The mammalian backbone is composed of distinct vertebral regions. Despite the functional importance of vertebral regionalization, its role in the origin of mammals from their synapsid forerunners is poorly understood. I am interested in the evolutionary origins of regionalization and clues that the axial skeleton may provide to the origins of important mammalian traits such as breathing and locomotion.
Cursoriality, fast or sustained running, has evolved convergently numerous times in mammals. I recently began a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to examine this phenomenon on multiple evolutionary scales. At the population scale, I am using a 25-year selection experiment (the ‘high runner’ mice) to test the impact of artificial selection for running on the axial skeleton and its genetic basis. At the evolutionary scale, I am tracing osteological indicators of running through time.
Serially-repeating structures are ubiquitous in biology (e.g., limbs, gills, petals, teeth), yet have been largely excluded from broad-scale comparative analyses because of the challenge of varying element number and confusion around homologies. I have developed new techniques for studying serial systems and examined the relationship between adaptation and constraint in their evolution.
The invasion of the marine realm is one of the most dramatic ecological transitions in mammal evolution. Using geometric morphometrics, I tested the hypothesis of adaptive radiation in the skulls of secondarily aquatic carnivorans. Currently, Marie Curie Fellow Amandine Gillet is exploring backbone evolution in aquatic mammals in collaboration with Harvard University.
What are the size constraints on hopping locomotion? PhD student Megan Jones explores the evolution of hopping and its upper limit in extinct giant kangaroos.