Milk makes the mammal (literally, mammals suck!), but within this diverse part of the animal kingdom, offspring get to the nursing stage of life at different points, with most hanging out in the womb, sustained by a placenta. Baby marsupials however– called joeys– face an epic journey, dragging themselves when still ridiculously tiny into their mother’s pouch, where they then latch on.
Trowelblazer Anjali Goswami’s research revolves around the contrasts between the early evolution of placental mammals (e.g. humans, cats and whales) and the plucky – and equally cute– marsupials (e.g. kangaroos, wombats, opossums, quolls –seriously, quolls are adorable). Most recently she has studied how the marsupial reproductive strategy (short gestation and long parental care) has shaped their evolution, from the diversity of their skeletons to the sizes of their brains.
Paleobiology research these days draws on a wide array of techniques, and Anjali’s work involves using museum specimens as well as data from developing embryos. But she also gets to explore the fossil record in the field, and has examined deposits in many different countries (from Peru, Chile and Madagascar, to the high arctic of Svalbard and the badlands of south-east India). Many of these were once joined for a huge period as the ancient supercontinent Gondwana, covering the time of the early mammals that Anjali studies.
Anjali’s research interests have evolved with her career, starting with how early whales moved from land to water while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in 1998. Following this she spent two years working in wildlife conservation in Bandhavgarh National Park in India, looking at the effect of tourism on wildlife and local people (while also enjoying hundreds of close encounters with tigers). After her PhD in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago, in 2005, she worked at the Natural History Museum before moving to a lectureship in Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Since 2009 Anjali has been a researcher at University College London, where this year she is giving the 18th Annual Grant Lecture on 18th November (a free public event- see below for more details).
Palaeobiology and palaeoecology have been a key focus of Anjali’s research, and she uses many techniques including 3D geometric morphometrics to look at body forms, sizes and shapes in reconstructing the evolution of biodiversity, and using a scanning electron microscope to study the minute scratches on fossil mammal ancestors’ teeth to decipher their diets. These creatures date back to the Triassic period, some 220 million years ago, and the fossils are now found in Madagascar, where she has conducted fieldwork.
At UCL, where she runs her own lab, Anjali’s research continues to be split between the field, lab, and museums, and she herself is part of both the Department of Earth Sciences and the Department of Genetics, Evolution and the Environment, showing how inter-disciplinary the modern science of palaeontology is. Her work compares animals alive today and fossil evidence of animals alive millions of years ago to answer some of the big questions of evolutionary history. She still gets out into the field, most recently sifting through Early Cretaceous to Early Paleocene (145-66 million years ago) fossiliferous sediments from the badlands of the Cauvery Basin in the south east of India. Recent discoveries by Anjali and her team include vertebrae, a humerus and a scapula, possibly belonging to a dinosaur group, as well as teeth from theropod dinosaurs and crocodilians. One tooth belonged to some dinosaurs that shares a close ancestry with birds, and were not known to have lived in the great southern continent of Gondwana that India was part of during this time.
The 18th Annual Grant Lecture, The Price of the Pouch, will be held in the J.Z. Young lecture theatre on Tuesday 18th November, 6.30pm to 9pm. The event is FREE and there is no need to book. After enjoying Anjali’s lecture, you can attend a free wine reception and a private view of the Grant Museum of Zoology. The Grant Lecture is an annual event held to celebrate Robert Edmund Grant’s contribution to science, a great Victorian scientist who was responsible for the collection at University College London.
Submitted by Dean Veall
Editing and additional content by Becky