The George Gaylord Simpson Prize
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The George Gaylord Simpson Prize at the Yale Peabody Museum

An Annual Award for a Paper on Evolution and the Fossil Record

Yale University graduate students and recent PhD graduates are invited to submit one first-authored paper concerning evolution and the fossil record by March 12, 2021 to Bonnie Mahmood in the Director’s Office of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. So long as the paper explicitly addresses the fossil record, the range of questions addressed is open and could include contributions to the philosophy and history of science, theory and methods of phylogenetic inference, biogeography, paleontology, divergence time estimation, biodiversity studies, developmental biology, functional morphology, or conservation biology. Submissions must be either published or in press in a refereed journal. Graduate students in residence in a department at Yale, or past graduates no more than five years after PhD, are eligible. Former winners are not eligible, but papers can be submitted more than once.

A completed submission form must be included with every submitted paper.


Submission Form


2020 Winners:


Michael Hanson

‘Complete Ichthyornis Skull illuminates mosaic assembly of the avian head’ – winning paper


The avian cranial kinetic mechanism is a complex biomechanical system that allows birds to move their bills independently of the rest of their skulls. This avian evolutionary innovation—not found in their closest living relatives, the crocodilians, nor in their dinosaurian ancestors—is crucial in allowing birds to use their beaks as “hands” to dexterously manipulate food and other objects in their surroundings in a sophisticated way that few other animals can achieve. Despite this significance, the origins of cranial kinesis remain poorly understood due to the crushed preservation of most bird fossils, and the fact that the deepest divergence among living birds is characterized by two different modes of cranial kinesis, with no known intermediate morphologies. My research seeks to understand the origins of cranial kinesis employing methods from multiple biological disciplines, including developmental biology, paleontology, and comparative anatomy. With new contrast-stained µCT scanning and confocal microscopy methods I am investigating musculoskeletal structures associated with the feeding apparatus in embryonic development, fossil specimens, and fluid–preserved museum specimens of birds and their relatives. In my investigation of the fossils of early toothed birds in the Yale Peabody Museum’s collections, including Hesperornis and Ichthyornis from Cretaceous marine deposits in Kansas, I assembled the first 3D reconstructions the skulls of Mesozoic birds close to the origin of modern bird lineage, revealing a previously unrecognized mosaic of primitive and derived anatomical traits in their skulls and an unexpectedly early origin for the avian toothless and kinetic beak.



Elizabeth Spriggs

‘Restriction-site-associated DNA sequencing reveals a cryptic Viburnum species on the North America Coastal Plain’ – winning paper


Elizabeth Spriggs received the 2020 George Gaylord Simpson Prize for her publication “Restriction-Site-Associated DNA sequencing reveals a cryptic Viburnum species on the North American Coastal Plain” co-authored with Deren Eaton, Patrick Sweeney, Caroline Schlutius, Erika Edwards, and Michael Donoghue. Genetic sequencing methods developed over the past decade have made it possible to resolve many of the longstanding problems in plant taxonomy. In this study, RAD sequencing was applied to a well-known North American lineage with surprising results. In contrast to all recent taxonomic treatments which recognized 1-2 species in the Viburnum nudum species complex, genetic analysis identified three clearly distinct lineages (species). Although two of the species are widespread across the Southeastern United States, each species occurs in a unique environment – either in swamps or in sand soils along streams. A comparison of species distribution models and pollen-based biome reconstructions suggests that these habitat differences have persisted over many thousands of years and may have driven species divergence in the first place. This work is part of a broader effort to understand the evolution and assembly of the North American Flora at a fine scale which will ultimately provide important insight for conservation and predicting the impact of climate change on our forests.

 Elizabeth Spriggs completed her PhD in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University and recently finished a two-year postdoc at the Arnold Arboretum. Her research has continued to focus on phylogeography of North American plants including Chestnuts and Ash trees. 



Ross Anderson

‘Doushantuo-type micro fossils from latest Edia caran phosphorites of northern Mongolia’ – winning paper


My research uses fossils to chart the Proterozoic (2.5–0.5 billion years ago) evolution and early diversification of eukaryotes (organisms with a cell nucleus like animals and plants). Few of these early eukaryotes possessed mineralized skeletons, so I use novel analytical techniques to illuminate the unusual conditions conducive to their fossilization. The prize winning paper describes a new exceptionally preserved fossil biota from Mongolia dating to the Ediacaran Period. The biota includes only the third examples of microfossils that have been argued to be the oldest animal embryos. These fossil were first reported from China and interpreted as animal embryos over 20 years ago, but their animal affinity has proved controversial. The discovery of a new locality yields the possibility of new insights which may resolve this debate. The new Mongolian fossils are also slightly younger that their Chinese counterparts and may evidence survival over a major extinction event.




Past winners


For information contact:

Bonnie Mahmood

Senior Administrative Assistant
Peabody Museum of Natural History
Yale University
P.O. Box 208118
New Haven, CT 06520-8118 USA


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