Kelsey Pugh was awarded a Leakey Foundation Research Grant during our spring 2016 cycle for her project entitled “Mid-Late miocene hominoid phylogeny: Implications for ape and human evolution.” She is a PhD candidate from the City University of New York.
The living great apes, humans, and their fossil relatives (hominids) are among the most intensively studied mammals, yet many aspects of their shared evolutionary history are not well understood. In particular, the positions of many fossil species on the hominid family tree (phylogenetic relationships) are largely unknown or remain highly contentious, despite many recent fossil discoveries.
My project aims to more accurately infer phylogenetic relationships of hominids, and to use this information to gain a clearer understanding of great ape and human evolution. A better understanding of the hominid family tree will help clarify the evolution of characteristic ape traits and the dispersal patterns of fossil and living apes across Eurasia and Africa. This study will incorporate features from the entire skeleton, with an emphasis on the inclusion of characters from the postcranium in addition to traditional craniodental characters. Updated and modern character analysis and phylogenetic methods will be used to create and test competing hypotheses. Construction of a new and detailed dataset that samples all fossil great ape species, including the potential early hominins Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, and Ardipithecus, will allow me to address questions that are of key interest to paleoanthropologists, including whether these Late Miocene taxa are indeed more closely related to humans than to apes and what locomotor mode preceded upright walking.
This project represents the most comprehensive phylogenetic analysis of Mid-Late Miocene (~16-5 Ma) hominoids carried out to date and will provide the necessary context to frame taxonomic and paleobiological questions pertaining to living apes and humans within the broader context of the Miocene fossil record.