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Nicole Grunstra
PhD student
King's College
Dept. of Archaeology & Anthropology
University of Cambridge


Project Supervisor Funding
Hominin extinction: Primate models, dental patterns and the problem of the Paranthropines Robert A Foley The Bedford Fund
HE Durham Fund
King's College Cambridge

My research aims to answer "what is the dental signature of extinction risk through the mechanism of systemic physiological stress"? This question taps into extinction in the following indirect manner: extrinsic, environmental factors pertaining to an organism's physical environment such as climate, and/or its ecology may interact with each other as well as with the organism's intrinsic, biological traits, inducing (increased) systemic physiological stress, which in turn negatively affects its development during the ontogenetic stages and its health throughout its lifetime, ultimately reducing the organism's fitness. If this happens systematically on the scale of entire populations, populations decline and entire species become at (increased) risk of going extinct. Populations that are under stress and suffering from decline in size are made increasingly vulnerable to extinction through demographic and environmental stochasticity. The reason for parenthesising 'increased' is because individuals are likely to experience a certain level of physiological stress and extinction vulnerability, however low, at any given time, which we generally call the struggle for survival.
This main question led me to the following sub-questions pertaining to primate dental variation as a model for hominin extinction. Firstly, how does primate (particularly macaque) dental variation relate to physiological stress as a result of increased extinction risk? Secondly, which ecological and biological parameters correlate with the observed pattern of dental variation? Lastly, is the primate model transferrable to a more distantly related taxon, namely hominins?
To tackle these questions my project explores whether primate patterns of dental variation are related to physiological stress, and hence extinction risk, by combining morphological data with specific environmental (e.g. latitude, temperature), ecological (e.g. home range, population density) and biological (e.g. body mass, gestation length) variables into an analysis of stress patterns. I will then investigate the predictive power of the extant primate/macaque model against extinct macaques, and thus ask if we can observe the macaque relationship between dental variation and extinction risk in the past. Finally, I want to test whether we such a primate model of measures of extinction risk derived from dental variation works for hominins, specifically Paranthropus.





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