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Larisa R.G. DeSantis

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Larisa Desantis

Assistant Professor
larisa.desantis@vanderbilt.edu
DeSantis Lab Blog
Office: 5721 Science & Engineering Bldg
Phone: (615) 343-7831

Education

Ph.D. University of Florida, 2009
M.E.M. Yale University, 2003
B.S. University of California, Berkeley, 2000

Specializations

  • Vertebrate Paleontology
  • Paleoecology
  • Paleoclimates

Curriculum Vitae

 

 

General Interests

Larisa DeSantis’s interdisciplinary research program focuses on understanding ecological dynamics through time, at a variety of spatial scales. She examines modern ecosystems to constrain environmental reconstructions of fossil localities, and uses the fossil record to inform ecologists and conservation biologists about faunal and flora responses to climate change. The integration of the disparate fields of ecology, paleontology, and geochemistry can synergistically improve understandings of long-term ecological dynamics. Specifically, her research goals include: 1) reconstructing ancient environments using modern ecological studies to help constrain paleoecological hypotheses; and, 2) understanding how mammalian communities and their floral environments have responded to climate change during the Cenozoic.

 

Current Research

Paleoecological tools including stable isotope, dental microwear, and morphology enable comparisons of modern and ancient terrestrial ecosystems across temporal boundaries. DeSantis integrates these tools to clarify how changing climates have affected mammals and their floral environments through time, globally. Her research program generally focuses on two major areas. The first area aims to clarify the paleoecology of forest environments through time. Tapirs, extant browsers occupying forest environments today, are model organisms for examining forest distributions over the last 55 million years and their modern ecology can help constrain paleoecological interpretations of late Cenozoic fossil localities where tapirs are abundant. Thus, DeSantis examines extant tapir populations throughout Central and South America to constrain ecological and climatic interpretations of fossil localities dominated by tapirs, primarily in the southeastern United States. She is also examining modern forest communities to “ground truth” floral carbon isotope variation in temperate forests.

dental microwear

3D photo simulation of the dental microwear of an extant grazing kangaroo. 
© Larisa R.G. DeSantis

DeSantis’s second area of research aims to inform ecologists and conservation biologists about the effects of long term climate change on mammalian communities and their environments. Currently, global climate change affects the composition and dynamics of mammalian communities and potentially increases their risk of extinction. However, the long-term effects of global warming on extinct mammals are less understood. Dietary reconstructions inferred from stable isotopes and dental microwear of fossil mammal teeth can document dietary niche partitioning, enable environmental inferences (e.g. grassland vs. forest), and allow for comparisons of aridity and/or relative seasonality over time. Through the analyses of fossil communities during the late Cenozoic, DeSantis assess the affects of climate change on mammals experiencing interglacial warming in North America to increased aridity in Australia. Although she focuses on ungulate and marsupial mammals, she is currently working on extending analyses to also include xenarthrans (i.e. sloths, armadillos, and relatives), carnivores, and small mammals.

extant tapir

Sampling an extant tapir for stable isotope analyses.
© Larisa R.G. DeSantis

 

What Students Do

Larisa
Undergraduate student Jason Coby and DeSantis prepare to make microwear molds of fossil horse teeth.
©Larisa R.G. DeSantis

Opportunities for M.S. and Ph.D. students include a broad range of projects with questions pertaining to either modern and/or ancient ecosystems. Masters students are encouraged to ask questions that can be appropriately answered using one or two paleoecological methods (e.g. stable isotope analyses, dental microwear texture analyses, morphological analyses, etc…), while Ph.D. students are encouraged to integrate multiple tools to answer interdisciplinary questions. Potential projects likely include laboratory analyses of museum specimens and may incorporate field opportunities. Students are also encouraged to communicate the broader impacts of their research to the public. Masters students pursing paleoecological research will be well prepared for advanced degrees in either biological or geological disciplines and careers ranging from environmental management to secondary education. Doctoral students are ideally suited to purse academic careers and/or engage in interdisciplinary professions that examine changing environments and climates.

I am currently looking for undergraduate volunteers for the Spring and Summer of 2013.

