Research Goals

Firstly, we will examine the genomes of different New World primate species to see if we can identify genes relating to traits like diet, body size and activity pattern. By doing so, we will be able to infer how these traits have changed through time in the different New World primate groups.

Secondly we will produce a new evolutionary tree (phylogeny) of all the living New World primate species, using large amounts of genomic data and sophisticated methods to produce the most complete and accurate phylogeny of the group, and we will use “molecular clocks” to infer divergence times for when different lineages split from one another. With our new phylogeny and divergence times, we will examine how the rate of diversification has varied through time, and whether very high or low rates of diversification coincide with periods of environmental change. We will also identify previously unrecognised species and reassess the taxonomy of all known species. This information will be key to conservation efforts, by helping identify the species most in need of protection to conserve maximum biodiversity.

Thirdly, we will use data from the fossil record to model how living and extinct lineages of New World primates have diversified through time. This data can be compared with the pattern of diversification indicated by the phylogeny of living New World primates, to see if they are broadly similar. If they show major differences, this suggests that extinction has played a key role in New World primate evolution. We will also use the fossil record to test the hypothesis that New World primates outcompeted superficially “primate-like” mammals (actually, relatives of modern marsupials) that were already present in South America when the New World primate ancestor arrived from Africa.

Our project will massively increase our understanding of New World primate evolution, shed new light on diversification and evolutionary processes in general, and help identify those New World primates most vulnerable to extinction. In doing so our findings will be of interest to a wide range of scientists, including evolutionary biologists, genomicists, ecologists and palaeontologists. Because our project, by rigorously clarifying NWP species numbers and boundaries, our results will also have broader practical utility for conservation practitioners and policy makers in governmental and non-governmental agencies.