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Michelle Stocker

Michelle Stocker seeks story behind animals that use heads to burrow

Geosciences Assistant Professor Michelle Stocker is using a National Science Foundation grant to map the repeated evolution of similar head shapes among animals that use their heads to dig into the ground.

During the mutli-university study, Stocker and her team will examine what developmental and biomechanical properties led to a body shape designed for burrowing.

“The main goal of the project is to examine how and why we get the repeated evolution of similar head shapes in very distantly related animals from more than 400 million years ago to today,” Stocker said.

“How and why convergence of body shape occurs is a fundamental evolutionary puzzle. We’re looking at how anatomy, development, relationships and ancestry, and biomechanics interplay to result in these shapes.”

Among the hundreds of different species to be studied will be lizards, snakes, and caecilians that are alive, as well as fossils of extinct animals called microsaurs that have a similar shape. Stocker will use three-dimensional data from CT scans as well as bone material properties to study the anatomy and biomechanics of the skulls of these animals.

“Some species we’ll include have not had their skeletal morphology documented fully because the skeletons of living animals aren’t always examined when we have the ability to look at their color and the number of scales and types of teeth they have,” Stocker said.

“The final goal of the project really is to test predictions of ecomorphology — this animal looks like X so it must have done Y, without actually seeing it do any such thing — by quantifying the shapes,” Stocker said.

Read more about the research.