Abigail Curtis

Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of WashingtonPhoto on 9-9-13 at 12.38 PM

As a kid, I loved learning about animals and was fortunate to grow up surrounded by nature in upstate New York. I got to watch tadpoles change into frogs, turtles hatch from eggs in my backyard, and served as the neighborhood snake relocation service. I loved looking for fossils and finding bones out in the woods and trying to figure out which animals they belonged to. From books and nature programs on TV, I learned about amazing animals and places beyond my hometown, and knew that I had to find a way to see them when I grew up.

In college, I worked as a intern at the New York State Museum where I started out numbering mammal bones and preparing specimens for the collections. I loved looking at the bones of different animals and trying to figure out which bones were the same in different species and how anatomical differences between animals related to diet, behavior, their evolutionary ancestry, and even age and sex. I was ecstatic when I eventually got asked to participate in a research project looking at the skull anatomy and genetics of coyotes from Northeast North America. Coyotes in Northeastern North America were suspected to be hybrids of coyotes and wolves due to their bigger body size and odd appearance compared to coyotes elsewhere. We found that Northeast coyote DNA shows evidence of limited hybridization with wolf populations in Canada and that they have wider skulls and jaw muscle attachment sites than coyotes in other parts of North America and makes them better adapted to bring down big prey like deer. This experience was instrumental in developing my research interests and helped me decide that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in biological research focusing on mammal morphology.

For my Ph.D. at UCLA, I used CT scans to study the internal anatomy of carnivore skulls. I became interested in the function of paranasal sinuses, which are air spaces in the bones surrounding the nasal chambers of mammals, which became the topic of my dissertation. I found that the paranasal sinuses found in carnivore skulls are diverse in size and shape, and that they appear to develop where bone is mechanically unnecessary, which also presumably reduces energy spent on tissue maintenance and reduces skull mass.

After my Ph.D., I worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History using CT scans to study the nasal chambers and sinuses within bat skulls, which are extremely variable in shape and size. I learned how to take my own CT scans, and was able to discover a number of novel structures hidden inside bat snouts, some of which are likely related to their use of echolocation.

My current work in the Santana Lab at UW focuses on understanding the evolution of feeding adaptations in mammals. I get to combine my knowledge of carnivores and bats from my dissertation and prior postdoctral work, as well as focus on a third group: the primates. In these three groups, species have independently evolved a variety of diets including species that eat meat, fruit, nectar, insects, as well as generalist omnivores. Skull shape has been linked to the mechanical demands of diet in these groups, but my colleagues and I aim to see if similar diets select for similar skulls shapes among all three of these groups of mammals. In addition, we are using CT scanning to image the jaw muscles of these taxa to explore whether in addition to skull shape similarities, species with similar diets show similarly sized and shaped muscle arrangements. I am also interested in public outreach, and am working with my colleagues to develop engaging materials for exhibits at the UW Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, as well as for use by K-12 educators, based on research conducted in the Santana lab.

Academic Positions and Education

2016 – present   Postdoctoral Research Associate, Santana Lab, Dept. of Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

2014 – 2016       Gerstner Scholar Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dept. of Mammalogy, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY.

2008 – 2014        Ph.D. in Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.

2005 – 2008        B.S. in Biological Sciences (major), Spanish (minor), SUNY at Albany, NY.