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Graduate student makes major discovery about seal evolution
Date:2/19/2014

Ottawa, February, 19, 2014In the world of science, one of the most exciting things a researcher can do is pin down an answer to a widely asked question. This experience came early for Carleton University graduate Thomas Cullen, who made a discovery about pinnipedsthe suborder that makes up seals, sea lions and walruseswhile doing research for his Master's degree under the supervision of Canadian Museum of Nature palaeontologist Dr. Natalia Rybczynski.

His discovery, published the journal Evolution, relates to sexual dimorphism (a large variance in size between males and females), in a variety of pinniped species. Males in many species of pinnipeds are often much larger than their female counterparts, in some cases more than twice as large, and this has implications for how they mate and behave.

Dimorphic pinnipeds such as the Steller's Sea Lion and Northern Fur Seal typically mate in a harem, with one male pinniped presiding over a larger community of female mates. This behaviour is not typically seen in non-dimorphic pinnipeds such as the Ringed Seal, and so sexual dimorphism is intimately linked with mating style.

Researchers have long puzzled over both why sexual dimorphism exists in many pinniped species and when this trait evolved. When Cullen examined fossils of an extinct pinniped with Rybczynski, he discovered an incontrovertible answer to the question of when. He was able to examine it there before analyzing the data at Carleton in a lab headed by his other thesis supervisor, Prof. Claudia Schrder-Adams.

"We were examining a fossil of a pinniped that was previously thought to be a juvenile, but we looked at it again and found that, based on its skull structure, it was likely an adult," says Cullen. This discovery, coupled with analyses comparing this fossil to others of the same species as well as modern dimorphic species, proved that the fossil belonged to a sexually dimorphic species.

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Contact: Dan Smythe
dsmythe@mus-nature.ca
613-566-4781
Canadian Museum of Nature
Source:Eurekalert  

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