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Class of 2017: SMU professor named outstanding teacher by UT Regents

Alisa Winkler is an SMU adjunct faculty member and research assistant professor of paleontology in the SMU Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.

The University of Texas System has recognized SMU Research Assistant Professor Alisa J. Winkler for extraordinary classroom performance and innovation in undergraduate instruction.

Winkler, who is an SMU adjunct faculty member in the SMU Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, was named to the Class of 2017 for the Regent’s Outstanding Teaching Awards of The University of Texas. It is the Board of Regents’ highest honor. It recognizes faculty for the highest quality of instruction in the classroom, laboratory, field and online.

Winkler earned her Ph.D. in geology from SMU in 1990, specializing in mammalian vertebrate paleontology.

“To be honest, when I was young I never thought about being a teacher. Later in life it just came with the territory of being in academia,” Winkler said. “What I discovered as a teacher, however, is how much I enjoy, learn from, and am inspired by my students. Their passion for knowledge is both a challenge and a stimulus for me to continue learning myself.”

She is an associate professor at U.T. Southwestern Medical Center in the Department of Cell Biology, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

In addition to her teaching commitments and some contributions to the higher education literature, Winkler maintains an active research program in vertebrate paleontology as a research professor in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

In recent work, she analyzed research literature for “Fossil Rodents of Africa,” the first comprehensive summary and distribution analysis of Africa’s fossil rodents since 1978, according to SMU professor of geological sciences and vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs, a world-renowned dinosaur expert and president of SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

“Alisa has been recognized for her teaching skills at U.T. Southwestern, but she is also globally recognized for her research on East African fossil mammals, which constrains the age and paleo-environments of human evolution,” Jacobs said. “Working from her research office in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, and in the field in Kenya and Uganda, she is a great asset to our students and adds depth to our program.”

Winkler received a B.A. in Biology from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville in 1978. She then earned an M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1982.

She has been teaching anatomy at U.T. Southwestern since 1990. Winkler is currently co-director of the Human Structure course (anatomy, embryology and radiology) for first year medical students, and director of the Anatomy course for health professions students. Both courses focus on a cadaver-based dissection laboratory, and require extensive administrative, organizational and teaching commitments.

Winkler is the recipient of numerous teaching awards from the medical students, including seven pre-clinical teaching awards and a Katherine Howe Muntz Award for Teaching in Anatomy (2010). The Human Structure course was awarded the best course award for first year courses in 2016. She was awarded an outstanding educator award in health care sciences from the health professions students in 2014.

The Regent’s Outstanding Teacher Award was established in 2008 and is offered annually in recognition of faculty members at the The University of Texas System’s eight academic and six health institutions. With a monetary award of $25,000, the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Awards are among the largest and most competitive in the nation for rewarding outstanding faculty performance.

Faculty members undergo a series of rigorous evaluations by students, peer faculty and external reviewers. The review panels consider a range of activities and criteria in their evaluations of a candidate’s teaching performance, including classroom expertise, curricula quality, innovative course development and student learning outcomes.

Winkler is one of 56 faculty members from across U.T.’s 14 academic and health institutions honored with the award by the Regents Aug. 23 in Austin. — SMU, U.T. System

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SMU 2015 research efforts broadly noted in a variety of ways for world-changing impact

SMU scientists and their research have a global reach that is frequently noted, beyond peer publications and media mentions.

By Margaret Allen
SMU News & Communications

It was a good year for SMU faculty and student research efforts. Here is a small sampling of public and published acknowledgements during 2015:

Simmons, Diego Roman, SMU, education

Hot topic merits open access
Taylor & Francis, publisher of the online journal Environmental Education Research, lifted its subscription-only requirement to meet demand for an article on how climate change is taught to middle-schoolers in California.

Co-author of the research was Diego Román, assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

Román’s research revealed that California textbooks are teaching sixth graders that climate change is a controversial debate stemming from differing opinions, rather than a scientific conclusion based on rigorous scientific evidence.

