Research at KYCOM

A new research program at the University of Pikeville – Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine guided by Professor of Anatomy Ethan Fulwood, Ph.D., is working to understand the generation of diversity in biological shape in mammals across long time scales. 

Fulwood began his research to better understand the causes and consequences of adaptive radiations and the effects of long-term shifts in adaptive pressures on lineages of mammals. For his dissertation, he modelled the evolution of tooth shape in lemurs across the last 50 million years and showed how the diversity of dental adaptations to diet reflected the climate history of Madagascar. 

He is continuing a similar research project looking at extinct primate species that lived in North America from 50 until 35 million years ago. The work uses 3D models of teeth produced through microCT scanning, a higher-resolution version of the more common hospital CT. 

Fulwood additionally has begun a research project in collaboration with faculty at East Tennessee State University using the abundant fossil tapirs from the Gray Fossil site in upper East Tennessee. Together, they will produce scans of tapir teeth and examine how the functional properties of the teeth change across a wear sequence, which might provide clues as to why tapir teeth evolved their distinctive crested morphology. 

Fulwood plans to extend beyond teeth to look at the evolution of the mammalian middle ear. The two are less unrelated than they might appear, as the mammal middle ear evolved from the jaw joint of reptiles. He plans to work with collaborators at Duke University and the University of North Texas Health Science Center to use data on the relationships between hearing sensitivity and the shapes of the ear ossicles of modern primates to construct models allowing us to chart adaptive shifts in the functions of these bones across the transition from their roles as components of the jaw joint to bones of the middle ear. This work also has potential clinical implications for better understanding hearing loss and how it may relate to the shapes of these bones.