My current research is focused on the early diversification of eukaryotic life, including the Proterozoic record of major protistan clades and the Ediacaran-Cambrian ‘explosion’ of animals. I am especially interested in exploring the macroecological and macroevolutionary divide that separates the first three billion years of (mostly microbial) life on Earth from the peculiarly macroscopic world of the Phanerozoic. The ability of tissue-/organ-grade animals to drive evolutionary arms races and build multi-trophic food webs undoubtedly lies at the core of this regime change, though reconstruction of the biogeochemical feedbacks and overall dynamics present ongoing multidisciplinary challenges. Exceptionally preserved, organic-walled fossils form the basis of much of my work, with an appreciation of taphonomic processes and delicate acid processing providing a regular flow of new material and palaeobiological insight.
Proterozoic and Cambrian Palaeobiology
- Investigation of Mesoproterozoic and Neoproterozoic fossil Lagerstätten, including the Hunting Fm. (Somerset Island), Lakhanda Fm. (eastern Siberia), Wynniatt Fm. (Victoria Island), Svanbergfjellet Fm. (Spitsbergen) and the Upper Tindir Group (western Yukon)
- Discovery of “probable” fossil fungi from the Early Neoproterozoic (850 Ma) of NW Canada, effectively doubling the known age range of this kingdom.
- Discovery of multiple Early-Middle Cambrian assemblages of micro-fossils dominated by the disarticulated remains of non-mineralizing animals. These “micro-Burgess Shales” are proving to be a common, but largely untapped, source of palaeobiological data.
- Discovery of an early Cambrian radula, the oldest on record.
- Analysis of exceptional fossil preservation, particularly in the Burgess Shale and “Burgess Shale-type” biotas – with important implications for resolving the original histology and phylogenetic affiliation various problematic fossils
- Reassessing and applying the Proterozoic-Cambrian acritarch record to test molecular clock estimates for the origin of animals and other major ecological/evolutionary innovations.
- Investigation of early metazoan evolution through the lens of macroecological and macroevolutionary theory. The early Ediacaran appearance of eumetazoans fundamentally changed the nature and functioning of the biosphere.
Older Publications by Prof Nicholas Butterfield