New SEH lab to focus on evolutionary history of ancient fish

Media Credit: File Photo by Arielle Bader | Senior Photo Editor

A new SEH lab is tracking the path of prehistoric fish from the ocean to land.

A researcher will head a new laboratory dedicated to studying how animal anatomy and movements can reveal the evolutionary history of humans and other species.

Sandy Kawano, an assistant professor of biology and the leader of the lab in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said in a University release that she will attempt to replicate the movements of ancient marine species to determine how their fish ancestors migrated from the ocean to land. Evolutionary biology experts said research performed in the laboratory will increase scientists’ understanding of how animal locomotion evolved, which can help scientists predict how humans and other organisms will continue to adapt.

Kawano will use technology like 3D modeling, high-speed cameras and robots to “reverse-engineer” the movements of tetrapods – which are four-legged, semi-aquatic, semi-terrestrial animals, according to the release.

“Scientists often act as detectives for the past,” she said in the release. “We’re looking at clues and trying to reconstruct what happened a long time ago.”

Kawano said scientists are still unsure of how exactly some marine species transitioned to living on land, but scientists can technologically reconstruct ancient species’ evolutionary history to determine how modern animals will adapt to changing environments.

“The really exciting part of science is that the more new evidence we find, the more new questions we open up,” Kawano said. “Even though we are working with these extinct animals that are really, really old, they’re still bringing up new questions about what we can understand about and learn from our past.”

Kawano could not be reached for comment.

Evolutionary biology experts said analyzing and comparing the evolutionary histories of animal species can indicate how species will adapt to trends like urbanization and climate change.

Matthew Ravosa, a professor of biology at the University of Notre Dame, said the advent of 3D modeling will allow researchers to investigate how animal skeletal and muscular structure has changed over time. He said examining the evolution of animal locomotion through a 3D lens will provide scientists with more specific and accurate insights into how animals evolved over the past several million years.

“You can control what’s happening in the lab and hopefully model what’s happening in the real world,” Ravosa said. “You can make inferences about what actually happens in the wild and may be happening in the fossil record.”

Fred Adler, a professor of biology and mathematics at the University of Utah, said comparing organisms’ biological histories allows researchers to uncover evolutionary relationships between species, which can explain the Earth’s current biodiversity. Adler said documenting the similarities and differences among species can provide scientists with a rough framework of how certain evolutionary adaptations have improved or hindered species’ ability to survive.

“When people slow it down and look at it more carefully, it’s all more complicated,” Adler said. “It’s precisely there where we might see these things that are either very well adapted in ways we didn’t understand before or perhaps not perfectly adapted in ways we didn’t understand before.”

Adler said new technologies in the lab – like 3D computer modeling, high-speed digital cameras and robots – allow researchers to more easily analyze the progression of animal locomotion over time. He added that examining evolutionary patterns of animal movements in the past can signal how animals will adapt to the increasingly prevalent pressures of urbanization and climate change.

“Evolution is not just something that happens in fossils and in textbooks,” Adler said. “It’s happening around us all the time.”

Katy Gonder, a professor of biology at Drexel University, said comparing the evolution of animal locomotion will allow scientists to understand how and when humans diverged from other species.

She said gaining insight into the history of species evolution can help scientists predict how humans and animals will adapt or not adapt in response to selective pressures – external forces that reduce an organism’s likelihood of reproducing.

“By using the patterns of evolution, it’s been possible to try to understand the process of evolution itself,” Gonder said. “We use the past in order to predict the future because we have an understanding of what the underlying process is.”

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