Postgraduate study

ICAL members are highly active in research-led teaching and training at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Here you can find details of postgraduate training opportunities with the group.

The Interdisciplinary Centre for Ancient Life at The University of Manchester has more than ten faculty members actively researching topics in ancient life: from traces of some of the earliest bacteria, to the origins of our own species. Associated with these staff is a large community of PhD and masters students, working across fields and disciplines. As such, The University of Manchester is a vibrant and exciting place to conduct postgraduate study, and we highlight a range of opportunities to join us below. A key aim for ICAL is to ensure fair access: to identify and attract the very best students to Manchester, regardless of background. As such, the centre strongly supports and promotes the University’s social responsibility agenda, which is a core part of both our teaching and research. This is reflected by the strong infrastructure in place to support postgraduate students at the University of Manchester.

Further details regarding ICAL, its members, and the facilities available to us are available on this website. The University of Manchester website for postgraduate study has lots of information to help you decide the course that is right for you: It has further information you may find valuable. In particular, you can further details on funding study, including a funding opportunities database, information about our postgraduate researcher development program, and you might want to investigate the university's world leading library, award-winning careers service, and specialised research IT service.

We are here to answer any questions you might have regarding joining the group: contact details can be found below, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Your choice in ICAL

You may already have a specific research area in mind, or a research supervisor you would like to work with. If so, please contact us (ical@manchester.ac.uk) so we can help you choose the best options, provide advice, and support your application. We can also put you in touch with supervisors for any specific projects listed below. 

MPhil in Palaeontology

An MPhil research degree takes place over a single year. We offer projects in a wide range of areas: potential project titles are listed below. Over the course of an MPhil, you will carry out research into the topic that you have chosen, and finish with the publication of your own dissertation (which is how the degree is assessed). The science is cutting edge, and will not have been conducted before - the programme offers you the opportunity to become the world expert in a topic, and push the boundaries of one or a number of fields through novel research. Throughout the course of your MPhil by Research, you will receive supervision from members of academic staff from the ICAL team, working with them on research for your scientific project, and be supported through regular meetings regarding your work and a strong research support infrastructure provided by the faculty, as well as an active research community in ICAL. You can find details about the fees entry requirements, and how to apply, on the university website.

Potential MPhil in Palaeontology Topics

A new Devonian vertebrate locality in Shropshire

A revision of the large ichthyosaur Temnodontosaurus crassimanus from the Jurassic of Yorkshire, UK

Description of a new collection of ichthyosaurs from the Triassic-Jurassic boundary of Somerset, UK

Building a phylogeny for Palaeozoic insects

Computer modelling the origins of sexual reproduction: testing the red queen

Paleoclimate modeling as a means to understanding biospheres of the past

Modelling mass mortality and demographic recovery in the human evolutionary record

In silico mass extinctions and recovery

Assessing phylogenetic methodologies through simulation studies

The impact of including fossils in phylogenies: insights from empirical and simulated data

The impact of ontogeny, sexual dimorphism and interspecific variation on phylogenetic hypotheses

Integration and pseudo-replication of mammal teeth characters

Detecting anagenesis in the fossil record using phylogenetic methods: A case study using trilobites

New insights into the preservation of an Eocene fossil lagerstatte

The role of sediments in decay experiments

The palaeometallome revealed in exceptionally preserved soft tissue

Atomic-scale palaeontology

Bone diagenesis and collagen preservation

The utility of the carapace in ostracod phylogenetics

Placing the problematic parasites Pentastomida (tongue worms) into the arthropod tree of life

Mimicry in the insect fossil record: criteria for identification and phylogenetic implications

A taxonomic and phylogenetic reassessment of scorpions from amber deposits

Paleoclimate variation and extinction risk: using fossil assemblages to understand species resilience

Spatial distribution of dens of spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) in Middle and Upper Pleistocene Britain

Molecular biomarkers for estimation of age at death in forensic and archaeological remains

Human impacts on palaeobiodiversity

Molecular approaches to species identification of archaeological remains

Phylogenetic reconstructions using palaeoproteomics

Origins of animal domestication through ancient biomolecules

Doctoral students

The Interdisciplinary Centre for Ancient Life offers doctoral students:

  • An established and exciting interdisciplinary research environment.
  • An academic team with an unrivalled depth and breadth of supervisory experience.
  • Excellent mentoring and early career support for researchers.
  • Access to existing national and international research networks and resources.

