Foundation research

CWRU science team receives $1.2 million research grant from WM Keck Foundation to determine how ecological factors affect evolution

Newswise – CLEVELAND, July 7, 2021 – A Case Western Reserve University researcher is leading a global, interdisciplinary team that will use cutting-edge technology to tackle an age-old question: how ecological factors affected the evolution of our ancestors long ago. years old?

The possible answers intrigued the WM Keck Foundation so much that it awarded Professor Armington Beverly Saylor and colleagues a $1.2 million grant to explore them.

The funds will support a systematic and integrated investigation into why two neighboring fossil study areas in the Afar region of Ethiopia – Hadar and Woranso-Mille – reveal distinct records of the earliest human ancestors.

Case Western Reserve has long had close ties to both sites. Hadar is best known for the discovery and dating of Lucy, a 3.2 million year old partial skeleton, by researchers then at CWRU and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH). Over the next four decades, scientists found hundreds more fossils of Lucy’s species in Hadar, but no other hominid species that could have lived at the same time.

About 30 miles north of Hadar, Woranso-Mille has been a research site for about 15 years. Saylor has been researching the geology of the area since the start of the project. She saw Woranso-Mille produce numerous fossils not only of Lucy’s species, but of at least two others, including one whose foot appears to have been adapted for tree climbing. Some existed simultaneously and in close proximity.

“The differences in hominin species diversity in neighboring but distinct geologic landscapes,” Saylor said, “provide an unprecedented opportunity to understand the ecological features that influence hominin diversity and evolution.”

To seize this opportunity, it is necessary to hire about thirty scientists whose expertise ranges from geology and paleoanthropology to geochronology and paleoclimate, to name a few.

Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator at CMNH until he joined Arizona State University (ASU) this year, has directed the Woranso-Mille site since its inception. He will continue in this leadership role there and will serve as co-principal investigator on this project.

ASU’s Kaye Reed and University of Michigan’s Naomi Levin are also co-principal investigators on the project. Other institutions represented include Addis Ababa University, Aix Marseille University, University of Barcelona, ​​Berkeley Center for Geochronology, Ohio University and University of California du South.

The Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and the Afar Regional Government will facilitate local permits for this research.

Over the next three years, the team will collate samples and data from Hadar and Woranso-Mille to gain a more granular understanding of the two sites as they stood millions of years earlier.

Levin, for example, will lead efforts to characterize the distribution of plant and water resources in the two landscapes.

“We will use a powerful combination of data from soil morphology and bulk geochemistry, high-precision isotope analyses, organic geochemistry,” Levin said, “and the latest paleobotanical techniques to reconstruct paleohydrology, paleovegetation and paleoclimate.

During this time, Reed will lead the reconstruction of past habitats using vertebrate fossils.

“This is the first time we have had the opportunity to compare the paleoecology of unique fauna and hominids from adjacent areas over the same time period,” Reed explained, “and it will give us a level of detail that will explore why there were different species living in close proximity but not overlapping.

Haile-Selassie, meanwhile, will coordinate the work of comparing these results with the analyzes of thousands of vertebrate fossils from the two sites to assess the links between habitat and mammalian diversity, including among hominins.

“This multidisciplinary integration of physical, chemical and biological evidence will allow us to assess differences in the ecology of closely related early human ancestors and provide insight into the origins of our own genus,” he said.

Finally, Saylor will lead the team’s mapping and dating of sedimentary and volcanic rock units to compare the ancient physical landscapes of the two areas and place them in relation to volcanoes, faults, major drainage systems and other characteristics of the region’s rifted tectonic landscape.

To bring all the data together, Saylor and Jeffrey Yarus of the CWRU will lead the application of state-of-the-art geostatistical techniques to illustrate the spatial distribution of fossils, habitats and landscape features.

If successful, this project will reveal the spatial context of records of hominid diversity, one of the greatest challenges to understanding human evolution and a fundamental question of biodiversity.

“This project builds on decades of field studies, laboratory analysis and museum work,” Saylor said. “This collaboration – and the advanced techniques and technologies involved – offers an extraordinary opportunity to advance our understanding of our collective history as humans on this planet.”

This research grant is only the second Case Western Reserve has received from the WM Keck Foundation in the university’s history. The W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 in Los Angeles by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company. One of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations, the W. M. Keck Foundation supports outstanding research in science, engineering, and medicine. The Foundation also supports undergraduate education and maintains a program in Southern California to support arts and culture, education, health, and community service projects.


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