Big ERC grant for research on the origin of land animals


Professor Per Ahlberg conducts research on the origin of land animals. Here with a fossil jaw from the lobe-finned fish Polyplocodus – probably a close relative of the first tetrapods. Photograph: Mikael Wallerstedt

The European Research Council (ERC) has now distributed the grants in its 2020 ERC Advanced Grants call and Uppsala University is one of the recipients. The grant of EUR 2.4 million goes to Per Ahlberg, Professor of Evolutionary Organismal Biology, whose research seeks to reveal more about the origins of land animals by studying the tracks left by our more than 360 million-year-old ancestors – the ‘tetrapods’.

A total of 209 researchers from Europe will share in the EUR 500 million distributed in the 2020 round of ERC Advanced Grants. The grants are part of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and are awarded to well-established, scientifically independent researchers whose research achievements prove them to be leaders in their field. Uppsala University’s Per Ahlberg is receiving a grant for his project “Tracking our ancestors across the Devonian world: a new multidisciplinary approach to the origin of tetrapods”. He is one of seven researchers at Swedish higher education institutions to receive a grant.

Building up an international team

“This is fantastic,” says Per Ahlberg. “The new ERC grant means that we can now really get a better grasp of how it happened, and when and where the land vertebrates – the tetrapods – emerged onto dry land. We are going to create an international, interdisciplinary team of PhD students, postdocs and established researchers with different kinds of expertise, for example in fossil vertebrates, plants, sediments, pollen and spores, as well as formal analysis of footprints. Together we can build up a coherent picture of the environments where they lived more than 360 million years ago. This will enable us to gain a better understanding of the history of life on Earth and the colonisation of dry land.”

The reconstruction shows the environment in the Russian tetrapod locality Sosnogorsk, with the tetrapod Paramstega 372 million years ago. Artist’s impression of Sosnogorsk Lagoon. Artist: Mikhail Shekhanov, Ukhta Museum of Local History.

Drawing on new advanced technology

The international research team will benefit from previous research in the area resulting from earlier ERC grants to Per Ahlberg. In these projects, the researchers developed advanced new technology using multi-slice X-ray images from synchrotron tomography to create extremely high resolution views of the interior of fossils.
“Using the new technology, we have built up one of the strongest research centres in this area in the world. The visualisation technology has meant a tremendous amount for our ability to create a complete image of the fine structure of the fossils, to obtain information about physiology and biology and thus to reconstruct the animals’ soft tissues.”

Anna Malmberg


Every year, the European Research Council (ERC) selects and funds the best, most creative researchers of all nationalities and ages to conduct projects based in Europe. The ERC offers four main grants systems: Start, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants.

Read more about the 2020 round of ERC Advanced Grants