Ecology and evolution of the earliest terrestrial animals

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Biosciences


The Rhynie chert is an Early Devonian geological site in Scotland (circa 407 million-years old), which preserves the oldest known terrestrial ecosystem, including plants, animals, fungi, algae and bacteria. The quality of fossil preservation in the Rhynie chert is astonishing, encompassing the most intact fossilised remains from a Palaeozoic terrestrial ecosystem, including preservation of cellular and ultrastructural details.

Together, this fossil assemblage provides crucial insights into early life on land. In the past 100 years, research on the Rhynie chert has largely focused on its land plant-based components, but there are still major gaps in our understanding of its fauna and environment. In the past few years, the successful application of new methods and analytical techniques (e.g. Confocal Laser Scanning Microscopy) have prompted fundamental breakthroughs in fungal research, demonstrating the importance of interactions between fungi and the plant and animal elements of the system.

We will employ the latest imaging and analytical techniques to systematically investigate the fauna of the Rhynie chert in order to gain a fuller picture of the biodiversity Also, for the first time we will investigate the nature of the interactions between different organisms and their palaeoenvironments, in order to reconstruct this Palaeozoic terrestrial ecosystem.

Project aims:
1) Determine the full biodiversity of the invertebrate fauna in the Rhynie chert
2) Reveal detailed anatomical structures of these animals and reconstruct them
3) Contribute to our understanding of early land colonisation by invertebrates
4) Identify the interactions between invertebrate animals and their associated plants and fungi
5) Investigate the palaeoenvironment and palaeoecology of the Rhynie chert

Project methods:
1) Examine the huge thin section collection of Rhynie chert material at the Natural History Museum in London, the Hunterian Museum, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Oxford and the University of Munster
2) Process field collections of Rhynie chert at the Natural History Museum
3) Using new imaging and analytical techniques to reveal the detailed structures of the organisms in the Rhynie chert, such as confocal laser scanning microscopy and synchrotron light source
4) Carrying out 3D reconstruction of these ancient organisms and their community
5) Using statistical and other ecological research methods to investigate the palaeoecology of the Rhynie chert fossil bed


10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/S007504/1 30/09/2019 30/11/2027
2400042 Studentship NE/S007504/1 30/09/2020 02/10/2024