A challenge for 21st century research is to understand how species respond to environmental change. Climate, topography, and oceanic conditions changed tremendously over geological time, life responded through adaptation, radiation, and extinction. The paleontological and geological records therefore allow us to measure the rates at which species respond, the factors that tip the balance between adaptation and extinction, and the conditions that lead to environmental collapse and mass extinction. However, the temporal, spatial, and taxonomic resolutions of the fossil record do not easily mesh with the scale at which we make observations on the living world. Our research makes these connections.

Femur of a small mammal from the early Eocene of the Bridger Basin, Wyoming. P. David Polly (2018)

We address questions about the phylogenetics of mammals; the role of development in channeling evolution; the limits of predictability of evolution from quantitative population genetic parameters; the analysis of three-dimensional, complex phenotypes; comparative rates of geographic and evolutionary responses to environmental changes; and the role of Hox genes in the evolution of vertebrate body plans.

Our research is strongly quantitative and our most notable achievements have been new frameworks for analyzing complex morphology. We have developed new morphometric methods that make use of the three-dimensional representations obtained from laser and CT scanning; new Monte Carlo methods for simulating the long-term patterns of phenotypic change in phylogenetic and environmental contexts; likelihood methods for analyzing vertebrate morphology; and Bayesian ecometric methods for measuring and comparing functional trait change in communities across space and through time.

Analysis of spatial environmental sorting of locomotor proportions within species and between clades. (download the paper) Polly et al. 2017, Evolutionary Ecology Research, 18: 61-95.