Our research students are encouraged to contribute to the broader student experience, integrating with the undergraduate population, promoting and practicing research led-teaching. There are also frequent opportunities to contribute to ICAL's Outreach and Widening Participation activities, allowing our students gain expertise in engaging the public and communicating their science. This includes the innovative outreach programmes that the University Museum already offers, and the ICAL outreach programme outlined on this website.

Postgraduate research training opportunities

We welcome applications from suitable candidates at any time of year. Please approach potential supervisors or drop us an email if you have a project idea that is not currently listed, or have questions regarding PhD applications.

We currently have a number of funded PhD opportunities available through the BBSRC and NERC doctoral trainining programs in the University of Manchester. These are awarded in competition with other projects and applicants. The deadline for BBSRC applications is the 17th November 2017, and for NERC ones is the 19th January 2018. You can apply for all programs online.

Projects available in the BBSRC DTP with ICAL members are:

  • Evolution in silico and in vitro: environmental change, mutation and space 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website, and searching for pojects supervised by Russell Garwood.

  • The origin and radiation of arthropods 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website, and searching for pojects supervised by Robert Sansom.

  • Taxonomic information from palaeoproteomes 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website, and searching for pojects supervised by Mike Buckley.

Projects available in the NERC DTP with ICAL members are:

  • Building a Fossil Insect Phylogeny 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

  • Early Earth hydrosphere-lithosphere interactions 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

  • Evolution in Space 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

  • Linking Experimental Decay to the Fossil Record 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

  • Microbe-mineral interaction and long-term mineral diagenesis  

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

  • Modeling the Earth's Past 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

  • Paleoclimate reconstruction of the Baffin Bay region, west Greenland 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

  • The Geochemistry of Chert Fossils in Deep Time 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

  • The soft tissue fossil record to elucidate the origin and diversification of vertebrates 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

  • Tracing Earths Early Oxygenation by Synchrotron Element Mapping of Microbialites 

    Full details for this PhD can be recovered by visiting the DTP website.

Here are a number of projects we have offered in the past. Please do get in touch if any are of interest to you.

  • Proteome Dynamics in Ageing Bone 

    Principal Supervisor: Dr Mike Buckley 
    Co-Supervisors: Professor Andrew ChamberlainProfessor Roy Wogelius

    Bone is a composite material made up of an approximately 25-30% organic component, which is predominantly structural protein, and the remainder an inorganic phase, predominantly calcium phosphate mineral. Despite its biomineralisation, bone is not an inert tissue, but one that changes throughout the lifetime of an individual, and can be affected by many aspects of the individual organism’s life, such as diet and health. The bone proteome is the complete set of different proteins that in some way interact with bone tissue, the complexity and decay state of which continues to alter during the remodelling process, which itself changes with ageing. However, the processes by which proteins in the extracellular matrix signal for remodelling (e.g., deamidation and/or oxidation), and how these signals change through time is poorly understood. This project would seek to explore the potential of proteomic-based techniques to understanding biological signatures in bone remodelling, particularly how these differ between individuals of the same species as well as between different skeletal elements of the same individual and changes within the same skeletal elements through time. The project will explore the practical reproducibility of top-down and bottom-up proteomics methods and evaluate the most appropriate means to measure the changes that occur during the ageing process, supported by mapping of the inorganic phases of the bone tissue. This project would be suitable for a molecular biologist with interests in broadening their expertise in bone biology as well as learning cutting-edge techniques in imaging, with application applications to biomineralised tissues. 

  • Integrating morphology, fossils and molecules to evaluate major evolutionary events 

    Principal SupervisorDr Rob Sansom 
    Co-Supervisors: Professor Chris KlingenbergProfessor David Robertson

    Recent advances have provided a wealth of molecular data with which to build phylogenies and study evolutionary processes. Morphology, however, remains fundamental for reconstructing how organisms have changed and evolved through time. Indeed, it is usually the only kind of data yielded by fossils. However, a large gap exists between genomic and phenomic data limiting our ability to use either to evaluate evolutionary hypotheses. For example, which aspects of morphology are in accordance with molecular data and can be used to reliably reconstruct major evolutionary events? Do genetic innovations such as gene and genome duplication events match morphological innovation, integration or radiation? This project aims to address these outstanding questions by collating and integrating genetic, morphological, and morphometric datasets from across the tree of life. The combined datasets will not only provide a tool kit with which to better reconstruct morphological phylogenies but also to better evaluate the nature and tempo of evolutionary processes. 
  • Quantitative Measures of Quaternary Palaeobiodiversity Using Proteomic Methods 

    SupervisorsDr Mike BuckleyProfessor Andrew Chamberlain and Professor Phil Manning

    The causes and consequences of changes in biodiversity are research questions of central interest to ecology and palaeontology, and the assessment of biodiversity is fundamental to informing decisions in conservation biology. In present-day ecosytems, biodiversity can be assessed through the morphological and molecular identification of evolutionarily significant taxonomic units (usually species and subspecies) but for fossil assemblages this approach can be confounded by sedimentological and taphonomic processes as well as the limitations of morphologically-based systematics. The primary aim of this doctoral project will be to use state-of-art biomolecular methods (bone protein fingerprinting) to develop measures of biodiversity that can be applied to the Pleistocene and early Holocene fossil record.

