We are particularly interested in mammalian teeth, how they form, how they work, how they wear down, and how their shapes evolve in evolutionary time. The distribution of functional traits allows us to model and understand the quantitative relationship between animal communities and their environments, an approach known as ecometrics. Our research relies on quantitative data analysis, including data from the NOW database that is coordinated in our group. A recent, emerging focus is the ecometric study of early human environments.
Ecometrics is about modeling relations between communities of organisms and their environments. Ecometrics uses only functional traits as proxies and describes present and past communities only in terms of the distribution of these traits. Instead of focusing on individual organisms, ecometrics deals with the functional composition of communities. This methodology assumes that trait variables are sufficiently general to accurately represent the functional relationship of extinct taxa to the environment, such as the relationship between the mean molar hypsodonty of large mammalian herbivores and precipitation.
Keywords: ecometrics, dental traits, palaeoecology, palaeoclimatology, herbivorous mammals
(Fortelius et al 2002) Fossil mammals resolve regional patterns of Eurasian climate change over 20 million years
(Eronen et al. 2009) Distribution history and climatic controls of the Late Miocene Pikermian chronofauna
(Liu et al 2012) Dental functional traits of mammals resolve productivity in terrestrial ecosystems past and present
(Fortelius et al 2014) Evolution of Neogene mammals in Eurasia: environmental forcing and biotic interactions
(Fortelius et al 2016) An ecometric analysis of the fossil mammal record of the Turkana Basin
(Žliobaitė et al 2016) Herbivore teeth predict climatic limits in Kenyan ecosystems
(Žliobaitė et al 2018) Dental ecometrics of tropical Africa: linking vegetation types and communities of large plant-eating mammals
(Kaya et al 2018) The rise and fall of the Old World savannah fauna and the origins of the African savannah biome
Helsingin Sanomat - Hampaat kertovat Mikael Forteliukselle, millainen oli ilmasto ihmisen alkukodissa
ScienceNordic - Animal teeth record how species live and die
A long-term focus of this group has been the development, function and evolution of teeth. Out of this focus have grown several secondary topics, such as the use of dental traits for studying evolutionary processes or palaeoclimatic reconstructions. Dental wear also allows reconstructing the diet of extinct species and the particular approach known as mesowear was developed here. We also do experimental work on tooth wear, using custom-built masticators (chewing machines).
Keywords: mesowear, hypsodonty, chewing machine
(Fortelius 1985) Ungulate cheek teeth: developmental, functional, and evolutionary interrelations
(Janis and Fortelius 1988) On the means whereby mammals achieve increased functional durability of their dentitions, with special reference to limiting factors
(Fortelius and Solounias 2000) Functional Characterization of Ungulate Molars Using the Abrasion-Attrition Wear Gradient: A New Method for Reconstructing Paleodiets
(Saarinen et al 2015) A New Tooth Wear–Based Dietary Analysis Method for Proboscidea (Mammalia)
(Karme et al 2016) Mechanical modelling of tooth wear
(Žliobaitė and Fortelius 2018) Dental functional morphology predicts the scaling of chewing rate in mammals
(DeSantis et al 2018) The phylogenetic signal in tooth wear: What does it mean?
We study the traditional questions in macro evolution in a fossil data-driven way, as well as using mathematical modeling. We are interested in understanding patterns of how taxa go extinct, how they originate, what the lifecycle of taxa depends on, why unimodal patterns of increase and decline in abundancies and geographic distribution are so common. We are also interested in how micro- and macroevolution link.
Keywords: Red Queen's hypothesis, unimodality, Species factory
(Jernvall and Fortelius 2004) Maintenance of trophic structure in fossil mammal communities: site occupancy and taxon resilience
(Liow et al 2009) Lower Extinction Risk in Sleep-or-Hide Mammals
(Evans et al 2012) The maximum rate of mammal evolution
(Fortelius et al 2015) Modeling the population-level processes of biodiversity gain and loss at geological time scales
(Raia et al 2016) Progress to extinction: increased specialisation causes the demise of animal clades
(Žliobaitė et al 2017) Reconciling taxon senescence with the Red Queen’s hypothesis
Press coverage and other resources
Image credit: Ika Österblad
This is a new research direction for us, in collaboration with researchers focussing on the fossil record of the Turkana Basin in northern Kenya. Our speciality in this research is the ecometric methodology and more broadly the development, curation and use of large fossil datasets. The Turkana Basin holds a special place in palaeoanthropology because of its unique record of Plio-Pleistocene hominin evolution. We approach the environments of these early human relatives not through the study of the rare hominin fossils themselves but through the abundant faunal remains of more common mammals associated with them. This research also has roots in our earlier work on the environments of anthropoid primates more generally.