I am also considering new M.S. and Ph.D. students for the Fall of 2013.

 

 

Current and Former Students

Graduate Students

Lindsey Yann, Ph.D. student since fall 2010, Paleoecology and the effects of climatic changes on camelids through time: integrating ecological, archeological, and paleontological records

Shelly Donohue, M.S. student since fall 2011, Assessing feeding ecology in Ursidae using dental microwear texture analysis

Ryan Haupt, M.S. completed degree in the fall of 2012 (Pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Wyoming), Dental microwear texture analysis of dentin: can mammalian diets be inferred without enamel?

Judy Moss, M.L.A.S. completed degree in the spring of 2010, Tigers, camels and pandas in Tennessee: fossil discoveries weave a tale.

Undergraduate Students:

Lucas Loffredo, Earth & Environmental Sciences/Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Began during Fall 2010, Cautionary lessons learned from integrating geochemical and dental mesowear data of an extreme generalist Cormohipparion emsliei from Florida.

Natalie Jordan, Public Policy (concentration in Ecology/Climatology), Began during Spring 2011, Dietary variation within feeding groups of ungulate taxa (VUSRP Fellowship during the summer of 2011) - Graduated December 2011 (Attending Georgia State University College of Law in the Fall of 2012)

Stoycho Velkovsky, Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Began during Spring 2011, Paleoecology of the Pleistocene Lancefield fauna from Victoria, Australia. - Graduated May 2012 (Attending SUNY - Stony Brook in the Fall of 2012 to purse a M.S. in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology)

Amishi Kumar, Earth & Environmental Sciences, Began during Fall 2011, Effects of aridity on the diet of eastern grey kangaroos in Victoria, Australia.

Nick Lashinsky, Earth & Environmental Sciences/ Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Began during Spring 2012, Stable isotope ecology of extant marsupials from Australasia.

Ellen Reat, Earth & Environmental Sciences, Began during Spring 2012, Effects of aridity on the diet of western grey kangaroos in Victoria, Australia

Michael Greshko, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Began during Fall 2012, Project TBD

students excavating

 

Selected Publications (*denotes Students)                                          

DeSantis, L.R.G., Scott, J.R., *Donohue, S.L., *McCray, B., *Van   Stolk, C.A., *Winburn, A.A., *Greshko, M.A., *O'Hara, M. Direct comparisons of 2D and 3D dental microwear proxies in extant herbivorous and carnivorous mammals. PLoS ONE (In submission)

*Lashinsky, N., DeSantis, L.R.G., *Yann, L.T., *Romer, J.L., *Corapi, S.E., *Donohue, *S., Fathel, S., *Gootee, E., *Romer, J.L., *Velkovski, S. Is Rapoport's rule a recent phenomenon? A deep time perspective on potential causal mechanisms. Biology Letters (In submission)

*Yann, L.T., DeSantis, L.R.G., *Haupt, R.J., *Romer, J.L., *Corapi, S.E., *Ettenson, D.J. Mammalian oxygen isotopes as an indicator of regional climatic differences in Pleistocene North America. Proceedings of the Royal Society B (In submission)

DeSantis, L.R.G. 2012. Commentary on Marshall et al. 1982 in Foundations of Paleoecology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (In review, invited book contribution).

*Haupt, R.J., DeSantis, L.R.G., Green, J.L., Ungar, P.S. Dental microwear texture as a proxy for diet in xenarthrans. Journal of Mammalogy (In revision)

Feranec, R.S., DeSantis, L.R.G. Using carbon isotopes to determine carnivore prey preferences during the Pleistocene of Florida. Paleobiology (In revision)

DeSantis, L.R.G., Schubert, B.W., Scott, J.R., Ungar, P.S. 2012. Implications of diet for the extinction of saber-toothed cats and American lions. PLoS ONE

Fisher, E., Mackey, K., Cusack, D., DeSantis, L., Hartzell-Nichols, L., Lutz, J., Melbourne-Thomas, J., Meyer, R., Riveros-Iregui, D., Sorte, C., Taylor, J., White, S. 2012. Is Pre-Tenure Interdisciplinary Research a Career Risk? EOS, Transactions American Geophysical Union 93(32): 311 [DOI: 10.1029/2012EO320004]

