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Lecture: The early evolution of animal life and the generation of form – Frankie Dunn

March 21 @ 7:30 pm 9:00 pm

The rise of the animals was a profound transition in the History of Life; for the first-time organisms were able to engineer the environment around them, altering geochemical cycles, building complex ecosystems and diversifying into myriad forms. However, the rise of the animals is also one of the most controversial episodes in Earth History. Most major animal groups appear in the fossil record during a major evolutionary radiation event between ~520 and 550 million years ago known as the Cambrian Explosion when the blueprints for the animal phyla (arthropods, vertebrates, cnidarians) were laid down and, remarkably, have remained more-or-less unchanged in the half a billion years since. My research is focused on the Period of time just before the Cambrian Explosion – the Ediacaran Period, and the Ediacaran-Cambrian transition. While fossil representatives of the living animal phyla diversify in the Cambrian Period, the timing and nature of their earliest antecedents remains controversial. Fossil assemblages from the late Ediacaran Period preserve the remains of fossil organisms with long-extinct bodyplans, historically excluded from analyses of the early evolution of animals because of extreme uncertainty regarding their phylogenetic placement. My novel approach to the study of these organisms has been to investigate their growth and development across whole populations of taxa with non analogue frond-like bodyplans. My work has revealed new developmental characters that can be used to rigorously constrain the phylogenetic position of these fossils. In this talk, I will introduce my work on the fossils of the Ediacaran Period and set out the case for an animal affinity, but also discuss new fossil finds which suggest that the oldest yet known crown-group members of animal phyla lived and died hidden amongst the fronds.

Frankie Dunn is a palaeobiologist based at the University of Oxford. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Warwick in 2015 and her PhD in 2019 from the University of Bristol, which focused on the Ediacaran Macrobiota – a strange group of organisms sometimes invoked as ancient animals but displaying non-analogue bodyplans. She subsequently moved to Oxford to take up two fellowships: a Junior Research Fellowship at Merton College and an Early Career Fellowship from the Royal Commission for the exhibition of 1851 hosted at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Frankie is currently a NERC independent research fellow and a Senior Researcher at the OUMNH and her research focuses on the origin and early evolution of animals and particularly on the fossil record of the late Ediacaran Period (approximately 570 – 540 million years ago). The aim of this research is to understand how animal bodyplans evolved in deep time.

The talk will be held at St Francis of Assisi in Kenilworth and will simultaneously be broadcast live to an online Zoom audiance. For those unable to attend in person click on the Zoom link to watch online.


Free Free for members, £3 for guests (free for all listening via Zoom)

St Francis

110 Warwick Road
Kenilworth, CV8 1HL