  • Multidisciplinary Approach to Pleistocene Cave Taphonomy, Cayman Brac (Cayman Islands) 

    SupervisorsProfessor Phil ManningProfessor Roy WogeliusDr Mike Buckley, Dr. Victoria Egerton, Professor Andrew ChamberlainDr Bill Sellers and Dr Bart van Dongen

    The proposed project seeks to resolve the cave taphomomy of the unexplored caves and rock fissures of Cayman Brac and review faunal assemblages indicative of taxonomic diversity throughout the period spanning human colonisation of the region, potentially dating back to before the last inter-glacial period (>130,000 years). The cave systems are currently threatened by residential developments that includes new tourism infrastructure (see Cayman Islands Government Strategic Policy Statement 2014-2015), reinforcing the urgent need for this research to be undertaken.

  • Experimental decay and fossilization of soft tissues 

    SupervisorsDr Rob SansomProf Jon LloydDr Bart van Dongen

    The exceptionally preserved fossil record of soft tissues sheds unique and powerful light on evolutionary events as diverse as the Cambrian explosion of animal diversity and the colour of dinosaur feathers. Soft tissues are, however, distorted and transformed during decay and fossilization. To make sense of these changes and the data that the fossils provide, it is necessary to experimentally investigate decay in laboratory settings. The resulting patterns and processes can completely transform our understanding of fossils and the inferences drawn from them (Sansom et al 2010, Raff et al 2008). In many senses however, the links between experimental decay data and empirical fossil data remains unclear. Are the chemical, biological and physical parameters of experiments realistic given geological parameters? Can results be generalized given variability in sediments and microbial ecology? How do these considerations affect interpretations of the fossil data? This project aims to test the validity of experimental taphonomy by investigating processes of decay, their applicability to the fossil record and thus the evolutionary inferences drawn. 

  • New Population Estimates for the Nile Valley in Ancient Egypt

    Principal Supervisor: Professor Andrew Chamberlain

    Ancient Egypt provides a fertile source of multidisciplinary data for testing hypotheses concerning the role of population growth in the emergence of social complexity and the development of urbanisation. This project will collate and evaluate independent sources of evidence for past population size and structure in the Nile Valley during the pre-Dynastic and Dynastic Periods of Ancient Egypt (c. 5000BC to 700BC) with the aim of reconstructing population dynamics and assessing population responses to changes in environment and culture. Datasets will be compiled from cemetery excavations, settlement surveys, analyses of site catchments and population genetic studies of bioarchaeological material. Subsets of the data will be used to constrain regional population models for the Nile Valley and adjacent regions.

  • Proteomic and Stable Isotope Analysis of Mummified Ancient Tissues

    Principal Supervisor: Professor Andrew Chamberlain

    Co-Supervisor: Dr Mike Buckley

    Stable isotope analyses of human and animal remains from ancient cultures can provide insights into the diets and lifestyles of past populations. However, skeletal remains (bones and teeth) are normally the only tissues available for chemical and biological analyses of ancient remains. In exceptional cases, such as through natural and artificial mummification, soft-tissues can be preserved, but little is known about how these modes of preservation affect stable isotope signatures. This project will investigate factors affecting protein preservation and stable isotope fractionation in naturally mummified human remains from sites in ancient Egypt and Nubia as well as in samples of naturally and artificially mummified animals. Proteomes obtained from bone, skin and connective tissues will be analysed using a combination of proteomic and mass spectroscopic methods in order to determine the relationship between isotopic fractionation and protein preservation in different types of tissue.

  • Reconstructing the flight capabilities of fossil birds

    Principal Supervisor: Dr Jonathan Codd

    One of the most compelling unanswered questions in evolutionary biology is exactly when, how and why bird flight evolved. Key to unravelling the origins of bird flight is the ability to bring fossil birds, such as Archaeopteryx, and their feathered ancestors (proto-birds) to life. One way of gaining insights into the flight capabilities of fossils is to use theoretical approaches based upon aerodynamics or biomechanical principles. Biometric parameters taken from the fossils are fed into these theoretical models and flight performance bounds determined. The overarching aim of this project is to reconstruct the flight ability of feathered fossils using a suite of theoretical approaches to inform our understanding of the evolution of flight in birds.

