Blaire Van Valkenburgh
As a vertebrate paleobiologist, Blaire Van Valkenburgh research focus is the evolution of form, function and ecology in organisms, both living and extinct. She studies living species as a key to understanding extinct species. She focuses on fossil record first, as the only record of long-term evolutionary change in form, second, as a window into life and ecosystems prior to the alterations and biases engendered by anthropogenic forces and recent Pleistocene extinctions and third, as it presents species and morphologies that are no longer present, such as dinosaurs and sabertooth cats, and thereby expands understanding of life’s potentials beyond what can be observe today.
Much of Van Valkenburgh’s research has focused on large predatory mammals. Large predators on land and sea are receiving much attention among ecologists because they act as major drivers within their ecosystems and many are threatened with extinction. As top-down regulators, they are pivotal players in trophic cascades that affect both plant and animal distributions and abundance. Modern species evolved within much more diverse and complex guilds of large predators that included species such as short-faced bears, sabertooth cats, and dire wolves. To better understand both the dynamics of extant predator communities and the adaptations of individual species, she has explored the fossil record of carnivores from both ecological and evolutionary perspectives, sometimes focusing on guilds of species in distinct time horizons, and other times focusing on the evolutionary trajectories of species over millions of years. The four recent areas of research that exemplify the work in her lab are: 1. Parallels between past and present predator guilds, 2. Evolution of feeding adaptations 3. Function and evolution of mammalian turbinates, 4. Molecular and morphological evolution within the Carnivora.