My research interests cover three broad areas:
Understanding how mammals responded to past environmental change
Using palaeoecological information to help us plan for current and future environmental change
Improving & understanding the limitations of the methods we use to determine ecology in the fossil record
See below for some information on the projects I’m currently working on.
Growth and behaviour of Smilodon fatalis
When people think of prehistoric mammals, one of the first to come to mind is often the sabre-toothed cat. While many species of sabre-toothed cats have existed in the past (as well as many other sabre-tooths that are not cats!), Smilodon fatalis is by far the most famous and most well-studied. It is the second most common large mammal found at the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, California and has been studied for decades, but some things are still unknown, like how fast it grew, and scientists still debate over things like if there were size differences between the sexes and whether it was social.
The goal of my Ph.D. thesis is to address these questions, as well as other ecological mysteries such as the timing of sexual maturity, or puberty, using the microstructure of long bones like the femur (thigh bone). This involves taking a thin section from the shaft of the bone and looking at it under a microscope to see things like changes in tissue types, annual growth marks, and signs of tissue turnover (remodelling). From there, we can compare how fast it grew to extant cats.
Relationships between ecology and growth in living feliforms
Of course, to compare growth and ecology in Smilodon to living cats, we need to know what the living cats are doing! To do this, I collect observational data on growth, behaviour, and life history (the timing of life events such as puberty) for the clade Feliformia, which is the group of animals that are more closely related to cats than they are to dogs. That includes a range of shapes and sizes, from meerkats to hyenas to (of course) big cats! It also includes many different kinds of social behaviour and life history strategies.
Osteohistology of living cats
To better understand the fossil record, it is important to know what to expect. To do this, we can look at living relatives of extinct animals to get a sense of what’s normal, and this is just what I’m doing with living cats!