Ecomorphology and Biomechanics
of the mammalian skeleton

My most recent research involves the ecomorphological and evolutionary study of the mammalian postcranial skeleton, focusing on the evolution of the appendicular complex.

The elbow joint in carnivorans is an extremely good indicator of the three types of recognised predatory behaviour in carnivores (ambush predators, pounce predators, and pursuit predators) and it can be considered as a relatively taxon-free trait.

In collaboration with my former postdoc advisor at Brown University, Christine Janis, we took the emblematic case of the recently extinct marsupial wolf, Thylacinus cynocephalus, and we demonstrated a lack of convergence in predatory behaviour between both taxa. Accordingly, we re-evaluated a textbook example of the evolutionary convergence, which is a central topic in evolutionary biology. More recently, we have also extended this data to the whole forelimb in order to have a better picture of the skeletal adaptations towards different predatory behaviours in carnivores (Janis & Figueirido 2014: J Morphol 275:1321).

We have recently extended the research on the elbow joint to other marsupials and placentals (i.e., primates or xenarthrans) to explore if the elbow-joint anatomy was also a potential indicator of substrate use (i.e., arboreal vs. terrestrial) in living mammals with potential to be applied to extinct species. To illustrate this, we tackle the predatory behaviour of the marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, whose ecology has been problematic since Richard Owen to the present day (Figueirido et al 2015: Paleobiology, in press). Our results clearly indicated that the elbow-joint could be also used as ‘substrate use’ indicator, and we infer that Thylacoleo was a terrestrial carnivore but killing its prey with a totally different “arsenal” than any other carnivoran, living or extinct.

Although I have mostly worked with carnivorous placentals and marsupials, thanks to my collaboration with Christine Janis, I have also worked with ungulates (hoofed mammals) to find morphological indicators of habitat type and preference (Janis et al. 2012; J Vert Paleo 32, 433) and extinct stheniurines kangaroos (Janis et al 2014; PLoS ONE 9 e109888).

In collaboration with my former Ph.D. student, Alberto Martín-Serra, and my former Ph.D. supervisor, Paul Palmqvist, we are also investigating the shape of the major limb bones in carnivores. Specifically, we have explored patterns of morphological evolution in the appendicular bones of the forelimb (Martin-Serra et al. 2014: Plos one 9, e85574) and the hind limb (Martin-Serra et al 2014: BMC Evol biol 14, 129) to have a better understanding on the evolution and ecomorphology of the carnivoran skeleton. More interestingly, we have demonstrated that specialized predators for fast running have more integrated fore and hind limbs than unspecialized ones (Martín-Serra et al 2015: Evolution 69, 321).

In collaboration with Dr. Francisco Pastor and Alberto Martín-Serra, we have dissected different carnivoran species, with the main goal to understand the muscles involved in forelimb motion. Our main goal is to acquire a better understanding on the evolution of fast-running predators.