Macroevolution, function, and modularity of the vertebrate jaw: a 3D perspective

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Anjali Goswami

Life Sciences Department, NHM

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Secondary Supervisor:

Laura Porro

Cell & Developmental Biology, UCL

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Additional Supervisor(s):

Project Description:

Feeding is a primary function of the vertebrate head, and the morphology of the jaw reflects the varied approaches to accomplishing this task that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. From highly complex structures with many bones, as in most fishes, to the single dentary bone of mammals, vertebrate jaws are subjected to diverse selection pressures from different diets, and they are also involved in many other functions beyond food processing, including prey acquisition and fighting. Current work on jaw evolution is limited either to relatively closely related organisms or to simple representations of jaw morphology, for example with 2-dimensional shapes. New imaging technologies and analytical approaches allow for a far more detailed study of jaw evolution across the full range of vertebrates and for testing fundamental hypotheses on function, key innovations, and macroevolutionary patterns across this diverse group of organisms. In this project, the student will expand a new high-resolution 3-D dataset spanning over 1000 species of living and fossil vertebrates from sharks to anteaters to dinosaurs and use cutting-edge geometric morphometric and biomechanical modelling tools to analyse patterns and rates of shape evolution in different jaw components, how these different regions relate to each other (integration), and how these aspects relate to jaw function and ecology. Some of the many questions they will address include testing whether bursts of evolution accompany major changes in jaw form, whether less integrated jaws are more evolvable, and whether development or function are a stronger influence on jaw evolution across vertebrate evolution.

Policy Impact of Research:

The relationship of organismal form to environment and ecology is of critical importance in understanding evolvability and survivorship as we experience catastropic changes to our global environment. This project will use an unprecedented dataset in terms of breadth of sampling of vertebrate diversity and resolution of anatomical complexity to reconstruct the factors shaping vertebrate evolution, with relevance for future studies of biodiversity and its conservation.

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