The article, “Textbooks of doubt: Using systemic functional analysis to explore the framing of climate change in middle-school science textbooks,” published in September. The finding generated such strong interest that Taylor & Francis opened access to the article.


Research makes the cover of Biochemistry
Drugs important in the battle against cancer were tested in a virtual lab by SMU biology professors to see how they would behave in the human cell.

A computer-generated composite image of the simulation made the Dec. 15 cover of the journal Biochemistry.

Scientific articles about discoveries from the simulation were also published in the peer review journals Biochemistry and in Pharmacology Research & Perspectives.

The researchers tested the drugs by simulating their interaction in a computer-generated model of one of the cell’s key molecular pumps — the protein P-glycoprotein, or P-gp. Outcomes of interest were then tested in the Wise-Vogel wet lab.

The ongoing research is the work of biochemists John Wise, associate professor, and Pia Vogel, professor and director of the SMU Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery in Dedman College. Assisting them were a team of SMU graduate and undergraduate students.

The researchers developed the model to overcome the problem of relying on traditional static images for the structure of P-gp. The simulation makes it possible for researchers to dock nearly any drug in the protein and see how it behaves, then test those of interest in an actual lab.

To date, the researchers have run millions of compounds through the pump and have discovered some that are promising for development into pharmaceutical drugs to battle cancer.

Click here to read more about the research.

SMU, Simpson Rowe, sexual assault, video

Strong interest in research on sexual victimization
Teen girls were less likely to report being sexually victimized after learning to assertively resist unwanted sexual overtures and after practicing resistance in a realistic virtual environment, according to three professors from the SMU Department of Psychology.

The finding was reported in Behavior Therapy. The article was one of the psychology journal’s most heavily shared and mentioned articles across social media, blogs and news outlets during 2015, the publisher announced.

The study was the work of Dedman College faculty Lorelei Simpson Rowe, associate professor and Psychology Department graduate program co-director; Ernest Jouriles, professor; and Renee McDonald, SMU associate dean for research and academic affairs.

The journal’s publisher, Elsevier, temporarily has lifted its subscription requirement on the article, “Reducing Sexual Victimization Among Adolescent Girls: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial of My Voice, My Choice,” and has opened it to free access for three months.

Click here to read more about the research.

Consumers assume bigger price equals better quality
Even when competing firms can credibly disclose the positive attributes of their products to buyers, they may not do so.

Instead, they find it more lucrative to “signal” quality through the prices they charge, typically working on the assumption that shoppers think a high price indicates high quality. The resulting high prices hurt buyers, and may create a case for mandatory disclosure of quality through public policy.

That was a finding of the research of Dedman College’s Santanu Roy, professor, Department of Economics. Roy’s article about the research was published in February in one of the blue-ribbon journals, and the oldest, in the field, The Economic Journal.

Published by the U.K.’s Royal Economic Society, The Economic Journal is one of the founding journals of modern economics. The journal issued a media briefing about the paper, “Competition, Disclosure and Signaling,” typically reserved for academic papers of broad public interest.

The Journal of Physical Chemistry A

Chemistry research group edits special issue
Chemistry professors Dieter Cremer and Elfi Kraka, who lead SMU’s Computational and Theoretical Chemistry Group, were guest editors of a special issue of the prestigious Journal of Physical Chemistry. The issue published in March.

The Computational and Theoretical research group, called CATCO for short, is a union of computational and theoretical chemistry scientists at SMU. Their focus is research in computational chemistry, educating and training graduate and undergraduate students, disseminating and explaining results of their research to the broader public, and programming computers for the calculation of molecules and molecular aggregates.

The special issue of Physical Chemistry included 40 contributions from participants of a four-day conference in Dallas in March 2014 that was hosted by CATCO. The 25th Austin Symposium drew 108 participants from 22 different countries who, combined, presented eight plenary talks, 60 lectures and about 40 posters.

