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How can a specialized diet affect the shape of the primate neck?

Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, New York
DOI: 10.18258/8709
Grant: Evolution
Funded on 2/03/17
Successfully Funded
  • $1,580
  • 103%
  • Funded
    on 2/03/17

About This Project

The neck is involved in most everyday behaviors. Still, we do not understand how specific behaviors shape neck anatomy. I will study this connection between behavior and anatomy by examining the bones of primates that use their necks in specific ways. "Tree-gougers" damage trees using their teeth. Here I will study their neck bones to identify features useful for stabilization. This information will allow us to better interpret the kinds of behaviors for which our own necks evolved.

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What is the context of this research?

The neck is involved in most everyday activities, a fact that is well-known to anyone who has suffered from neck pain. Despite the neck's involvement in behaviors from looking left and right to picking up objects from the ground, we still don't have a clear understanding of how the bones that support the neck actually respond to different behaviors. In particular, we are unsure how the shapes of these neck bones (called vertebrae) reflect adaptations for particular functions or behaviors.

What is the significance of this project?

To understand the relationship between behavior and vertebral shape in humans, we need to study a variety of nonhuman species. In particular, we need to examine species that place unique behavioral demands on their necks. For example, by studying species that have unique postures or diets, we can determine if these behaviors are associated with particular vertebral shapes. Discovering the links between behavior and neck shapes in living species allows us to better interpret the fossil record; we can apply the findings to fossils and reconstruct exactly how the extinct species must have behaved during their lifetimes. We can even examine the fossils of our human ancestors to determine how their specific behaviors led the necks that we have today.

What are the goals of the project?

I am interested in the neck vertebrae of "tree-gouging" primates. Tree-gougers use their teeth and heads to damage the outside of trees and eat the gum or sap that flows out (as seen in this video). In this project, I will address a new and exciting question: what is the role of the neck in gouging species during this specialized dietary behavior? Observations of primates that are gouging suggests that their necks are being used to stabilize and pull the head backwards. Therefore, I predict that the tree-gougers will display vertebral features for stabilizing and forcefully bending their necks. These special adaptations should allow them to gouge more efficiently. To test for these differences, I will compare the bony anatomy of neck vertebrae in gouging and nongouging primate species.


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I gathered pilot data for this project during the Fall 2016 semester. I am confident that this project is feasible, and I am excited by the preliminary results. To continue this work, I need to examine more specimens that are located in the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY), the National Museum of Natural History (Washington, DC), and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (New Haven, CT). Visiting these museums requires travel from my university on Long Island, NY. With your help, I can afford to make these trips during the Spring and Summer 2017 semesters. I will use these trips to find all available neck vertebrae in the galago, callitrichid, and lemur primate specimen boxes (these are the three primate groups that contain tree-gouging species). I will then photograph and three-dimensionally scan every vertebra using a surface scanner. With these techniques, I can test for specific shape differences between gougers and nongougers.

Endorsed by

Abigail Nishimura will determine if the bony necks of primates having a specialized diet - known as "tree gougers" - differ from those of primates that do not gouge. The results of this project will contribute to a growing body of much needed research regarding the functional anatomy and evolution of the neck, and will likely have clinical implications. Abigail has already completed her research design and collected pilot data, which show great promise for the project's success. I am excited to see the outcome of this work!

Meet the Team

Abigail Nishimura
Abigail Nishimura
Ph.D. Student


Stony Brook University, Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences
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Abigail Nishimura

I've always been curious about humanity's place in the natural world. How are we related to other species, and what makes humans so unique? I am lucky to be able to answer just these sorts of questions as a physical anthropology Ph.D. student. I spend my days studying human and primate skeletons because I want to learn how different species adapt their anatomy to match their particular behaviors. I am most interested in the bones of the spine, which are called vertebrae, because these bones contain a lot of information about locomotion. I am also interested in vertebrae because humans have very unique spines!

Uncovering the links between behavior and vertebral shape can help us to understand the fossil record; when we know how to interpret behavioral information from the bones of living species, we can look at fossils and piece together how the extinct animals behaved in life. This kind of work can help us to understand our own ancestors, and it is also applicable to modern medical issues. If we want to understand why the human neck is so prone to injury, we must first understand how the behaviors of our ancestors shaped its evolution.

Additional Information

I have already gathered pilot data for this project at the American Museum of Natural History. The initial results indicate some significant differences between gouging and nongouging primates. I am very excited to analyze more specimens and incorporate new methods (surface scanning). However, I first need funding to travel to the museums that house these specimens! The results of this proposed experiment will be included in my dissertation. I also plan to submit these findings as pilot data in future grant applications (e.g., The Leakey Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation).

Project Backers

  • 26Backers
  • 103%Funded
  • $1,580Total Donations
  • $58.52Average Donation
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