Reconstructing the evolution of extinct sloths from continental America and the Caribbean using ancient DNA

Theme: Biodiversity & Ecology

Primary Supervisor:

Selina Brace

Earth Sciences, NHM

Secondary Supervisor:

Laurent Frantz

Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

Project Description:

Museum collections can provide a wealth of information on biodiversity, both past and present. Unlocking this potential through specialised ancient DNA techniques to analyse DNA from museum samples is a flourishing field of research.

The Xenarthra (sloths, anteaters and armadillos) was an ecologically important New World mammal clade during the Neogene and Late Quaternary. Until recently, sloths were extremely species-rich and morphologically diverse, with >80 genera across the continental Americas and insular Caribbean. However, nearly all sloth species became extinct during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene, likely due to human impacts…

The aim of this project is to reconstruct the evolutionary history of sloths using molecular techniques. To do so, the student will extract and analyse DNA from both extant and extinct sloth specimens held in the Natural History Museum and other collections using state of the art techniques to recover highly degraded DNA molecules. The project benefits from the combined supervision of experts in ancient DNA /Caribbean (Selina Brace (NHM)), population genetics /bioinformatics (Laurent Frantz (QM)) and conservation /Caribbean (Samuel Turvey (IoZ)).

This will allow the student to resolve key questions with broader relevance to mammalian evolution across a series of spatio-temporal scales. Recovering DNA from extant and extinct families of sloths across North and South America (Bradypodidae, Megalonychidae, Megatheriidae, Mylodontidae, Nothrotheriidae) will allow us to explore: 1) taxonomy 2) geographical and temporal origins 3) island radiations and evolution 4) island dwarfism such as body size changes in the endangered pygmy sloth 5) conservation priorities in this biodiversity hotspot.

Policy Impact of Research:

The studentship will provide training and development in advanced molecular techniques with wider-scale applicability, and will support UK museum collections. Investigation of evolutionary history and species status of the pygmy sloth, identified as a global mammalian conservation priority by ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme, will contribute directly to conservation policy.

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