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Natasha Vitek, Assistant Professor ( CV)

Ph.D., University of Florida 2019

Vertebrate paleontology, evolution, scaling of variation


Office: LS632

Phone:  (631)632-8591

Lab Website: Vitek Lab Website

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Research Summary:

How does the variation we can see within species today scale up to the differences between species that accumulate over time? That question forms the core of my active research interests. I approach the question from two perspectives. 

First, I document and interpret the only evidence of what happens to phenotypes on 1000+ year time scales: the fossil and zooarcheological record. I primarily work to understand how unbranching lineages (species or linked anagenetic species) change over time and in relation to their environment. Such studies are only possible in richly studied, exceptional fossil records such as that of the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming. There, my research is focused on changes in the dentition of lineages of small mammals through the climate change of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) ~56 million years ago.  

Second, I document standing variation in analogous phenotypes within species of extant vertebrates and test its relationship to modern climatic, phylogeographic, and ecological variables. Biological interpretations of the fossil record, including population boundaries and processes like adaptation, are long-standing challenges for paleontologists. My approach to this challenge is to use spatial variation in extant species as an analogue for the temporal variation preserved in the fossil record. If similar drivers are at work over both space and time, then they should leave behind a comparable patterns of spatial and temporal variation.

I work to understand how biological processes shape intraspecific spatial variation in traits that fossilize well, particularly tooth morphology. The goal of this research is to develop models of the morphological patterns that intraspecific processes leave behind.