The evolutionary theories we learned last time are powerful tools to explain the world we see today. How different organisms go from simple to complex has always amazed me. I believe our students feel the same way. We also had in-depth discussions about systematics and phylogeny among ourselves. Some of the topics were even philosophical. However, when it comes to the evidence of evolution, especially for extinct animals, we have to rely on things that are preserved in the fossil record. For our main focus, we are learning mammalian bones and teeth: what they are, what they do and how they differ.
In the classroom, Dr. Miller went over osteology and functional morphology, which are fundamental components of vertebrate paleontology. Functional morphology is the study of the correlation between form and function. We know that an animal has to function in its natural habitat because of natural selection. Therefore, knowing something about an animal’s morphology allows us to reconstruct its habitat. For example, if you find features in the fossils that indicate an arboreal lifestyle, it is very likely that there were trees in the habitat. Similarly, high crowned teeth are good for grazing. So a great proportion of high crowned animals would indicate an open grassland environment. There is no better way to learn about bones and teeth than going into the lab! Indeed, students spent a lot of time in the osteology lab the last few days, identifying bone features, making sketches and comparing bones of different animals. Take a look at our dedicated students at work!