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Research Interests for Richard F. Kay

Research Interests: Evolution of primate adaptations, anthropoid adaptations,phylogenetics, paleoecology

I have several areas of research. The first encompasses the evolution of primates and mammalian faunal evolution, especially in South America. I also have written extensively on the subject of the evolutionary origins of the Anthropoidea (monkeys and apes). More generally, I am interested in the use of primate anatomy to reconstruct the phylogenetic history and adaptations of living and extinct primates, especially Anthropoidea.

Click here to visit my Web site on paleontological research in the Rio Gallegos area of Argentina.

Evolution of Primates and of Mammalian Faunas in South America

For the past 35 years, I have been engaged in research in Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic with three objectives:

1. To reconstruct the evolutionary history and adaptive patterns of South American primates and other mammals;

2. To establish a more precise geologic chronology for the mammalian faunas between the Late Eocene and Middle Miocene (between about 36 and about 11 million years ago); and

3. To use anatomy and niche structure of modern mammals as a means to reconstruct the evolution of mammalian niche structure in the Neotropics.

Primate Anatomy -- Implications for Phylogeny and Adaptations

A major theme of my work is to improve our understanding of two related topics:

1. The phylogeny of primates based (principally) on anatomical evidence; and

2. Inferring the adaptations of extinct primates based mainly on cranial and dental evidence.

Plans for Future Research

Plans for research over the next 3-5 years are embodied in three projects.

1) Climate Change in the mid-Miocene of South America

One is a particularly important region of Patagonian Argentina encompassing a rock unit called the Santa Cruz Formation that spans the mid-Miocene Climate Optimum, a period of particularly significant climatic warming when the earth’s subtropical zone stretched to the southern end of the South American continent. This project concentrates on the reconstruction of the mammalian niche structure using modern mammalian assemblages of known species richness and ecology. The paleoecology of extinct mammalian species is inferred using ‘ecomorphology’-- using anatomical features to reconstruct the niche of extinct species.

2) Paleontological Investigations to Recover Fossil Monkeys from the Middle Cenozoic of South America

The pattern of monkey evolution in South America is poorly documented and little understood. Some argue that New World monkeys (Platyrrhini) known from 16-20 million year old rocks of Patagonia predate the origins of the modern families, that is, they are 'stem platyrrhines'. Others argue that they are early representatives of the modern platyrrhine families. The two alternative interpretations have profound implications for how the evolutionary radiation of platyrrhines is viewed. Further fossil material of early platyrrhines will contribute to resolving this debate. A joint team of US and Argentine paleontologists are searching for fossil primates in Patagonian Argentina. Collecting will concentrate on proven localities and expand collecting efforts to other lesser-known sites said to be richly fossiliferous from the Atlantic coast inland to the Andean front at 50-55 degrees South latitude.

3) The Dynamics of Mountains, Landscapes and Climate in the Distribution and Generation of Biodiversity of the Amazon/Andean Forest

The forests of tropical South America host some of the highest biodiversity on Earth. I am collaborating with, an interdisciplinary team of geologists, climatologists, and biologists will take advantage of recent advances in their respective disciplines to develop an integrated understanding of how climate and geology interact to shape the distribution and generation of biodiversity in these Amazon/Andean forests through time. The Amazon and Andes are a dynamically linked highly interactive system. On long timescales, uplift of the Andes affects Amazon climate and hydrology. Andean uplift also generates the sediment fill, nutrient supply, river routing, and soil composition of the adjacent lowland basin of the Amazon and hence affects the productivity of its forests. But the interactions are bi-directional, because changes in climate, hydrology, and sediment supply influence rates of uplift through isostatic (buoyancy) effects produced by weathering and erosion. Together the multiple system components interact in complex ways to effect the origin and demise of new species and thus determine biodiversity. Today, this biodiversity is threatened by global climate change and other human activities. For example, a major emerging threat is the planned construction of headwater dams that will sever the transfer of nutrients from the Andes to the Amazon and impact the productivity and diversity of its forests and waterways. Thus, more than ever, there is a need for better understanding of the factors that foster the evolution and maintenance of biodiversity. The project is an interdisciplinary effort that unites scientists from both North and South America. It will support the education, training, and mentoring of undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral scientists at this exciting new frontier through the integration of fieldwork, laboratory studies, and modeling.

