The Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences offers postdoctoral research fellowships to provide opportunities for recent doctoral graduates to obtain additional training, to gain research experience under the sponsorship of established scientists, and to broaden their scientific horizons beyond their undergraduate and graduate training. Postdoctoral fellowships are further designed to assist new scientists to direct their research efforts across traditional disciplinary lines and to avail themselves of unique research resources, sites, and facilities, including at foreign locations. This postdoctoral fellowship award supports a rising scholar at the intersection of several fields of science: Human Evolution, Biomechanics, Evolutionary Modeling and Primatology to investigate the origins of the peculiar type of locomotion (also called knuckle-walking) that is used only by our closest living primate relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, and may have been used by our earliest ancestors. This bizarre form of locomotion has led to decades of research focusing on why an animal would knuckle-walk over any other form of locomotion, and when and how many times it has evolved. However, critical to addressing any hypotheses concerning the origin of knuckle-walking are basic data that allow the Fellow to understand how it works. By fully understanding how knucklewalking works, the project team will be able to directly investigate the origin and evolution of knucklewalking in apes. This will enable the team to infer its presence in fossil apes as well as the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees. The project has substantial collaboration with scientists and students in Rwanda, going much deeper beyond simply doing fieldwork and data collection. The research team will host Rwandan university students for internships, and students conducting their senior research at the Karisoke Research Center. This project also facilitates opportunities to engage Rwandan undergraduate students and early career scientists. Through this type of international collaboration, US scientists, postdoctoral scholars and students engage in meaningful research to advance the state of the art in the field of anthropology and biomechanics.

In this project, a team of scientists utilize state-of-the-art laboratory- and field-based biomechanical analyses of locomotion in chimpanzees, gorillas, and macaques, as well as phylogenetic comparative methodologies in order to test assumptions about the evolution of this unique form of locomotion, and to understand how, when, and how many times this locomotor behavior evolved. Specifically, in this project the team of scientists will: 1) perform a 3-D jointlevel mechanical analysis of knuckle-walking in chimpanzees and digitigrade/palmigrade walking in macaques, 2) create a computational model that allows for examination of the benefits of knuckle-walking over other forms of terrestrial locomotion, 3) use evolutionary modeling to track the evolution of knuckle-walking in the hominoid tree of life and to infer its presence in fossil apes, and 4) develop protocols for collecting non-invasive 3-D field kinematic data from wild, critically endangered mountain gorillas, including knuckle-walking. The broader impacts of this research will target both scientific and educational domains. The researchers will develop protocols to investigate locomotion in wild, critically endangered mountain gorillas. This will not only provide never-before-seen insights into gorilla locomotion, but the protocols will be widely applicable to other endangered species. Moreover, this project will support the research of an early-career scientist, and will involve mentoring of graduate and undergraduate students. By training the next generation of scientists and creating freely-available data resources and research protocols, this project will facilitate discoveries about the origin of our closest living ape relatives, as well as the origin of our own species, that go far beyond the present project. The project involves international collaboration at multiple levels, and is co-funded by the NSF Office of International Science and Engineering.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities (SMA)
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Josie S. Welkom
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New York Institute of Technology
Old Westbury
United States
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