  • The Application of Proteomics to Palaeodemography

    Principal Supervisor: Dr Mike Buckley

    Human skeletal remains have the potential to provide a wealth of valuable information about the origins and affinities, growth and development, diet, health and lifestyles of individuals in the historical and prehistoric past. Yet skeletal remains are sometimes found highly fragmented, inhibiting our ability to identify individuals or estimate population numbers. Molecular techniques can provide a means to further understanding aspects of palaeodemography. We would be interested in exploring the potential of proteomic-based techniques to understanding biological signatures in ancient human bone, particularly how these differ between individuals as well as between different skeletal elements of the same individual. This project would also seek to improve our understanding of how molecular preservation is affected by different burial conditions.

  • Understanding Life in the Freezer: locomotor performance as the key to understanding the possible influences of climate change in high Arctic species

    Principal Supervisor: Dr Jonathan Codd

    Scientific research has focused on the Arctic recently as this region is at high risk from the effects of climate change. Animal energy budgets are linked to species survival and are composed of various factors including the cost of locomotion. These costs associated with activities such as walking and running are likely to be significant as the predicted outcomes for the effects of climate change are shifts in the amounts of time apportioned to different activities. Maintaining an energy balance is vital to the energy conservation and evolutionary fitness of all organisms. However, our current understanding of the basic physiology of many of the animals living in this region is not sufficient to allow inferences into the possible effects of climate change to be properly assessed. Therefore, this project will use a combination of laboratory and field based techniques to investigate the daily energy budgets and cost of locomotion for Arctic species including reindeer and ptarmigan.

  • Evidence for intestinal parasites in Archosaurs (extant and extinct) 

    Principal SupervisorProfessor Phil Manning 
    Co-Supervisors: Professor Kath ElseDr Sheena Cruickshank

    Parasitic organisms are globally abundant and occur in hosts ranging from humans to whales and from chickens to alligators. The extant phylogenetic bracket (EPB) might help predict the types of parasites that dinosaurs and other extinct archosaurs might have encountered, but sparse evidence has been identified to constrain which side of the EPB such parasites might favour (crocodilian or avian). While in most cases, parasites are tolerated and do not a?ect the well-being of their hosts, when new strains appear or established parasites are suddenly transferred to new hosts, the results can be devastating. Parasites residing in the tissues or alimentary tract of their hosts are soft bodied and their chances of fossilisation are poor. However, most gastro-intestinal parasites produce a resistant stage that aids them in the transfer from host to host, usually via faecal material. Thus by collecting and identifying these resistant stages (cysts, eggs, etc.) prehistoric parasites could be identi?ed. Dinosaur coprolites have been used in the past to supply information on the diet of their producers (Chin et al. 1998; Prasad et al. 2005). While fossilized dung samples from humans have provided evidence of intestinal parasites (Gonccalves et al. 2003), there is only one published record of parasites from dinosaur or other coprolites from Mesozoic terrestrial organisms (Poinar and Boucot, 2006). This project aims to identify extant parasites and the damage they cause in the gut and faeces of archosaurs (avian and crocodilian) and then process samples from fossil coprolites and rare dinosaur embryo remains to identify parasite evidence. 

  • Application of synchrotron techniques to fossil arthropod exoskeletons 

    Supervisors: Professor Roy Wogelius, Professor Phil Manning and Dr Bart van Dongen

    Multidisciplinary approaches to the analyses of fossilised soft tissue and bone have shown that endogenous organic compounds can survive through geologic time. The coupling of synchrotron-based X-ray and infra-red methods can serve to non-destructively resolve the survival of organic compounds derived from fossil and extant organisms, also spectroscopic detail can assist in understand the chemistry of exceptional preservation. Here we propose the use of Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to spatially resolved organic functional groups within Palaeozoic to recent (extant) arthropod materials to understand any biological controls on the distribution of amide and other organically bound compounds.

  • Assessing fossils and fossilization to reconstruct the origin and evolution of arthropods 

    Supervisors: Dr Robert Sansom, Professor Phil Manning, Professor Roy Wogelius and Dr Jonathan Codd

    Can the fossil record be reliably used to reconstruct the relationships of extinct organisms? How is our understanding of evolutionary processes changed when we take fossilization processes and biases into account? This project aims to address these questions by focusing on the problematic origins of a complex clase – the arthropods. Three differing approaches will be taken: geochemical analysis of mechanisms of preservation, experimental investigation of fossilization processes and phylogenetic simulations.

