Research

Our research focuses on the fossil record and evolution of mammals and their relationship with habitat and climate change. 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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Related activities

  • 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

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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 

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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

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