I am interested in the intersection of biomechanics and paleontology, and how one can inform the other to further our understanding of long extinct taxa and the evolution of extant taxa. Since we often have only patchily preserved remains of extinct organisms to work with, any understanding of their natural history will begin with a detailed study of anatomy, often informed by analogies to extant taxa – with proposed convergent functions or hypothesized transitional forms. In my research I pair theoretical techniques, such as emerging 3D printing technologies and computer simulations, with comparative organismal studies to test these hypotheses and study the functional trade-offs associated with changes in anatomy through time. By comparing functional constraints to changes seen in the fossil record, we can also begin to discern the actions of non-selective forces through time.
My research to date has focused on the evolutionary arms race between shelled organisms (snails, bivalves, crustaceans, etc.) and their predators, specifically the functional morphology of durophagous teeth, predominantly in non-mammalian systems. These teeth come in a diversity of forms, from rounded to concave, and some even have small cusps. Using physical and computer models, have modeled functional trade-offs – pointier teeth good at inducing failure but are more likely to break than flat or concave shells, and concave teeth are good at resisting tooth failure, but don’t break shells very well. Based on these functional trade-offs, I can compare a functionally ‘optimal’ tooth (pointed enough to break shells, but flat enough to resist failure) to teeth in known durophagous taxa. To account for other evolutionary pressures on tooth morphology I have measured and compared tooth morphologies of the Placodontia, a group of extinct marine reptiles that were most-likely durophagous.
I received my PhD from the University of Washington, where I split my time between the main Seattle campus and the Friday Harbor Marine Labs campus on San Juan Island. I am currently a post-doctoral research associate at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, working with Dr. Brooke Flammang, where we are planning to study the evolution of caudal fin morphology in extinct marine reptiles.