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Presented By: Earth and Environmental Sciences

Smith Lecture: Illuminating the Mechanisms Underlying Great Transformations in Early Mammalian Evolution

Luke Weaver, University of Michigan

The Mesozoic–Cenozoic transition was an extremely turbulent interval defined by one of the most severe mass extinctions in Earth’s history—the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) mass extinction—and was associated with rising mountain ranges, waxing and waning seas, and fluctuating climates. Mammalian evolution during this interval was similarly dynamic—once-dominant ‘archaic’ lineages went extinct, while new groups arose and diversified. Indeed, many of the biological traits that facilitated the mammalian rise to prominence in modern-day ecosystems trace their roots back to the Mesozoic–Cenozoic transition. In this talk, I will outline key features of my research program, which aims to elucidate the intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of these great transformations in early mammalian evolution. The intrinsic perspective focuses on the role that changes in behavior, life history, masticatory systems, and locomotion played in promoting or inhibiting the diversification of major mammalian groups. The extrinsic perspective focuses on the role that mountain uplift, and associated changes to river systems and climate, played in the diversification of mammals across the K–Pg boundary. This two-pronged approach is grounded in paleontological and geological fieldwork, the study of museum specimens, and is fundamentally collaborative, involving diverse analytical techniques and colleagues spanning the fields of paleontology, geology, and evolutionary biology. Ultimately, my goal is to use this integrative and interdisciplinary research program to illuminate the mechanisms underlying patterns of biodiversity in deep time.

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