This project evaluates how morphological specialization affects diversity and morphological change over time. Research to date has shown that clades of dental/dietary specialists (hypercarnivores) exhibit less morphological diversity than their non-specialized relatives. Furthermore, phenotypic change as lineages evolve from generalists into specialists appears irreversible, and may affect a taxon's subsequent ability to respond to changing conditions. To best understand how hypercarnivory evolves, however, a comprehensive phylogeny of the aeluroid Carnivora, including both fossil and recent forms, is needed. Such a phylogeny, incorporating morphological and molecular data, will permit detailed study of character change over millions of years.
This project has far-reaching impacts in ecology and evolutionary biology. Both paleontologists and neontologists have interest in the macroevolutionary effects of specialization, while the novel methodological approaches can be applied to many additional biological questions. The detailed phylogeny produced in this research will be useful to anyone interested in character change in Carnivora, and, since specialization may affect phenotypic evolution, this work is especially relevant to conservation biologists and comparative ecomorphologists. Lastly, the co-PI is a female graduate student with children, with opportunities to address questions about biological research in many non-traditional venues.