George Gaylord Simpson Prize - 2017
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Matt Davis
Nicolas Mongiardino Koch

Matt Davis

Matt Davis is Carlsberg Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University in Denmark. There, he collaborates with a large, international, and interdisciplinary group of ecologists, conservationists, and social scientists as part of the MegaPast2Future project. The project aims to better understand the role of large animals (megafauna), in the earth system, so that we can learn from the past to build a sustainable future.

 

The Peabody Museum awarded Matt the 2017 G. G. Simpson Prize for his paper, "What North America's skeleton crew of megafauna tells us about community disassembly” published in Proceedings of the Royal Society: B. By carefully analyzing the diets and other functional traits of North America’s largest Ice Age mammals, Matt was able to show that contrary to expectations, functionally unique species were not more likely to go extinct than functionally redundant species. This means that although the Pleistocene extinction at the end of the Ice Age was severe, it did not impact communities as much as researchers had previously thought. However, modern large mammals are now extremely isolated and losing just a few endangered species could collapse much of North America’s megafauna community.

 

 

Nicolas Mongiardino Koch

One of the most tantalizing characteristics of morphological diversity is its highly clustered pattern across the biological hierarchy. Uncovering the causes behind this peculiar pattern has been a central goal in evolutionary biology. Although both paleontologists and neontologists have explored this topic, they have generally relied on different types of morphological characters to draw their conclusions, resulting in seemingly opposite views on key questions such as the relative frequency of ‘early bursts’ of phenotypic change. We were able to explore this apparent conflict by gathering both discrete and morphometric matrices for the same group of organisms, and exploring the history of morphological evolution on an independent, time-calibrated molecular phylogeny. By developing new statistical approaches, we were able to show that different sources of characters support mutually incompatible patterns of evolutionary change, which are in turn inferred to have been driven by opposite processes. Our research suggests that the discrepancies between paleontologists and evolutionary biologists may simply derive from differences in focus among the two fields, as well as highlighting the fact that the inferred macroevolutionary dynamic of a group is as much a result of character history as it is of clade history.