CATCO presented its research with contributions from Cremer and Kraka, as well as Marek Freindorf, research assistant professor; Wenli Zou, visiting professor; Robert Kalescky, post-doctoral fellow; and graduate students Alan Humason, Thomas Sexton, Dani Setlawan and Vytor Oliveira.

There have been more than 75 graduate students and research associates working in the CATCO group, which originally was formed at the University of Cologne, Germany, before moving to SMU in 2009.


Vertebrate paleontology recognized with proclamation
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings proclaimed Oct. 11-17, 2015 Vertebrate Paleontology week in Dallas on behalf of the Dallas City Council.

The proclamation honored the 75th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which was jointly hosted by SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College and the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. The conference drew to Dallas some 1,200 scientists from around the world.

Making research presentations or presenting research posters were: faculty members Bonnie Jacobs, Louis Jacobs, Michael Polcyn, Neil Tabor and Dale Winkler; adjunct research assistant professor Alisa Winkler; research staff member Kurt Ferguson; post-doctoral researchers T. Scott Myers and Lauren Michael; and graduate students Matthew Clemens, John Graf, Gary Johnson and Kate Andrzejewski.

The host committee co-chairs were Anthony Fiorillo, adjunct research professor; and Louis Jacobs, professor. Committee members included Polcyn; Christopher Strganac, graduate student; Diana Vineyard, research associate; and research professor Dale Winkler.

KERA radio reporter Kat Chow filed a report from the conference, explaining to listeners the science of vertebrate paleontology, which exposes the past, present and future of life on earth by studying fossils of animals that had backbones.

SMU earthquake scientists rock scientific journal

Modelled pressure changes caused by injection and production. (Nature Communications/SMU)
Modelled pressure changes caused by injection and production. (Nature Communications/SMU)

Findings by the SMU earthquake team reverberated across the nation with publication of their scientific article in the prestigious British interdisciplinary journal Nature, ranked as one of the world’s most cited scientific journals.

The article reported that the SMU-led seismology team found that high volumes of wastewater injection combined with saltwater extraction from natural gas wells is the most likely cause of unusually frequent earthquakes occurring in the Dallas-Fort Worth area near the small community of Azle.

The research was the work of Dedman College faculty Matthew Hornbach, associate professor of geophysics; Heather DeShon, associate professor of geophysics; Brian Stump, SMU Albritton Chair in Earth Sciences; Chris Hayward, research staff and director geophysics research program; and Beatrice Magnani, associate professor of geophysics.

The article, “Causal factors for seismicity near Azle, Texas,” published online in late April. Already the article has been downloaded nearly 6,000 times, and heavily shared on both social and conventional media. The article has achieved a ranking of 270, which puts it in the 99th percentile of 144,972 tracked articles of a similar age in all journals, and 98th percentile of 626 tracked articles of a similar age in Nature.

It has a very high impact factor for an article of its age,” said Robert Gregory, professor and chair, SMU Earth Sciences Department.

The scientific article also was entered into the record for public hearings both at the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas House Subcommittee on Seismic Activity.

Researchers settle long-debated heritage question of “The Ancient One”

The skull of Kennewick Man and a sculpted bust by StudioEIS based on forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning. (Credit: Brittany Tatchell)
The skull of Kennewick Man and a sculpted bust by StudioEIS based on forensic facial reconstruction by sculptor Amanda Danning. (Credit: Brittany Tatchell)

The research of Dedman College anthropologist and Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory David Meltzer played a role in settling the long-debated and highly controversial heritage of “Kennewick Man.”

Also known as “The Ancient One,” the 8,400-year-old male skeleton discovered in Washington state has been the subject of debate for nearly two decades. Argument over his ancestry has gained him notoriety in high-profile newspaper and magazine articles, as well as making him the subject of intense scholarly study.

Officially the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kennewick Man was discovered in 1996 and radiocarbon dated to 8500 years ago.

Because of his cranial shape and size he was declared not Native American but instead ‘Caucasoid,’ implying a very different population had once been in the Americas, one that was unrelated to contemporary Native Americans.

