Alex Dunhill

Commendation for Dr Alex Dunhill - School of Earth Sciences

Supervisor: Professor Michael Benton

Funding: NERC studentship (CASE with British Geological Survey)

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PhD project: The sampling proxy approach to testing the quality of the fossil record

Alex’s thesis tackled one of the largest methodological issues facing palaeontologists; whether the fossil record is reliable or not.

Vast efforts have been devoted by the palaeontological community to compiling the raw data into databases, and to exploring ways to account for uncertainty. One approach is to seek a metric of incompleteness or bias, termed a <b>sampling proxy</b>.

Many sampling proxies are based on the availability of rock, and can reflect areas of outcrop on geological maps. Alex explored a number of such methods, using Geographic Information System (GIS) approaches, and applied to one of the best-sampled fossil records on Earth, the British Triassic and Jurassic. He found that many practitioners use geological sampling proxies naively and, far from correcting the raw data, they may be adding further uncertainty. He has shown that covariations between the raw fossil data and the putative sampling proxies may arise equally from redundancy (both signals share common fundamentals), common cause (both are driven by a third variable such as sea level change), and from preservation/ sampling bias.

Alex’s thesis has resulted in six papers, four published already in leading international journals, where they are already making an impact on the debate, and two in progress.


I grew up in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, and went to Maltby Comprehensive School. As an A-level student at Thomas Rotherham College, I studied Biology, Geology, and Geography. I enjoyed all three subjects and opted to study Environmental Science, as it contains elements of all the natural sciences, at the University of Sheffield for my first degree. I was soon drawn to the palaeontological elements of my degree, topics such as evolutionary biology and palaeoecology. In my final year at Sheffield I completed a Master’s thesis assessing the shape and form of dinosaur footprints from the Yorkshire Coast, which encouraged me to think about applying for PhD projects. I was initially attracted to Bristol by the reputation of the Palaeobiology Research Group, and I was delighted to be offered a 3 year NERC-funded scholarship. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bristol; it’s a great city to live in and the School of Earth Sciences is an integrative and very friendly department. Since finishing my PhD and leaving Bristol, I have started a Royal Commission for Exhibition of 1851 Research Fellowship at the University of Bath investigating the effects of biogeography on extinction events in the fossil record. In the long term, I’d like to concentrate my research on investigating large-scale evolutionary trends, such as extinction, origination, and biodiversity, through Earth history.

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