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Dr Sam Giles

Dr Sam Giles

‘Getting inside the heads of early fishes’

Dr Sam Giles, University of Oxford

Animals with backbones (vertebrates) have an evolutionary history of half a billion years, with fossils proving instrumental in understanding how the group became so hugely successful. Many major innovations, as well as important anatomical features, are found within the braincase, a kind of bony box that sits within the head and houses the brain and sensory organs. By using xray tomography, it is possible to ‘virtually’ cut through the specimens and produce 3D reconstructions of the brain and braincase anatomy. Comparing these structures between key living and extinct animals allows for major evolutionary events to be put into context. Questions can be answered concerning the age of origin of the largest living group of vertebrates, the ray-finned fishes, a group containing over 30,000 species (including animals familiar from the aquarium and fishmonger), with major ramifications for understanding rates of gene mutation and evolutionary change. By studying how the brain evolved in early members of the group it is possible to evaluate whether ecological expansions and diversification events correspond with neurological change. Furthermore, new anatomical details will allow a better understanding of how different vertebrates lineages are related to each other, providing new insights and context to the evolution of vertebrates.

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