Recent research themes
I am an enquiry driven scientist; my research therefore has covered a variety of themes within ecological and evolutionary biomechanics. These have included the functional morphology of insect attachment, the mechanics of sound-producing feathers in birds, ape interactions with their habitat and the dental ecology of a range of primates. Below are my current active research themes.
Teeth have a major functional role to fracture of food items into smaller particles in order to facilitate easy swallowing and digestion. In this way mammalian teeth offer an excellent model to explore the form-function relationship. Through this research theme I investigate how teeth are adapted to diet using high resolution imaging techniques and bespoke materials testing methods. I link dental form with function at a variety of scales ranging from nano to macro. This provides a keen insight into how diet shapes the feeding apparatus of living species but also helps us to predict the diets of extinct ones, including human ancestors.
To understand “how teeth work” it is essential to understand the mechanics of the foods being eaten. Given the vast diversity of diets in the animal kingdom there is surprisingly little quantifiable data on food mechanical properties. I use a range of materials testing techniques, in both the lab and the field, to measure the mechanical properties of foods eaten by a range of mammals. By combining the biomechanical principles of the feeding system with the physical interactions between tooth and food it is possible to test how diet has driven the evolution of specific functional morphologies.
Foods are often viewed as a standalone entity, but they are produced and foraged as part of a wider environment, and this can influence the state of the food when ingested by an animal. One concerning variable is the extent of external abrasives as these contribute substantially to tooth wear. I have ongoing projects investigating how grit and dust can affect the abrasiveness of foods consumed by large (chimpanzees) and small (robust capuchins) primate species. This research will help understand how changing habitat conditions influence the longevity of the primate feeding system and will also contribute data that will increase the resolution of dietary signals found on primate teeth, such as dental microwear.
While there has been much research conducted into the biomechanical products of the mammalian feeding system, there is relatively little know about the energetics of feeding and how this is influence by the food is being consumed. I am involved in projects that are measuring the energetics of mastication in humans. It is hoped this research can shed light on how feeding energetics may have contributed to the evolution of the human masticatory system.