Keywords: Turkana basin
(Alpagut et al 1996) A new specimen of Ankarapithecus meteai from the Sinap Formation of central Anatolia
(Sukselainen et al 2015) Co-occurrence of pliopithecoid and hominoid primates in the fossil record: An ecometric analysis
(Kaya et al 2016) Magnetostratigraphy and paleoecology of the hominid-bearing locality Corakyerler, Tuğlu Formation (Çankiri Basin, Central Anatolia)
(Fortelius et al 2016) An ecometric analysis of the fossil mammal record of the Turkana Basin
(Suva et al 2016) The first hominoid from the Maragheh Formation, Iran
New Scientist - Did climate change jump-start human evolution in East Africa?
We investigate the current global biospheric change and its historical background, including the deep time fossil record, which provides the only available information about ecosystems that we cannot observe on earth today. We pursue the idea that ecometric analysis of the fossil record has direct conservation relevance, especially for dealing with the increasingly predominant novel ecosystems that develop in the anthropocene world. The research focuses on large spatial and temporal scales of the biospheric change and utilize both retrospective and predictive approaches, operating over a multitude of temporal (decadal, centennial, millennial and longer) and spatial (local, regional and continental) scales. We also engage in public outreach in the realm of global change and conservation policy.
Keywords: climate change, Anthropocene
(Polly et al 2011) History Matters: Integrative Climate Change Biology
(Barnosky et al 2012) Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere
(Barnosky et al 2014) Translating science for decision makers to help navigate the Anthropocene
(Barnosky et al 2017) Merging paleobiology with conservation biology to guide the future of terrestrial ecosystems
Governor Brown Meets with Norway's Prime Minister, Convenes First-of-its-Kind Gathering of World's Scientific Academies
Resources for public awareness and policy making
An independent research unit BIOS outside the university is working with the Evolutionary palaeontology group to enhance the flow of information to decision makers and synthesising the research for public outreach
We utilize traditional parsimony analyses, supertree methods, and novel Bayesian approaches to reconstructing large-scale phylogenies including fossil taxa. We use these phylogenies, together with the NOW database mammal data and environmental information, to explore trends in origination and extinction rates, range sizes, site occupancy, and replacement patterns of Cenozoic mammals. We also use and develop new phylogenetic paleobiogeographic methods that will allow for the incompleteness of the fossil record, competition with physically similar species, and physical attributes of the studied species themselves to be taken into consideration when reconstructing biogeographic histories.
Keywords: phylogeny, phylogenetic comparative methods, phylogenetic paleobiogeography
(Koponen et al 2015) Optimizing phylogenetic supertrees using answer set programming
(Raia et al 2012) Ecological specialization in fossil mammals explains Cope’s rule
(Deng et al 2011) Out of Tibet: Pliocene woolly rhino suggests high-plateau origin of Ice Age megaherbivores
We develop new machine learning and data mining methods for fossil data analysis, and analysis of evolving data in general.
Keywords: seriation, biochronology, concept drift, change detection, adaptation
(Fortelius et al 2004) Spectral ordering and biochronology of European fossil mammals
(Puolamäki et al 2006) Seriation in Paleontological Data Using Markov Chain Monte Carlo Methods
(Saarinen et al 2010) The living and the fossilized: how well do unevenly distributed points capture the faunal information in a grid
(Gama et al 2014) A Survey on Concept Drift Adaptation
(Žliobaitė et al 2015) Towards cost-sensitive adaptation: When is it worth updating your predictive model?
Collecting, developing and curating paleobiological data is a demanding and time-consuming task. It is also a hugely important one since it is the only way to release the scientific potential of fossil record for research using modern methods of data analysis. Our main vehicle for providing curated fossil data to the scientific community and the public is the NOW database, which was born here and has been coordinated from our group since its origin in 1993.
Keywords: fossil record, biocuration
(Uhen et al 2013) From card catalogs to computers: Databases in vertebrate paleontology