CWRU Team of Scientists Receive $ 1.2 Million WM Keck Foundation Research Grant to Determine How Ecological Factors Affect Evolution


Newswise – CLEVELAND, July 7, 2021 – A researcher from Case Western Reserve University is leading an interdisciplinary global team that will use cutting-edge technology to tackle an old question: How have ecological factors affected the evolution of our ancestors of millions of years ago?

The possible answers intrigued the WM Keck Foundation so much that it awarded Armington professor Beverly Saylor and colleagues a $ 1.2 million grant to explore them.

The funds will support a systematic and integrated investigation into why two neighboring fossil study areas in Ethiopia’s Afar region – Hadar and Woranso-Mille – reveal distinct records of humankind’s earliest predecessors.

Case Western Reserve has a long history of close ties with both sites. Hadar is best known for the discovery and dating of Lucy, a 3.2 million year old partial skeleton, by researchers at the CWRU and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH). Over the next four decades, scientists found hundreds of more fossils of Lucy’s species at Hadar, but no other hominid species that could have lived around the same time.

About 30 miles north of Hadar, Woranso-Mille has been a research site for about 15 years. Saylor has been researching the geology of the area since the start of the project. She saw Woranso-Mille bring back numerous fossils not only of Lucy’s species, but at least two others, including one whose foot appears to have been adapted for climbing trees. Some existed at the same time and nearby.

“Differences in the diversity of hominid species in neighboring but distinct geological landscapes,” said Saylor, “provide an unprecedented opportunity to understand the ecological features that influence the diversity and evolution of hominids.”

Seizing this opportunity involves hiring around thirty scientists whose expertise ranges from geology and paleoanthropology to geochronology and paleoclimate, to name a few.

Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator at CMNH until arriving at Arizona State University (ASU) this year, has run the Woranso-Mille site since its inception. He will continue to exercise this leadership role there and will serve as the Co-Principal Investigator on this project.

Kaye Reed from ASU and Naomi Levin from the University of Michigan are also the co-principal investigators of the project. The other institutions represented are the University of Addis Ababa, the University of Aix Marseille, the University of Barcelona, ​​the Berkeley Geochronology Center, the Ohio University and the University of Southern California.

The Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) and the Afar Regional Government will facilitate local permits for this research.

Over the next three years, the team will bring together samples and data from Hadar and Woranso-Mille to better understand the two sites as they stood millions of years earlier.

Levin, for example, will lead efforts to characterize the distribution of plant and water resources in the two landscapes.

“We will use a powerful combination of soil morphology and bulk geochemistry data, high precision isotope analyzes, organic geochemistry,” Levin said, “and the latest techniques in paleobotany to reconstruct paleohydrology, paleo- vegetation and paleoclimate “.

Meanwhile, Reed will lead the reconstruction of past habitats using vertebrate fossils.

“This is the first time that we have had the opportunity to compare the paleoecology of unique fauna and hominids from adjacent areas over the same time period,” Reed explained, “and it will give us a level of detail. which will allow us to explore why there were different species living close to each other but not overlapping.

Haile-Selassie, meanwhile, will coordinate the work of comparing these results with analyzes of thousands of vertebrate fossils from the two sites to assess the links between habitat and mammalian diversity, including among hominids.

“This multidisciplinary integration of physical, chemical and biological evidence will allow us to assess differences in the ecology of closely related early human ancestors and provide insight into the origins of our own genus,” he said.

Finally, Saylor will lead the team’s mapping and dating of sedimentary and volcanic rock units to compare the ancient physical landscapes of the two areas and locate them in relation to volcanoes, faults, major drainage systems and others. characteristics of the tectonic landscape of the region.

To bring all the data together, Saylor and Jeffrey Yarus of the CWRU will lead the application of advanced geostatistical techniques to illustrate the spatial distribution of fossils, habitats and landscape features.

If successful, this project will reveal the spatial context of records of hominid diversity, one of the greatest challenges in understanding human evolution and a fundamental question of biodiversity.

“This project builds on decades of field studies, laboratory analysis and museum work,” Saylor said. “This collaboration – and the advanced techniques and technologies involved – offers an extraordinary opportunity to advance our understanding of our collective history as humans on this planet. “

This research grant is only the second Case Western Reserve received from the WM Keck Foundation in the history of the university. The WM Keck Foundation was established in 1954 in Los Angeles by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company. One of the largest philanthropic organizations in the country, the WM Keck Foundation supports outstanding scientific, technical and medical research. The Foundation also supports undergraduate education and maintains a program in Southern California to support arts and culture, education, health and community service projects.

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About Case Western Reserve University: Case Western Reserve is one of the country’s leading private research institutes. Located in Cleveland, it offers a unique combination of cutting-edge educational opportunities in an inspiring cultural setting. Leading professors engage in teaching and research in a collaborative and practical environment. Nationally recognized programs include the arts and sciences, dentistry, engineering, law, management, medicine, nursing, and social work. About 5,100 undergraduates and 6,200 graduate students make up the student body. Visit case.edu to see how Case Western Reserve thinks beyond the possible.



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