2006 Predoctoral Grant Recipient
John A. Finarelli
My current research centers on the mammalian clade Carnivora, with emphasis on the suborder Caniformia. The Caniformia are ideally suited for investigating the role fossil data play in testing evolutionary hypotheses, because they possess a well-sampled fossil record and a large extant diversity to compare past evolutionary patterns with the living species. My primary research interest focuses on two main areas: 1) phylogenetic reconstruction of groups using evidence from both morphological and molecular data sets, and 2) the quantification of character state evolution and the mechanisms behind evolutionary trends in character evolution with respect to phylogenetic hypotheses.
The combination of morphological and molecular data into phylogenetic analyses represents a powerful tool for understanding not only the evolutionary relationships of extant taxa, but also for successfully integrating extinct lineages into the phylogenetic framework of extant lineages. I am compiling a matrix of morphological and molecular characters, in an effort to resolve the phylogenetic relationships among fossil and extant lineages.
Phylogenies represent primary hypotheses against which one can test hypotheses of character evolution through time. This leads to the second facet of my current research program: developing quantitative approaches for the analysis of the evolution of body size and relative brain size with respect to a phylogenetic framework. I have been able to demonstrate that incorporating both character data and temporal information from the fossil record increases the accuracy and precision of character reconstruction, even in the presence of evolutionary trends. These results have improved our understanding of body size evolution among caniform carnivorans, documenting that small body size was the ancestral condition for several lineages that later attained large body size in parallel.
Relative brain size has been hypothesized to increase through evolutionary time among the Carnivora, although sample size and lack of a phylogenetic framework have made hypothesis testing difficult. I have developed a method for estimating brain size for fossil taxa and applied it to the fossil record of the Caniformia. From this expanded data set, I have recovered evidence of relative brain size increase across the Caniformia. Furthermore, within the well-sampled caniform clade, Canidae (dogs), there is evidence that this shift can be isolated to a single branch of the canid phylogeny.
I am very honored to accept the SVP Predoctoral Award for 2006, and I would like to thank the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Award committee.
Photo courtesy of John A. Finarelli.