But Native Americans long have claimed Kennewick Man as theirs and had asked for repatriation of his remains for burial according to their customs.

Meltzer, collaborating with his geneticist colleague Eske Willerslev and his team at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, in June reported the results of their analysis of the DNA of Kennewick in the prestigious British journal Nature in the scientific paper “The ancestry and affiliations of Kennewick Man.”

The results were announced at a news conference, settling the question based on first-ever DNA evidence: Kennewick Man is Native American.

The announcement garnered national and international media attention, and propelled a new push to return the skeleton to a coalition of Columbia Basin tribes. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced the Bring the Ancient One Home Act of 2015 and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has offered state assistance for returning the remains to Native Tribes.

Science named the Kennewick work one of its nine runners-up in the highly esteemed magazine’s annual “Breakthrough of the Year” competition.

The research article has been viewed more than 60,000 times. It has achieved a ranking of 665, which puts it in the 99th percentile of 169,466 tracked articles of a similar age in all journals, and in the 94th percentile of 958 tracked articles of a similar age in Nature.

In “Kennewick Man: coming to closure,” an article in the December issue of Antiquity, a journal of Cambridge University Press, Meltzer noted that the DNA merely confirmed what the tribes had known all along: “We are him, he is us,” said one tribal spokesman. Meltzer concludes: “We presented the DNA evidence. The tribal members gave it meaning.”

Click here to read more about the research.

Prehistoric vacuum cleaner captures singular award

Paleontologists Louis L. Jacobs, SMU, and Anthony Fiorillo, Perot Museum, have identified a new species of marine mammal from bones recovered from Unalaska, an Aleutian island in the North Pacific. (Hillsman Jackson, SMU)
Paleontologists Louis L. Jacobs, SMU, and Anthony Fiorillo, Perot Museum, have identified a new species of marine mammal from bones recovered from Unalaska, an Aleutian island in the North Pacific. (Hillsman Jackson, SMU)

Science writer Laura Geggel with Live Science named a new species of extinct marine mammal identified by two SMU paleontologists among “The 10 Strangest Animal Discoveries of 2015.”

The new species, dubbed a prehistoric hoover by London’s Daily Mail online news site, was identified by SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, and paleontologist and SMU adjunct research professor Anthony Fiorillo, vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.

Jacobs and Fiorillo co-authored a study about the identification of new fossils from the oddball creature Desmostylia, discovered in the same waters where the popular “Deadliest Catch” TV show is filmed. The hippo-like creature ate like a vacuum cleaner and is a new genus and species of the only order of marine mammals ever to go extinct — surviving a mere 23 million years.

Desmostylians, every single species combined, lived in an interval between 33 million and 10 million years ago. Their strange columnar teeth and odd style of eating don’t occur in any other animal, Jacobs said.

SMU campus hosted the world’s premier physicists

The SMU Department of Physics hosted the “23rd International Workshop on Deep Inelastic Scattering and Related Subjects” from April 27-May 1, 2015. Deep Inelastic Scattering is the process of probing the quantum particles that make up our universe.

As noted by the CERN Courier — the news magazine of the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, which hosts the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest science experiment — more than 250 scientists from 30 countries presented more than 200 talks on a multitude of subjects relevant to experimental and theoretical research. SMU physicists presented at the conference.

The SMU organizing committee was led by Fred Olness, professor and chair of the SMU Department of Physics in Dedman College, who also gave opening and closing remarks at the conference. The committee consisted of other SMU faculty, including Jodi Cooley, associate professor; Simon Dalley, senior lecturer; Robert Kehoe, professor; Pavel Nadolsky, associate professor, who also presented progress on experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider; Randy Scalise, senior lecturer; and Stephen Sekula, associate professor.

Sekula also organized a series of short talks for the public about physics and the big questions that face us as we try to understand our universe.

Click here to read more about the research.

