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Jesse Young, Ph.D.

National Science Foundation Funds Leaping Research by NEOMED Scientist

What can the powerful leaps of today’s lemurs and marmosets tell us about how early primates evolved?

Jesse Young, Ph.D., an associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, recently received funding of $241,389 from the National Science Foundation for a project titled “Collaborative Research: Measuring leaping performance, evaluating its anatomical correlates, and reconsidering the importance of leaping in primate origins and early evolution.”

Dr. Young explains that although scientist have long believed that primate evolution was connected to locomotor patterns, what hasn’t been shown is an association between anatomy (the information provided by the fossil record) with locomotor performance. However, natural selection ultimately cares about how well an animal can leap, not the shape and size of the bones per se.

In other words: Was the ability to make powerful leaps a key factor that allowed some early primates to advance to the next evolutionary rung?

Dr. Young’s lab, which is a part of the Musculoskeletal Research focus area at NEOMED, will seek validated evidence that either supports or refutes that hypothesis. To collect quantitative biometric data, the scientists will study 19 species of living primates, using research facilities at the Duke University Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina, and at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Collecting the Data

“First, we’ll use a set of analytical techniques to explore the correlation of leaping-related skeletal traits with measurements of leaping performance,” says Dr. Young. “From there, we can assess the evolutionary implications: What correlations do we see in the primate fossil record, and what might that suggest for how these primates evolved?”

Dr. Young believes that knowing precisely how the skeleton of living primates predicts how well they can leap can tell us a lot about the leaping performance of extinct fossil primate ancestors.

The 2019 Outstanding Faculty Research Award winner will have plenty of company during this research period.

He’ll involve high school research interns from Bio-Med Science Academy, a STEM+ M school located on the NEOMED campus – as well as high school interns at Duke University. What’s more, he’ll teach a short course on primate locomotor biomechanics at Bio-Med Science Academy and conduct public science events at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, Duke University’s Darwin Day and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science.

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