Considering the ecomorphology of Plio-Pleistocene cercopithecids in eastern Africa


The monkey fauna represented in the African Pliocene and Pleistocene fossil record, which includes numerous large-bodied and terrestrial monkeys, is radically different to the diversity of cercopithecids seen today. One interesting question is how these extinct cercopithecid communities functioned, and whether neutral theory or niche partitioning provides the better explanation for species diversity. This project will explore that question by updating our understanding of eco- and functional morphology in cercopithecids from Pliocene and Pleistocene sites in eastern and southern Africa. Using a variety of functional, ecomorphological, and evolutionary modelling methods, variation among the monkey fauna at key sites will be quantified, to assess how ecologically different the species are. Determining whether differences in morphology among cercopithecid species indicate evolutionarily important adaptive and ecological distinctions will help to evaluate the likelihood of neutral diversification. As Pliocene and Pleistocene monkeys may have lived in the same broader ecological communities as hominins, a more detailed understanding of primate community ecomorphology will help to provide further context for the evolution of humans. As the Pleistocene is characterised by intense climatic fluctuations, with attendant implications for the environmental conditions experienced by individuals, species and communities, the wider palaeoenvironmental context will also be evaluated, with particular focus on geochemical signals of palaeoenvironmental change and how these correlate with the picture constructed from cercopithecid ecomorphology. These multiple lines of evidence will provide a more integrated understanding of the processes of cercopithecid evolution in the African Pliocene and Pleistocene.


Research methods to be employed in the data collection phase will include techniques of ecological and functional morphology, including traditional and geometric morphometrics. Where possible, original fossil cranial and postcranial specimens or high quality casts will be studied at relevant museums, but CT scans from digital repositories may also be used. Analytical techniques relevant to functional and ecological morphology will be used, requiring good understanding of basic and more sophisticated statistical methods, and the willingness to develop skills in biomechanics and evolutionary modelling approaches. The geochemical element of the project will be largely desk-based but with appropriate practical training to facilitate a sophisticated understanding of the techniques as well as the scale and limitations of data.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Months 1 – 6: project scoping, research design, literature review on background and context, arranging access to materials.
Months 7 – 12: pilot analyses using existing databases and subset of fossils; preliminary lab work. Preparation of progression script and drafting Introduction.

Year 2

Months 13 – 24: data collection in museums interspersed with analysis; geochemical training. Writing of Methods chapter / sections.

Year 3

Months 25 – 30: Final analysis (functional morphology, ecomorphology, biomechanics, evolutionary modelling ), presentation of results at international conferences.
Months 31 – 36: Writing of Results and Discussion.

Year 3.5

Months 36 – 42: Polishing thesis and potentially preparing draft publication(s).

& Skills

Techniques of accurate and reliable morphometric data collection.
Morphometric analyses.
Techniques of ecological and functional morphology.
Principles of biomechanics and application to functional and ecological morphology.
Evolutionary modelling techniques.
Techniques of geochemistry.
Scientific project design.
Scientific writing.
Effective science communication in multiple forms (e.g. oral and written communication for scientific and public audiences).

References & further reading

Elton, Sarah & Dunn, Jason (2020). Baboon biogeography, divergence and evolution: morphological and palaeoecological perspectives. Journal of Human Evolution 145: 102799.

Abbott GD, Bashir FZ. Petrified Flora and Fauna from the Carboniferous – Peering into the Past 300 Million Years Ago. In: Hueglin, S; Gramsch, A; Seppanen, L, ed. Petrifaction Processes in Matter and Society. Cham: Springer, 2021, pp.45-52.

Kovarovic, K., Faith, J.T., Jenkins, K.E., Tryon, C.A. & Peppe, D.J. (2021). Ecomorphology and ecology of the grassland specialist, Rusingoryx atopocranion (Artiodactyla: Bovidae), from the late Pleistocene of western Kenya. Quaternary Research 101: 187-204.

Further Information

Sarah Elton (

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