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2010 a year of advances for SMU scientific researchers at the vanguard of those helping civilization

From picking apart atomic particles at Switzerland’s CERN, to unraveling the mysterious past, to delving into the human psyche, SMU researchers are in the vanguard of those helping civilization understand more and live better.

With both public and private funding — and the assistance of their students — they are tackling such scientific and social problems as brain diseases, immigration, diabetes, evolution, volcanoes, panic disorders, childhood obesity, cancer, radiation, nuclear test monitoring, dark matter, the effects of drilling in the Barnett Shale, and the architecture of the universe.

The sun never sets on SMU research
Besides working in campus labs and within the Dallas-area community, SMU scientists conduct research throughout the world, including at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, and in Angola, the Canary Islands, Mongolia, Kenya, Italy, China, the Congo Basin, Ethiopia, Mexico, the Northern Mariana Islands and South Korea.

“Research at SMU is exciting and expanding,” says Associate Vice President for Research and Dean of Graduate Studies James E. Quick, a professor in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences. “Our projects cover a wide range of problems in basic and applied research, from the search for the Higgs particle at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN to the search for new approaches to treat serious diseases. The University looks forward to creating increasing opportunities for undergraduates to become involved as research expands at SMU.”

Funding from public and private sources
In 2009-10, SMU received $25.6 million in external funding for research, up from $16.5 million the previous year.

“Research is a business that cannot be grown without investment,” Quick says. “Funding that builds the research enterprise is an investment that will go on giving by enabling the University to attract more federal grants in future years.”

The funding came from public and private sources, including the National Science Foundation; the National Institutes of Health; the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education and Energy; the U.S. Geological Survey;; the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Texas’ own Hogg Foundation for Mental Health; and the Texas Instruments Foundation.

Worldwide, the news media are covering SMU research. See some of the coverage. Browse a sample of the research:

CERN and the origin of our universe
cern_atlas-thumb.jpgLed by Physics Professor Ryszard Stroynowski, SMU physics researchers belong to the global consortium of scientists investigating the origins of our universe by monitoring high-speed sub-atomic particle collisions at CERN, the world’s largest physics experiment.

Compounds to fight neurodegenerative diseases
Synthetic organic chemist and Chemistry Professor Edward Biehl leads a team developing organic compounds for possible treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. Preliminary investigation of one compound found it was extremely potent as a strong, nontoxic neuroprotector in mice.

Hunting dark matter
Dark%20matterthumb.jpgAssistant Professor of Physics Jodi Cooley belongs to a high-profile international team of experimental particle physicists searching for elusive dark matter — believed to constitute the bulk of the matter in the universe — at an abandoned underground mine in Minnesota, and soon at an even deeper mine in Canada.

Robotic arms for injured war vets
Electrical Engineering Chairman and Professor Marc Christensen is director of a new $5.6 million center funded by the Department of Defense and industry. The center will develop for war veteran amputees a high-tech robotic arm with fiber-optic connectivity to the brain capable of “feeling” sensations.

Green energy from the Earth’s inner heat
The SMU Geothermal Laboratory, under Earth Sciences Professor David Blackwell, has identified and mapped U.S. geothermal resources capable of supplying a green source of commercial power generation, including resources that were much larger than expected under coal-rich West Virginia.

Exercise can be magic drug for depression and anxiety
Psychologist Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at SMU, says exercise can help many people with depression and anxiety disorders and should be more widely prescribed by mental health care providers.

The traditional treatments of cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmacotherapy don’t reach everyone who needs them, says Smits, an associate professor of psychology.

Virtual reality “dates” to prevent victimization
SMU psychologists Ernest Jouriles, Renee McDonald and Lorelei Simpson have partnered with SMU Guildhall in developing an interactive video gaming environment where women on virtual-reality dates can learn and practice assertiveness skills to prevent sexual victimization.

With assertive resistance training, young women have reduced how often they are sexually victimized, the psychologists say.

