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RESEARCH:: Celebrating Darwin

Evolution of Ecology in Ancient Mammals
By Dr. Robert S. Feranec

Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection requires certain individuals in a population to survive and reproduce, while others do not survive and produce offspring. Thus, a key aspect of the mechanism of natural selection is survival. To fully understand this mechanism, we must know how organisms survive in the environments in which they live. The examination of how organisms live in particular environments is the study of ecology. In my lab at the New York State Museum, the research focus is the examination of the evolution of ecology—how ecology changes over time—in ancient mammals. A typical question that my research addresses is, “how were ancient mammals previously affected by climate change?”

By being able to study what happened to animals in the past, we can make informed decisions about what may happen in the future.
The old adage, “You are what you eat,” is mostly true. When animals eat, they incorporate certain chemicals from food into their bodies. To get an accurate idea of how ancient species lived, I can examine these chemicals, which get deposited in bones and teeth, and can approximate where an animal lived and what it ate. By looking at fossils of animals that lived at different times, I am able to examine ecology over time, from hundreds to thousands and even millions of years ago. With these data I can determine whether ecology did change, and, if so, when it changed and how it changed.

Why is it important for us today to know how ancient, and possibly extinct, animals lived? First, one of the main premises of natural selection is that certain individuals in a population are better adapted to the environment and are able to survive and reproduce. Within my research, I am attempting to make a connection between the ecology and survival of mammals over time and the adaptations that the particular surviving mammals possess. This is a critical connection that must be made if we are going to fully understand natural selection. Next, by being able to study what happened to animals in the past, we can make informed decisions about what may happen in the future. For example, today we know that global warming is occurring, but do we know how certain animals will respond to it? Can mammals adapt to this type of climate change? Previous research, including that done in my lab has shown that mammals typically do not change their ecology over time and the current rate of climate change is probably too fast for mammals to evolve—mammals are either already adapted to global warming and will survive or they aren’t and will ultimately go extinct.

Ongoing research projects in New York, California, Colorado, Florida, Spain, and Germany will provide insight into how and why ancient mammal ecology changed. This will, in turn, further increase our understanding of natural selection and the process of evolution.

Dr. Robert S. Feranec is curator of vertebrate paleontology at the New York State Museum.
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