Evolutionary Anthropology Research at Duke

The Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke aims to understand primate and human biology in an explicitly evolutionary context. Faculty members have significant expertise in the biology and evolution of living and fossil primates.

Our research areas include:

  • paleoanthropology
  • primate functional anatomy
  • human clinical anatomy
  • evolutionary genomics
  • primate ecology
  • primate behavior
  • primate physiology

Faculty Research Labs

Animal Locomotion Laboratory

The Animal Locomotion Laboratory, led by Professor Daniel Schmitt, uses techniques to study biomechanics of vertebrate locomotion with a focus on mammals in general and nonhuman primates and humans specifically. Research focuses on general functional anatomy, evolutionary aspects of limb anatomy and gait choice, the evolution of primate locomotion, and human musculoskeletal health.

Steve Churchill Lab

Human paleontologist Steve Churchill studies morphological and behavioral adaptation in archaic and modern humans of the Middle and Late Pleistocene. Through comparative functional-morphological analysis of human fossil remains, coupled with investigation of the archeological record of prehistoric human behavior, he conducts research on the ecology, energetics and adaptive strategies of premodern members;  the evolution of human subsistence strategies across the Middle and Late Pleistocene; the evolution of subsistence technology, especially the origins of true long-range projectile weaponry; and the community ecology of humans and large-bodied carnivores in Pleistocene Europe and Africa.

Colobine Research Group

The Colobine Research Group, led by Adjunct Professor Thomas Struhsaker, is involved in ecological and demographic studies of the Udzungwa Red Colobus Monkey in the Udzungwa Mts. of Tanzania. The long-term goal of this project is to increase our understanding of this vulnerable, endemic species and to improve the conservation of it and its habitat along with all of the other endemic and endangered species of this area. Ruth Steel is working to determine how specific ecological factors influence these monkeys' behavioral ecology.

Christine Drea Lab

The Christine Drea lab studies aspects of mammalian social behavior and reproductive behavior focused on carnivores and primates. Particularly the unusual species in which the females display a suite of masculinized characteristics including male-like or exaggerated external genitalia and social dominance. Of primary concern are the physiological and behavioral correlates of reproductive and social development, with a focus on mechanisms of sexual differentiation. Through a combined laboratory and field approach, Drea lab investigates such areas as reproductive and socio-endocrinology, genital and developmental morphology, and social behavior (particularly aggression, play, and scent marking in both sexes). The Drea lab seeks to shed light on such questions as the evolution of female social dominance and the mechanisms of mammalian sexual differentiation.

Duke Canine Cognition Center

The Duke Canine Cognition Center (DCCC), led by Brian Hare, is dedicated to the study of dog psychology. Our goal is to understand the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition. In doing so, we gain a window into the mind of animals as well as the evolution of our own species. We can also apply our knowledge of dog cognition to improving programs in which dogs are bred and trained to help humans (i.e. service dogs for the disabled, etc.).

Lab for Evolutionary and Comparative Morphology

This lab, led by Doug Boyer, is focused on reconstructing the evolutionary patterns among early primates and documenting its environmental context. The goal is to evaluate the degree to which primate diversity and species specific  features can be understood as the result of a historical process of natural selection and adaptation. Current projects focus on the dentition to evaluate diet evolution, and the hands and feet to evaluate locomotor evolution.  Boyer conducts field work in North America to collect new early primate fossils, and collaborates with Gregg Gunnell of the Division of Fossil primates at Duke. Before fossil remains are studied, they are cleaned of matrix and stabilized in Boyer's fully equipped fossil preparation lab.  The lab is also involved in an initiative to create digital models of museum collections of primate bones, to use these models for development of new analytical methods in collaboration with Ingrid Daubechies of Duke Math and others, and to distribute these models using the first online repository of its kind for such 3D specimen data called MorphoSource.

Nunn Lab

"The central focus of the Nunn Lab is understanding why we get sick. Much of the research in the Nunn Lab investigates infectious and non-infectious disease in our closest living relatives, the primates, from evolutionary and ecological perspectives. Other related research is focused on finding aspects of health for which humans are evolutionary unique. By integrating these methods, the Nunn Lab hopes to form novel perspectives on human health and evolutionary medicine."

Richard Kay Lab

Professor Richard Kay focuses on the evolution of primates and mammalian faunal evolution, especially in South America; the evolutionary origins of the Anthropoidea (monkeys and apes); and  the use of primate anatomy to reconstruct the phylogenetic history and adaptations of living and extinct primates, especially Anthropoidea.

Hominoid Psychology Research Group (3chimps)

The Hominoid Psychology Research Group, led by Brian Hare, compares the psychology of hominoids (human and non-human apes). Specifically, we seek to identify which features our problem-solving abilities have evolved since humans, bonobos, and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor. Our research reveals the biological basis of many of our species most sophisticated abilities as well as how they are constrained. Our group also compares the psychology of apes and non-primates to identify cases of psychological convergence. Such cases of convergence can provide a unique opportunity to infer how human-like social skills evolved.

Jane Goodall Institute Research Center

Professor Anne Pusey's research team maintains and digitizes the data collected at Gombe, Tanzania, where Jane Goodall started observing chimpanzees over 50 years ago. Research on chimpanzees includes studies of female relationships, hunting, and disease.

Related Research Efforts

Primate Genomics Initiative

The goal of the Duke Primate Genomics Initiative (PGI) is to facilitate collaborative evolutionary genomics research projects between Duke researchers using nonhuman and human primate models across diverse fields by combining research, training and service.

Duke Lemur Center

The Duke Lemur Center contains the world's largest collection of captive prosimians. The collection currently numbers about 300 individuals, including such rare genera as Propithecus and Daubentonia. Most species breed at the colony and several species are kept in large natural habitat enclosures. Located near the Duke campus, the primate colony is available for behavioral and, in some cases, physiological, anatomical, genetic, karyotypic or biochemical studies. There is also a large research collection of skeletal and frozen material.