Doctoral Dissertation Research Award: Faunal Remains As An Environmental Reconstruction Tool
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Many theories of hominin behavioral and morphological evolution focus on the environments occupied by early members of our lineage in order to provide an adaptive context for major evolutionary events. One way in which past environments are inferred is through the analysis of fossilized animal remains, with mammals featuring prominently. In many studies, recovered cranial and dental remains are analyzed in order to reconstruct past faunal communities from which past environmental conditions are then inferred. An alternate method involves analyses of postcranial (e.g. femora and humeri) elements within an ecological functional framework linking skeletal morphology to locomotory patterns and habitat use. While studies of craniodental remains from smaller mammals, such as rodents, have contributed to understanding of the past, analyses of their postcrania have lagged behind those of other groups, such as African antelopes. As rodents are the most abundant and ecologically diverse group of modern mammals, this project will address this issue and test whether this currently underutilized source of data can be used to reconstruct past environments. By generating an accessible comparative database, the results from this study will be applicable to not only reconstructions of paleoenvironments occupied by early human ancestors, but also archaeological studies and can be adapted for modern small mammal biodiversity surveys and habitat monitoring. This study will also provide public science outreach through presentations in both the U.S. and Africa. These presentations will build upon current collaborations with various institutions and contribute to undergraduate, graduate, and public understating of the natural history of the region. Finally, this project provides graduate training for the Co-PI and undergraduate training through the enrollment of students in Department of Anthropology''s Graduate-Undergraduate Mentorship Program at Texas A&M University. Utilizing several different methods, this study tests whether analyses of African rodent postcrania can provide useful data for reconstructing past environments. First, using both traditional linear measurements and two-dimensional outlines from digital photographs, this study tests if modern rodent postcrania can be used to identify what taxa (i.e. genus and species) are present, and thus can be used in a similar manner as craniodental remains to reconstruct rodent community composition. Second, traditional linear measurements will also be utilized to test if modern rodent postcrania can be used to assess locomotory patterns within an ecological functional framework to infer habitat use. The correspondence in environmental signals obtained between these two approaches (taxonomic and ecological functional) will then be assessed. After compiling a modern comparative dataset, fossilized rodent postcrania from the South African hominin-bearing sites of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans will be subjected to a dual taxonomic and ecological functional based analysis in order to test previously proposed paleoenvironmental signals that have used other proxy data, including rodent craniodental remains. This study will improve our ability to reconstruct past environments associated with early hominin remains through analyses of a currently underutilized source of data, rodent postcrania, and will help clarify the environmental context at two sites important to our understanding of human evolution.