Controlled drug delivery agents for diabetes
brent-sumerlin.thumb.jpgAssociate Chemistry Professor Brent Sumerlin leads a team of SMU chemistry researchers — including postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate students — who fuse the fields of polymer, organic and biochemistries to develop novel materials with composite properties. Their research includes developing nano-scale polymer particles to deliver insulin to diabetics.

Sumerlin, associate professor of chemistry, was named a 2010-2012 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, which carries a $50,000 national award to support his research.

Human speed
Usain_Bolt_Berlin%2Csmall.jpgAn expert on the locomotion of humans and other terrestrial animals, Associate Professor of Applied Physiology and Biomechanics Peter Weyand has analyzed the biomechanics of world-class athletes Usain Bolt and Oscar Pistorius. His research targets the relationships between muscle function, metabolic energy expenditure, whole body mechanics and performance.

Weyand’s research also looks at why smaller people tire faster. Finding that they have to take more steps to cover the same distance or travel at the same speed, he and other scientists derived an equation that can be used to calculate the energetic cost of walking.

Pacific Ring of Fire volcano monitoring
E_crater1%20thumb.jpgAn SMU team of earth scientists led by Professor and Research Dean James Quick works with the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire near Guam on the Northern Mariana Islands. Their research will help predict and anticipate hazards to the islands, the U.S. military and commercial jets.

The two-year, $250,000 project will use infrasound — in addition to more conventional seismic monitoring — to “listen” for signs a volcano is about to blow.

Reducing anxiety and asthma
Mueret%20thumb.jpgA system of monitoring breathing to reduce CO2 intake is proving useful for reducing the pain of chronic asthma and panic disorder in separate studies by Associate Psychology Professor Thomas Ritz and Assistant Psychology Professor Alicia Meuret.

The two have developed the four-week program to teach asthmatics and those with panic disorder how to better control their condition by changing the way they breathe.

Breast Cancer community engagement
breast%20cancer%20100x80.jpgAssistant Psychology Professor Georita Friersen is working with African-American and Hispanic women in Dallas to address the quality-of-life issues they face surrounding health care, particularly during diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

Friersen also examines health disparities regarding prevention and treatment of chronic diseases among medically underserved women and men.

Paleoclimate in humans’ first environment
Cenozoic%20Africa%20150x120%2C%2072dpi.jpgPaleobotanist and Associate Earth Sciences Professor Bonnie Jacobs researches ancient Africa’s vegetation to better understand the environmental and ecological context in which our ancient human ancestors and other mammals evolved.

Jacobs is part of an international team of researchers who combine independent lines of evidence from various fossil and geochemical sources to reconstruct the prehistoric climate, landscape and ecosystems of Ethiopia in particular. She also identifies and prepares flora fossil discoveries for Ethiopia’s national museum.

Ice Age humans
Anthropology Professor David Meltzer explores the western Rockies of Colorado to understand the prehistoric Folsom hunters who adapted to high-elevation environments during the Ice Age.

Meltzer, a world-recognized expert on paleoIndians and early human migration from eastern continents to North America, was inducted into the National Academy of Scientists in 2009.

Understanding evolution
Cane%20rate%2C%20Uganda%2C%2020%20mya%20400x300.jpgThe research of paleontologist Alisa WInkler focuses on the systematics, paleobiogeography and paleoecology of fossil mammals, in particular rodents and rabbits.

Her study of prehistoric rodents in East Africa and Texas, such as the portion of jaw fossil pictured, is helping shed more light on human evolution.

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Rodents, diverse and abundant in prehistoric Africa, shed light on human evolution

Identification of Africa’s rodents provides important collaborating information on the ecology of the locales and on environmental change through time,” — Winkler

Rodents get a bad rap as vermin and pests because they seem to thrive everywhere. They have been one of the most common mammals in Africa for the past 50 million years.

From deserts to rainforests, rodents flourished in prehistoric Africa, making them a stable and plentiful source of food, says paleontologist Alisa J. Winkler, an expert on rodent and rabbit fossils. Now rodent fossils are proving their usefulness to scientists as they help shed light on human evolution.

