We started the Paleontology module from a broad perspective, making sure to cover a brief history of life on earth as well as the history of evolutionary theory, including the work of such academic greats as Mayr, Simpson, and Dobzhansky. With such a solid base under our belts, we can now start learning mammalian anatomy!
To be able to interpret fossil animal skeletons, it is helpful to begin with their modern descendants. We began the day with a classroom session, learning the proper terminology and understanding anatomical position.
We spent the last two afternoons in the lab. The first day we focused on the different bones in the mammalian body and how to distinguish these bones of different kinds of animals. The second day we focused on differences in functional morphology.
One of the most amazing aspects about learning paleontology at TBI is that, in addition to their vast fossil archives, there are a plethora of mammalian skeletons available for students to study! Thus, for our hands-on learning, we had a wide range of different mammalian specimen, including hyena, gerenuk, dik-dik, black-banded jackal, donkey, a juvenile baboon, and more!
Functional morphology reflects how an animal’s skeletal morphology determines its adaptive niche. Thus, understanding the functional morphology of a living organism can help us understand behavioral aspects of fossil specimens and what kind of habitat they occupied. For example, we can extrapolate a lot about an organism from the type of teeth it has: animals with very high crowned teeth (equids, such as horses and zebras) tend to be grazers, eating large amounts of grasses and other tough vegetation. Grazing tends to wear teeth down rather rapidly, and as such, animals that spend their life eating a lot of grasses must have teeth that can last them their entire life. Other examples of functional morphology can be seen in the elongated vertebrae of the gerenuk; the powerful forearms of hyenas and warthogs; and the very wide zygomatic arch in hyenas.
Learning to identify mammalian anatomy and understanding functional morphology is paramount to interpreting fossils one may find out in the field! Over the next few days, the students will be spending more time in the lab looking at real fossils from the TBI archives, as well as learning about fossil preparation and proper field techniques!