Exploring evolution through deep time, using medical imaging, morphometrics, and computer modeling
Most of my research focuses on the form and function of the salamander skull. While writing a master's thesis on two salamander fossils from the Gray Fossil Site in northeast Tennessee, I ran into challenges because there was so little literature on the variation and morphology of the salamander skull. I resolved to fix this (for at least a couple families) during the course of my dissertation research.
Dissertation Research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
My previous research in amphibian paleontology showed me just how much there was to know about the osteology of living salamanders. My hope is that by better understanding the morphology, function, and diversity of modern salamanders we can more accurately identify them in the fossil record and gain a deeper sense of their evolutionary history.
Modern salamanders show not only a diversity of feeding strategies (hunting on land, or in water, or arboreally with projectile tongues), but also a certain flexibility throughout life. Among Caudata are groups that begin life in the water and remain there through sexual maturity, while others metamorphose and live their adult lives on land. Some groups have direct-development and never need to feed aquatically. This makes them an ideal group to study the mechanisms of feeding and how they are reflected in cranial morphology, in an effort to tease apart ecological and phylogenetic influences on skull shapes.
My dissertation research has focused on lineages with secondarily aquatic species, particularly the lungless salamander genus Eurycea. I am interested in how the skull shape differs in different lineages and the biomechanical consequences of those shape differences, as well as asking questions about the skull's material properties.
NSF EAPSI Project in Beijing, China
In the Summer of 2015 I was sponsored by the NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Fellowship program (EAPSI) to visit the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) (中国科学院古脊椎动物与古人类研究所) in Beijing, China. I spent the summer looking through screen-washed sediment from southern Chinese caves (in Guangxi, 广西). I'm interested in the fossil reptiles and amphibians from these caves because the deposits are from the Pleistocene, also known as the Ice Ages, and can tell us a lot about previous climate changes.
This project is a continuation of the growing ties between East Tennessee State University (ETSU) and IVPP. I was the third ETSU student to visit IVPP through this NSF program, and the paleontology professors at ETSU have ongoing projects with their Chinese counterparts.
In addition to fostering international collaboration, this partnership is invaluable in the study of the fossils from the Gray Fossil Site, as many of the fossil plants and animals found there are only found in Asia today.
Findings: Numerous herpetological remains from Pleistocene caves of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China, were recovered and are under investigation.
Collaborators: ETSU: Dr. Jim Mead; IVPP: Dr. Yuan Wang, Dr. Changzhu Jin, Yaling Yan
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1515243.
A heap of bones recovered from one of the caves. There are 'herps' in there somewhere!
On our days off, the other Beijing "EAPSI-ers" and I took in the sights. One of our last trips was to the Summer Palace.