Aileen O'Brien

University of Leicester


Ecological drivers and evolutionary patterns: diet, feeding, evolution and extinction in conodonts


Professor Mark Purnell, Dr. Duncan Murdock, Professor Phil Donoghue

PhD Summary

Conodonts, the earliest known vertebrates with mineralised skeletons, survived three of the five major extinction events in geological history. The morphological diversity of conodont teeth, their abundance in the fossil record and their geological range means that they are potentially excellent fossils for exploring evolutionary patterns and survival through major diversification and extinction events. Recent studies on conodont teeth have explored how wear and damage to the tooth surface can be related to variations in both feeding mechanism and diet, providing clues to the trophic ecology of conodonts. My project will involve quantitative analysis of tooth wear, surface damage and surface complexity, to determine diet and variation in diet. I will also aim to evaluate evolutionary patterns in conodonts, using both phylogenetic and stratigraphic range data. By studying the relationship between trophic ecology, diversity and evolutionary patterns and drivers, I hope to show how extinction risk varies between different trophic groups in the conodont fossil record, providing new insights into ecosystem collapse and recovery though mass extinction events.

What inspires you?

I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child and loved helping out on both arable and livestock farms of close relatives. Coastal holidays in the west of Ireland inspired my love of geology and this was cemented by studying geography at school, which led to my enrolment on a geology degree course.

Previous Activity

I completed a one-year Research Masters in Vertebrate Palaeontology, at the University of Southampton, in September 2016. This course was a return to geology after a ten-year interval as an engineering technician.

Why did you choose Docotoral Research?

The highlight of my masters course was the research project, but I found the short time allotted quite limiting. The scope of a PhD project, regarding both time and resources, means I will be able spend significantly more time on all aspects: specimen acquisition and assessment, analysis of the data and interpretation of the results. I am looking forward to attending conferences and presenting my work to experts and peers, at both national and international level – this will ensure that I am always up to date with the most recent advances and discoveries in my field.

Why did you choose a CENTA Studentship?

I was delighted to see that the PhD project I was interested in, on the University of Leicester website, was offered with a CENTA studentship. I really appreciate the funding offered by the studentship and the opportunity to undertake training courses and workshops to build my knowledge. The interdisciplinary nature of CENTA studentships is very appealing, with the chance to work with students specialising in other fields.

What are your future plans

The University of Leicester has been at the forefront of conodont studies for a number of decades. Undertaking my chosen PhD project at Leicester means I have access to the knowledge and resources that have been developed over many years of research, with academics that have been instrumental in advancing studies of the conodont animal. I’m sure that the combination of a CENTA studentship and working at the University of Leicester will equip me for a career either in research or in industry. I am very excited at the prospect of over three years of research and, upon completion of this project, can happily envisage a future in research, studying the evolution of vertebrates.