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Apr 10 2014

NYIT Anatomy Professors Awarded NSF Grant for Evolutionary Studies

Old Westbury, N.Y.  (April 10, 2014) — The National Science Foundation has awarded a $220,000 research grant to NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine anatomy professors Jonathan Geisler, Ph.D. and Brian Beatty, Ph.D. for an extensive investigation into the evolution and development of whale, dolphin, and porpoise skulls.
 
In the first wide-ranging research on this topic in nearly a century, Geisler and Beatty will lead a team of scientists studying significant evolutionary transformations and the relationships among various species of fossil and living cetaceans – the order of marine mammals comprising whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
 
The researchers will use laser scanners and other technology to generate 3D digital computer models of more 47 different cetacean species. Coupled with X-ray computed tomography (CT scans) of the skulls’ interiors and sophisticated computer applications to analyze data they collect, the team will examine key skull features that have dramatically changed over millions of years. The researchers also plan to name and comprehensively describe at least four new species of ancient whales that represent pivotal moments in cetacean evolution.  
 
“Whales, dolphins and porpoises display an extraordinary diversity of skull shapes,” said Geisler, who recently published a paper in Nature on the evolution of echolocation. “The fossil record of cetacean skulls is one of the best documented, but least appreciated, examples of large-scale evolutionary change. There hasn’t been a major work on cetacean cranial evolution since 1923.”
 
Their work will have a public component: the researchers will document the evolutionary changes within the fossil record and incorporate the results into exhibits at the Mace Brown Natural History Museum at the College of Charleston and the Georgia Southern Museum. 
 
“A large percentage of public does not accept evolution, no less understand its basic principles, and as scientists we have a responsibility to change this. These exhibits will provide dramatic examples of how cetaceans have evolved adaptations that enabled them to thrive in aquatic habitats,” said Geisler. 
 
The project ideally pairs Geisler’s knowledge of cetacean evolution and skull research with Beatty’s expertise in dental microwear and feeding behaviors of extinct and living whales. Joining them on the project is Assistant Professor Gaberiel Bever, Ph.D., an expert on vertebrate cranial evolution who has published studies on a range of anatomical questions. Bever will mentor NYIT student researchers in generating, analyzing, and interpreting 3D models derived from the CT scans. Researchers from the College of Charleston, Georgia Southern University, and University College London are also involved.
 
Beatty said that scientists recognize that the architecture of cetacean skulls changed dramatically over millions of years.  Facial bones became “smeared” over the forehead, nostrils moved to the top of the head, and bones shifted to accommodate the development of new muscles. In many lineages, brain size increased and living toothed whales and dolphins evolved a sonar-like sensory system called echolocation. 
 
“There are all of these large-scale changes happening but there are also competing functions associated with those different parts of the skull,” said Beatty. “We’re trying to sort out which ones basically drove the changes that resulted in increased brain size, echolocation, and their ability to catch prey. To understand the change in skull form, you have to look at what’s happening in function at the same time. For example, the space allocated for chewing muscles reduced at the same time the brain expanded. Did a change in feeding and chewing have to happen to allow the brain to enlarge, or did an increase in brain size drive a change in feeding behaviors? These are the kinds of questions that we aim to test.”
 
The research will include examinations of two groups: toothed whales, dolphins, and porpoises along with filter-feeders who developed baleen plates rather than teeth. The scientists plan to generate 3D printed models of inner ears and brains that will be displayed as part of the public exhibits. Their work will be added to a cetacean evolution website hosted by NYIT and developed with a previous NSF grant to Geisler. 
 
About NYIT
New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) offers 90 degree programs, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees, in more than 50 fields of study, including architecture and design; arts and sciences; education; engineering and computing sciences; health professions; management; and osteopathic medicine. A non-profit independent, private institution of higher education, NYIT has 13,000 students attending campuses on Long Island and Manhattan, online, and at its global campuses. NYIT sponsors 11 NCAA Division II programs and one Division I team.
 
Led by President Edward Guiliano, NYIT is guided by its mission to provide career-oriented professional education, offer access to opportunity to all qualified students, and support applications-oriented research that benefits the larger world. To date, more than 95,000 graduates have received degrees from NYIT. For more information, visit nyit.edu.
 
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