Rodents can corroborate evidence from geology and plant and animal fossils about the ancient environments of our human ancestors and other prehistoric mammals, says Winkler, a research professor at Southern Methodist University.

“Rodents are often known in abundance, and there are many different kinds from a number of famous hominid and hominoid localities,” says Winkler. “Many paleoanthropologists are very interested in the faunal and ecological context in which our own species evolved.”

Rodents: World’s most abundant mammal — and Africa’s too
Rodents — rats, mice, squirrels, porcupines, gerbils and others — are the largest order of living mammals, constituting 42 percent of the total mammalian diversity worldwide. That’s according to data drawn from the research literature in an analysis by Winkler and her paleontology colleagues Christiane Denys, of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and D. Margaret Avery of the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town.

Their review documents more than 130 formally named genera in “Fossil Rodents of Africa,” the first comprehensive summary and distribution analysis of Africa’s fossil rodents since 1978.

The analysis is a chapter in the new 1008-page scientific reference book “Cenozoic Mammals of Africa” (University of California Press, 2010), the first comprehensive scientific review of Africa’s fossil mammals in more than three decades. The book comprises 48 chapters by 64 experts, summarizing and interpreting the published fossil research to date of Africa’s mammals, tectonics, geography, climate and flora of the past 65 million years.

Rodents are human’s best friend?
Rodents have been around much longer than humans or human ancestors in Africa, with the earliest from northern Africa dating from about 50 million years ago. Today scientists are aware of 14 families of rodents in Africa.

Winkler cites locales where fossils of the sharp-toothed, gnawing creatures have been found relevant to our human ancestors:

  • Ethiopia’s Middle Awash, where some fossils date to when the chimpanzee and human lines split 4 million to 7 million years ago and where the famous “Ardi” primate was discovered;
  • Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, dubbed the “Cradle of Mankind”;
  • The Tugen Hills and Lake Turkana sites of Kenya, where important human ancestor fossils have been discovered;
  • In younger southern African cave faunas dating to the Stone Age.

Their fossils also have been found in other older Eastern Africa sites, where apes and humans have been linked to the monkey lineage.

“At many of these sites, identification of Africa’s rodents provides important collaborating information on the ecology of the locales and on environmental change through time,” the authors write.

Rodent diversity likely underestimated; more fossils than scientists
The diversity of ancient Africa’s rodents most likely has been underestimated, say the authors. Just how much isn’t known, though, because the quantity of rodent fossils being discovered far exceeds the handful of scientists who specialize in identifying and studying the specimens.

That diversity continues to expand. The last exhaustive analysis of Africa’s rodents was carried out by R. Lavocat in 1978. At that time scientists recorded 54 genera, 76 fewer than those documented by Winkler, Denys and Avery in their analysis.

Winkler and her colleagues summarize the distribution and ecology of existing rodent families, as well as the systematics, biochronology and paleobiogeography of rodent families in Africa’s fossil record. The diversity they document reflects “the wide variety of habitats present on the continent” and paints a picture of Africa’s paleoecology.

Given the huge rodent diversity in modern Africa, “it is likely that such an extensive fauna was also present in the past,” the scientists write.

Tremendous diversity reflects wide variety of habitats
An example of that relationship is the scaly-tailed flying squirrel, an exclusively African group of forest-dwelling rodents that are not related to true squirrels. They are well known from about 18 million to 20 million years ago in eastern Africa, Winkler says, suggesting the presence of closed habitats, such as forests. That corroborates other evidence of forests from fossil animals, plants and geology, she says.

“Although there are even older scaly-tailed flying squirrels known from the currently arid regions of northern Africa,” says Winkler, “they do not appear to have been gliders, as are most current forms, and the question of when members of the group first developed gliding locomotion still remains.”

Funding for “Cenozoic Mammals of Africa” came from the Swedish Research Council; the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and Museum of Paleontology; and the Regents of the University of California.

Winkler is in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU, and is also an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. — Margaret Allen