Aki Watanabe's research seeks to answer one of the most enduring questions in biology—what drives phenotypic evolution? To this end, his work focuses on three areas: (1) the tempo and mode of morphological evolution, particularly along the dinosaur-bird transition; (2) the complex interplay between anatomical changes along developmental and evolutionary time scales; and (3) the creation of new computational tools to investigate practical and theoretical issues in the collection and analysis of phenotypic data. His research employs a synthesis of modern techniques, including high-resolution 3-D imaging, statistical shape analysis (geometric morphometrics), and programming. Watanabe's previous projects have elucidated how the highly encephalized brains of birds evolved from their dinosaurian ancestors, while introducing new tools that allow users to evaluate the quality of their own morphological data. Beyond these studies, he regularly engages in paleontological fieldwork, including remote locations in Mongolia and Argentina.

Watanabe received his Ph.D. in Comparative Biology from Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History in 2016, an M.Sc. in Biological Science from Florida State University in 2012, and a B.A. in Biological Sciences and Geophysical Sciences, as well as a Minor in Music from University of Chicago in 2009. His non-academic interests include playing the violin, running, and tennis.

Recent Projects/Research

  • Tempo and mode of skull and brain evolution in reptiles
  • Intersection of evolutionary and developmental changes in anatomy
  • New computational tools to address methodological issues

Selected Publications

  • Ksepka, D.T., A.M. Balanoff, N.A. Smith, G.S. Bever, B.-A. Bhullar, E. Bourdon, E.L. Braun, J.G. Burleigh, J.A. Clarke, M.W. Colbert, J.R. Corfield, F.J. Degrange, V.L. de Pietri, C.M. Early, D.J. Field, P.M. Gignac, M.E.L. Gold, E.D. Jarvis, R.T. Kimball, S. Kawabe, L. Lefebvre, J. Marug ́an-Lob ́on, C.S. Mongle, A. Morhardt, M.A. Norell, R.C. Ridgely, R.P. Scofield, C.P. Tambussi, C.R. Torres, M. van Tuinen, S.A. Walsh, A. Watanabe, L.M. Witmer, A.K. Wright, L.E. Zanno, J.B. Smaers. Tempo and pattern of avian brain size evolution. Current Biology 30:1–11. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.03.060
  • Felice, R.F., A. Watanabe, A.R. Cuff, M. Hanson, B.-A.S. Bhullar, E.R. Rayfield, L.M. Witmer, M.A. Norell, A. Goswami. Decelerated dinosaur evolution at the origin of birds. PLoS Biology 18(8): e3000801. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000801
  • Watanabe, A., A.-C. Fabre, R.N. Felice, J.A. Maisano, J. Müller, A. Herrel, A. Goswami. 2019. Ecomorphological diversification in squamates from conserved pattern of cranial integration. Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences USA 116:14688–14697. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1820967116
  • Watanabe, A., P.M. Gignac, A.M. Balanoff, T.L. Green, N.J. Kley, M.A. Norell. 2019. Are endocasts good proxies for brain size and shape in archosaurs throughout ontogeny? Journal of Anatomy 234:291–305. doi: 10.1111/joa.12918
  • Watanabe, A. 2018. "How many landmarks are enough to characterize shape and size variation?" PLoS ONE 13(6):e0198341
  • Watanabe, A. 2016. "The impact of poor sampling of polymorphisms on cladistic analysis." Cladistics 32:317–334. doi: 10.1111/cla.12130

Honors and Awards

  • American Association for Anatomy BioArt Winner (2020).
  • National Science Foundation Grant: "Acquisition of a high-energy micro-computed tomography (CT) scanner for multi- and inter-disciplinary STEM research." (2018)
  • National Science Foundation Grant: "Ecomorphological diversification and the origin of phenotypic disparity in crocodile-line archosaurs." (2018)
  • Top 20 Downloaded Article, 2017–2018 and 2018–2019 in Journal of Anatomy
  • Norman Newell Early Career Grant given by the Paleontological Society (2017)
  • National Science Foundation Grant: "Unraveling the deep history of avian neurological complexity: Implications for the origins of flight and organization of the modern avian brain." (2015)

Courses Taught

  • Form and Function
  • Practicum in Clinically Oriented Anatomy
  • Foundations of Osteopathic Medicine (Human Gross Anatomy)

Contact Info