About my Primary Research in Skeletal Variation

Just me and a few hominins

I study many things. But if asked to explain my primary work in a nutshell, I'd say I study what the skeleton tells us at very long and very short time scales (i.e., our evolutionary past to our unique life history) and with very large and very small samples (entire species to a single individual). My early work focused on long bones of the arms and legs in forensics and population genetics, with a long view toward using them in human identification and to understand population history. My fascination with these bones was because anthropologists often use them to infer behavior from skeletons found in forensic, archaeological, or fossil contexts. Behavior can mean many things, but usually centers on physical activity, workload, mobility, sports, or even habitual actions associated with hunting or food preparation. While long bone variation does reflect these things, my doctoral work​ showed that it also reflects genetic information too, meaning we may one day use long bones to understand important genetic processes that reflect our historical and evolutionary past (e.g., population migrations, ancestry, the species of newly discovered fossils). I'm still working on that.

Recently my work has broadened to include other species and is more integrative, focusing not just on arms and legs, but the skeleton as a whole. After all, bones neither develop nor function in isolation, so is it reasonable to study them as though they were dissociated? What do bones tell us when they’re considered together rather than apart? These questions are the basis of two major projects we have underway at BHEML: “Skeletal integration in behaviorally convergent mammals” and “An integrative analysis of the primate skeleton,” as well as a collaborative project in conjunction with Jason Kamilar at the UMASS Comparative Primatology Laboratory titled “Phylogenetic signal in primate skeletal morphology.” All three projects are skeletal-wide assessments of variation, each testing different hypotheses and focusing on different groups: one focuses on African and Asian monkeys and apes, the other on all ~350 primate species, and the last on placental and marsupial mammals who look very similar but who are not related. Together, these projects will reveal how intrinsic connections across bones (be they genetic, developmental, physiological, or functional) affect the ways that evolution can operate. Enhanced understanding of how integration constrains change throughout the skeleton will directly impact how we interpret fossil specimens, and as a result, the stories their bones tell us about behavior, diet, phylogenetic status, development, and adaptation in species long extinct.

3D rendering of a monkey skull. 3D scans like this are the key data source for my collaborative projects moving forward. 

These projects will study the skeletons of primates that are as big as gorillas and as small as this mouse lemur.

Human identification? Population history? Nonhuman primates? Marsupials? On the surface these seem like very different foci. However they are logically linked--I’ve simply pushed the boundary of my work further back in time, from my earliest projects in forensics (with a temporal scope of roughly 50 years) to the most recent involving mammals (165 million years, give or take a few million). My core research interest—how skeletal variation reflects the competing demands of intrinsic (genetics/development/physiology) and extrinsic (movement/function) factors—has been consistent throughout my career, as has my unabashed love of the bones beneath the skull.

I'm also involved in several large sociocultural projects issuing from collaborations with local citizen scientists and researchers at Arizona State University. Each of these projects focuses on the relationship between body/body image, body-related stigma, psychosocial health, and social interactions. I'll share more information about these at a later date.  

Research Interests

Skeletal Biology

Everything from intrinsic properties (developmental machinery, biophysical responsiveness, cellular communication networks) to broad patterns of variation across populations and species

Education

2018 - Present

   National Science Foundation, Biology Directorate

   Buffalo Human Evolutionary Morphology Lab

   Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Evo Devo Bio

 

How developmental mechanisms guide evolution and adult morphological variation

2017 - 2018

 

   Mayo Clinic - Arizona State University

   Obesity Solutions

   Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Evolutionary Morphology

How the shape and form of the skeleton changes over time, and what this tells us about our evolutionary past

2009 - 2017

   University of Massachusetts Amherst 

   PhD with Distinction, Anthropology (Biology)

Population History

What skeletal variation tells us about past populations (migrations, relationships/ancestry, workload, physical activity)

2007 - 2009

   North Carolina State University

   MA in Anthropology (Forensics/Bioarchaeology)

Life History and Biology

How our personal biology (our bodies, skeletons or otherwise) reflect our unique life experiences (social stigmas, jobs, activities, social roles) and vice versa.

2007

   University of Arkansas Fayetteville

   BA in Anthropology, Minor in French

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© 2018 Gina Agostini (includes all content except where otherwise specified). Created with Wix.com

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Buffalo Human Evolutionary

Morphology Lab