Before it is possible to quantify relationships between extrinsic forcings (e.g. climate, tectonics, hydrology) and the observed distribution of species through time, it is first necessary to generate accurately dated histories of the underlying geologic and climatic processes and to explore the governing rules for how environment influences diversity. I am collaborating on the construction of an over-arching modeling framework linking paleo-topography, climate, hydrology, on one hand, to mammalian ecologic niche, and species distribution, on the other hand.

Adaptation, Biological, Anthropology, Physical, Argentina, Behavior, Animal, Biological Evolution, Caribbean Region, Central America, Climate, Colombia, Dentition, Diet, Ecology, Feeding Behavior, Fossils, Geography, Geologic Sediments, Geology, Haplorhini, Locomotion, Mammals, Paleontology, Phylogeny, Platyrrhini, Primates, Semicircular Canals, South America, Visual Acuity
Current projects:
Paleontological research in Argentina (NSF funded)
Ecomorphology and the reconstruction of nch structure in South American mammalian palocommunities (NSF supported)
Evolution of Primate locomotion based on the semicircular canal system (NGO-funded with grad student Lauren Gonzales)
Dental anatomy and adaptation, South American monkeys
Paleoneurology (NSF funded with grad student Kari Allen)
Areas of Interest:

South America
Dominican Republic

Representative Publications   (search)
  1. Kay, RF; Vizcaíno, SF; Bargo, MS, A review of the paleoenvironment and paleoecology of the Miocene Santa Cruz Formation, in Early Miocene Paleobiology in Patagonia: High-Latitude Paleocommunities of the Santa Cruz Formation, edited by Vizcaíno, SF; Kay, RF; Bargo, MS (2012), pp. 331-364, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  2. Vizcaíno, SF; Kay, RF; Bargo, MS, Early Miocene Paleobiology in Patagonia: High-latitude paleocommunities of the Santa Cruz Formation (2012), pp. 370, Cambridge University Press [author's comments]
  3. Kay, RF; Perry, JMG; Malinzak, MD; Allen, KL; Kirk, EC; Plavcan, JM; Fleagle, JG, The paleobiology of Santacrucian primates, in Early Miocene Paleobiology in Patagonia: High-latitude paleocommunities of the Santa Cruz Formation, edited by Vizcaíno, SF; Kay, RF; Bargo, MS (2012), pp. 306-330, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  4. Kay, RF; Madden, RH; Ciffeli, RL; Flynn, JJ, Vertebrate Paleontology in the Neotropics. (1997), pp. 592, Smithsonian Institution Press
  5. Malinzak, ; Kay, MD; Hullar, RF; E, T, Predicting locomotion from the primate semicircular canal system, Proceedings of the National Academy (Usa), vol. 109 (2012), pp. 17914-17919
  6. Allen, KL; Kay, RF, Dietary quality and encephalization in platyrrhine primates., Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 279 no. 1729 (February, 2012), pp. 715-721 [21831898], [doi[abs]
  7. Kay, RF; Williams, BA; Anaya, F, The adaptations of Branisella boliviana, the earliest South American monkey, in Reconstructing Behavior in the Primate Fossil Record, edited by Plavcan, JM; van Schaik, C; Kay, RF; Jungers, WL (2002), pp. 339-370, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers
  8. Kay, RF, Evidence for an Asian origin of stem anthropoids., Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, vol. 109 no. 26 (June, 2012), pp. 10132-10133 [22699505], [doi]

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