist.


Partners and collaboration

This project was developed in collaboration with the Natural History Museum. It brings together expertise from different areas to maximise the value of existing datasets to tackle pressing questions relating to the impact of abrupt environmental change on marine communities. Each supervisor brings a complimentary skill set: Edgar is a Cenozoic microfossil specialist and palaeoceanographer specialising in abrupt ancient global warming events; Twitchett specialises in the early Mesozoic warming-related mass extinction events and effects on marine ecosystems; Butler is a vertebrate palaeontologist with expertise in building and using palaeontological databases (especially the Paleobiology Database) and quantitative analysis of macroevolution.

Further details

Please contact Dr Kirsty Edgar ( for more project specific details. See the CENTA webpage for information on how to apply and general information. Check out the Palaeobiology and Palaeoclimate group webpages for more information on the group that you would be joining: or follow us on twitter @Palaeo_bham.

Applications need to be submitted via the University of Birmingham postgraduate portal,, by midnight 11.01.2021. Please first check whether the primary supervisor is within Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, or in Biosciences, and click on the corresponding PhD program on the application page.

This application should include

  • a brief cover letter, CV, and the contact details for at least two referees
  • a CENTA application form
  • the supervisor and title of the project you are applying for under the Research Information section of the application form.

Referee’s will be invited to submit their references once you submit your application, but we strongly encourage applicants to ensure referees are aware of your submission and expecting a reference request from us. Students are also encouraged to visit and explore the additional information available on the CENTA website.


Possible timeline

Year 1

Complete literature review and initial data compilation of marine benthos and/or plankton as well as corresponding environmental records across the PETM. Identify key gaps in existing organismal or spatial coverage and fill where possible. Presentation of initial results at Palaeontological Association annual meeting. You will have regular meetings with your co-supervisor at the NHM, London throughout the PhD.

Year 2

Continued data collection, interpretation, and develop manuscript 1. Presentation of results at large international meeting such as the Geological Society of America (GSA) annual meeting in Canada and a UK based meeting, e.g., Palaeontological Association.

Year 3

Complete outstanding data collection, analyses, and interpretation. Prepare remaining manuscripts and thesis write-up. Presentation of final results at European Geosciences Union Meeting in Vienna or GSA, and at the Palaeontological Association annual meeting.

Further reading

Danise, S. et al., (2014). ‘Environmental controls on Jurassic marine ecosystems during global warming’. Geology, 43, pp. 263-266.

Foster, W., and Twitchett, R. J. (2014). ‘Functional diversity of marine ecosystems after the Late Permian mass extinction event’. Nature Geoscience, 7, pp. 233-238.

Kunzig, R. (2011). World Without Ice. National Geographic. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22nd Oct. 2018].

McInerney, F.A. and Wing, S.L. (2011). ‘The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal maximum: A Perturbation of Carbon Cycle, Climate and Biosphere with Implications for the Future’. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 39, pp. 489-516.



This project will ideally include both new data collection either in the University of Birmingham’s micropalaeontological laboratories and/or in the Natural History Museum collections. However, this project could be completed based on published literature alone with greater emphasis placed on the analytical component of the project if required.