  • Biomolecule exchange with the natural environment during vertebrate tissue decomposition

    Supervisors: Dr Michael Buckley, Dr Bart van Dongen, Dr Franciska De Vries and Professor Phil Manning

    Decomposition, typically carried out by a range of invertebrates, fungi and bacteria, is the natural process of recycling deceased animal/plant tissue into the building blocks required for new life. The project will investigate the influence of environmental factors (temperature, pH, oxygen availability, etc.) on the rates of movement of biomolecules from decomposing tissues leaching into the environment, as well as the changes in microbial activity in the surrounding soil.

  • Keratin taphonomy in the fossil record

    Supervisors: Dr Bart van Dongen, Professor Roy Wogelius and Professor Phil Manning

    Our group has employed synchrotron based XRF imaging to chemically map extremely rare fossils, to enable a more complete understanding of the taphonomic pathways that led to their preservation. This project aims to extend our knowledge of the preservation of distinct biomaterial and more fully understand its alteration through geological time.

  • Radioactive Dinosaurs: the Geochemistry of Radionuclide Uptake in Fossilized Bone Minerals 

    Supervisors: Professor Phil Manning, Professor Roy Wogelius and Dr Bart van Dongen

    The Hell Creek Formation (Late Cretaceous) consists of a productive succession containing the fossil remains of dinosaurs and contemporary fauna/flora in South Dakota, USA. The proposed project will allow the excavation, collection of data, specimen analyses using both field-based and laboratory experiments to help elucidate the taphonomy of this unique Late Cretaceous bone-bed from the Hell Creek Formation.

  • Taphonomy of a multi-taxa bone bed in the Hell Creek formation of South Dakota 

    Supervisors: Professor Phil Manning, Professor Roy Wogelius and Dr Bart van Dongen

    The Hell Creek Formation (Late Cretaceous) consists of a productive succession containing the fossil remains of dinosaurs and contemporary fauna/flora in South Dakota, USA. The proposed project will allow the excavation, collection of data, specimen analyses using both field-based and laboratory experiments to help elucidate the taphonomy of this unique Late Cretaceous bone-bed from the Hell Creek Formation.

  • The taphonomy of fossil arthropod exoskeletons and terrestrialisation

    Supervisors: Dr Russell Garwood, Professor Phil Manning, Dr Bart van Dongen and Professor Roy Wogelius

    Multidisciplinary approaches to the imaging and analysis of fossils has recent shown that endogenous trace-metal inventories and related organic compounds can survive through geological time. This project will use Fourier Transform InfraRed (FTIT) spectroscopy to spatially resolve organic functional groups within Palaeozoic to recent (extant) arthropod materials, with a particular focus on cuticle macerates that record early life on land, and modern analogues.

  • Temporal impacts upon mass transfer and spatial chemistry in fossils

    Supervisors: Dr Lee Margetts, Professor Phil Manning and Professor Roy Wogelius

    The Palaeontology Research Group at the University of Manchester have been successfully using Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-ray Fluorescence (SRS-XRF) and spectroscopy (XANES, EXAFS, etc.) to study the geochemistry and endogenous biochemistry of fossil specimens and the sedimentary rocks in which they are encased. Each experiment represents a snapshot in time that results from a complex interplay of processes that occurred over geological periods of time. The aim of this project is to develop a computer-based simulation tool that can be used to test "what happened" hypotheses and see how accurately we can reconstruct the chemical taphonomy of a sample from the time of death up until the present day. The project is very challenging and requires expertise in engineering mathematics (the finite element method) and computer programming.

    The Palaeontology Research Group at the University of Manchester have been successfully using Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-ray Fluorescence (SRS-XRF) and spectroscopy (XANES, EXAFS, etc.) to study the geochemistry and endogenous biochemistry of fossil specimens and the sedimentary rocks in which they are encased. Each experiment represents a snapshot in time that results from a complex interplay of processes that occurred over geological periods of time. The aim of this project is to develop a computer-based simulation tool that can be used to test "what happened" hypotheses and see how accurately we can reconstruct the chemical taphonomy of a sample from the time of death up until the present day. The project is very challenging and requires expertise in engineering mathematics (the finite element method) and computer programming.

Suggest your own

The research projects described here should give you a taste of the topics and scope we cover. We welcome project suggestions from prospective students, who should get in touch to discuss the feasibility of their own ideas and identify a supervisor.

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