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The biomechanics of arboreal stability in primates - an integrated analysis.
Biological anthropologists have long maintained a keen interest in the adaptations that allowed primates to successfully invade the arboreal habitat, where stability is paramount. Decades of research have identified anatomical features, such as grasping hands and feet, and behavioral mechanisms, such as the use of distinctive walking styles, which arguably facilitate stability on branches. Nevertheless, we still have an incomplete understanding of the mechanisms by which primates actually keep balance when moving about in the trees. This research will remedy this gap by carrying out a series of experiments to understand balance performance in both New World and Old World monkeys. In so doing, we will gain deeper insight into several fundamental issues of primate, and human, evolution – such as the functional importance of grasping hands and feet and the possible consequences of tail loss among the apes.

This research is supported by NSF BCS-1126790.

Natural selection on growth and locomotor development in eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus)
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The juvenile stage of life can be particularly perilous. Immature animals must survive in the same environments as adults despite smaller body size, weaker muscles and other growth-related limitations on physical ability. Because, by definition, juveniles have yet to reproduce, we should expect strong selection for mechanisms that could potentially offset these age-related limits on physical performance, allowing individuals to reach adulthood, reproduce, and thus maintain evolutionary fitness. The proposed research, conducted in collaboration with Mike Butcher's lab at Youngstown State University and Greg Smith's lab at the University of Akron, will combine measures of musculoskeletal growth, physical performance, and survivorship in eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) to explicitly test broad-scale hypotheses about the adaptive nature of mammalian growth and development. Eastern cottontails are independent of their mothers by three weeks of age and experience high predation pressure during the first year of life, making them an ideal species in which to address these issues. The fundamental data collected in this study will provide a greater understanding of how natural selection operates on musculoskeletal growth and development in response to predation, providing novel insight into the process of evolution itself.

This research is supported by NSF IOS-1146916.