Phylogenetic Paleobiology

Phylogenetic comparative methods provide a rigorous statistical framework for testing macroevolutionary hypotheses. But so often comparative biologists ignore the historical evidence of evolution written in rock — the fossil record. I’m interested in integrating data and methods from comparative biology and paleobiology to gain a more complete understanding of macroevolutionary pattern and process in space and time — a true four-dimensional biology.

During my post-doc work with Mike Alfaro and Luke Harmon, I used simulations to explore the effects of incorporating trait data from fossil taxa into macroevolutionary model fitting. It turns out that adding fossils has a huge impact on our ability to detect the true model of evolution — in fact on a per taxon basis, one fossil taxon is worth more than one extant taxon.

I’m currently working on several projects that use combined datasets of fossil and living species to investigate macroevolutionary questions. As a Buck Fellow at the Smithsonian, I’m tying together my interests in adaptive radiation and evolution in the fossil record. Using the rich, 42 million year record of North American canids (wolves, foxes and relatives), I’m investigating the factors that promote ecomorphological diversification. The richness of the canid record and ecological informativeness of craniodental traits in carnivorans mean that this study will hopefully have considerable power in untangling the macroevolutionary patterns underlying the diversification of North America’s most successful group of mammalian predators

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There’s a lot more work to do to fully integrate paleontological and neontological approaches for studying macroevolution. This is a hot topic right now. I recently guest-edited a special feature at Methods in Ecology and Evolution that features articles by some leading paleobiologists (and me!) on this topic. Along with Sam Price (UC Davis) and Lars Schmitz (Claremont Colleges), I also recently ran a NESCent Catalysis meeting to bring folks from different sides of the aisle together to talk about these problems. These are exciting times in macroevolutionary biology!

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