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Innovations in Palaeontology Lecture Series

We are pleased to announce that Dr Emily Mitchell from the University of Cambridge has been appointed as the PalAss Exceptional Lecturer for 2021/22.

Using ecology to unlock the secrets of early animal evolution

The sudden appearance of animals in the fossil record, after billions of years of microbial life, is one of the most dramatic events in the history of life on Earth. These oldest known animals are found in the Ediacaran time period (630–541 Ma), just before the Cambrian radiation.  Studying Ediacaran evolution is fraught with difficulties due to the unique anatomies of Ediacaran organisms. But we have one potential avenue of attack - the preservation of Ediacaran fossils is exceptional, with thousands of organisms preserved where they lived. To exploit that information we can use a suite of ecological methodologies, normally only used on extant communities.
During the course of The Innovations in Palaeontology Lecture Series I will highlight how this rich data source, combined with cutting edge technological and ecological advances, has transformed our understanding of Ediacaran life. The talk will explain how laser-scanning has transformed our ability to digitally capture hundreds of square meters of Ediacaran bedding planes across the wind-swept coasts of Newfoundland. Over the last four years my team and I have used a micron-resolution laser scanner to capture almost 20,000 fossils in-situ across from Newfoundland, Canada and Charnwood Forest, UK. I will go on to explain how this unprecedented dataset has been used with careful spatial and Bayesian approaches to enable the teasing-apart of Ediacaran eco-evolutionary dynamics, and finally how these Ediacaran organisms paved the way for the rapid Cambrian radiation of animals. This lecture will explain how we were able to discover secrets such as the how some Ediacaran species were dominantly clonal, how Ediacaran communities are highly unusual, rarely competing with each other for food and finally how variations in the local habitat may be driving Ediacaran diversification and paving the way for the Cambrian radiation.

Dr Emily Mitchell  - 2021/22 PalAss Exceptional Lecturer

A reconstruction of Fractofusus reproducing asexually with stolon.
Reconstruction done by Dr Charlotte G. Kenchington.

Want Emily to visit your institution?

Emily has agreed to give talks at five different institutes: University of Plymouth, University of Leicester, Yale University, University College London, University of Leeds and Athenee Salt Joseph University in Madagascar. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic some of these talks may have to be presented remotely. Although she has the aforementioned list of talks provisionally booked, she may still consider others, depending on time and the remaining budget. Any interested institutions can apply to host Emily via the Association’s webpage. Please provide a timeframe (between now and May 2022) during which you would like Emily to give a lecture at your institution. The Association will pay for any reasonable travel costs incurred by the Exceptional Lecturer in visiting each of the host institutions (up to a maximum of £500 for per lecture). The host institutions are expected to cover costs for accommodation (where necessary) and hospitality. 

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