*Kelly, J.E., DeSantis, L.R.G., Tung, T.A. 2012. Reconstructing climate change and food production in the ancient Peruvian Andes using stable isotope analysis. Young Scientist 2: 31-33

DeSantis, L.R.G., *Beavins Tracy, R.A., *Koontz, C.S., *Roseberry, J.C., *Velasco, M.C. 2012. Mammalian niche conservation through deep time. PLoS ONE 7: e35624 [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035624]

Dillehay, T. et al. (DeSantis, L., 25th author) 2012. Chronology, mound-building and environment at Huaca Prieta, coastal Peru, from 13700 to 4000 years ago. Antiquity 86: 48-70

DeSantis, L.R.G. 2011. Stable isotope ecology of extant tapirs from the Americas. Biotropica 43: 746-754. [DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2011.00761.x]

MacFadden, B.J., DeSantis, L.R.G., Labs Hochstein, J., Kamenov, G.D. 2010. Physical properties, geochemistry, and diagenesis of xenarthran teeth: prospects for interpreting the paleoecology of extinct species. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 291: 180-189 [DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2010.02.021]

Schubert, B.W., Ungar, P.S., DeSantis, L.R.G. 2010. Carnassial microwear and dietary behaviour in large carnivorans. Journal of Zoology 280: 257-263 [DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2009.00656.x]

DeSantis, L.R.G., Feranec, R.S., MacFadden, B.J. 2009. Effects of global warming on ancient mammalian communities and their environments. PLoS ONE 4: e5750 [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005750]

Prideaux, G.J., Ayliffe, L.K., DeSantis, L.R.G., Schubert, B.W., Murray, P.F., Gagan, M.K., Cerling, T.E. 2009. Extinction implications of a chenopod browse diet for a giant Pleistocene kangaroo. PNAS 106: 11646-11650 [DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0900956106]

DeSantis, L.R.G. 2009. Teaching evolution through inquiry-based lessons of uncontroversial science. The American Biology Teacher 71(2): 106-111 [DOI: 10.1662/005.071.0211]

DeSantis, L.R.G. 2009. Straight from the mouths of horses and tapirs: using fossil teeth to clarify how ancient environments have changed over time. Science Scope 32(5): 18-24 

DeSantis, L.R.G., Wallace, S.C. 2008. Neogene forest from the Appalachians of Tennessee, USA: geochemical evidence from fossil mammal teeth. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 266: 59-68 [DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2008.03.032]

DeSantis, L.R.G., MacFadden, B.J. 2007. Identifying forested environments in Deep Time using fossil tapirs: evidence from evolutionary morphology and stable isotopes. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 258: 147-157 (Special Issue: Advances in Angiosperm Paleobotany and Paleoclimatic Reconstruction – Contributions Honoring David L. Dilcher and Jack A. Wolfe)

DeSantis, L.R.G., Bhotika, S., Putz, F.E., Williams, K. 2007. Sea-level rise and drought interactions accelerate declines on the Gulf Coast of Florida, USA. Global Change Biology 13: 2349-2360 [DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2007.01440.x]

DeSantis, L.R.G. 2007. Clarifying tropical cyclone activity in centuries past. Science Teacher 74(6): 78-84

 

Examples of Media Articles Regarding Research

DeSantis, L.R.G., *Beavins Tracy, R.A., *Koontz, C.S., *Roseberry, J.C., *Velasco, M.C. 2012. Mammalian niche conservation through deep time. PLoS ONE 7: e35624

Diversity Aided Mammals' Survival Over Deep Time (Science Daily; Vanderbilt University Research News)
Mammal Diversity Aided In Survival Over Deep Time (redOrbit)
See also radio appearances including The Academic Minute (http://wamc.org/post/dr-larisa-desantis-vanderbilt-university-mammal-survival-and-deep-time).

Prideaux, G.J., Ayliffe, L.K., DeSantis, L.R.G., Schubert, B.W., Murray, P.F., Gagan, M.K., Cerling, T.E. 2009. Extinction implications of a chenopod browse diet for a giant Pleistocene kangaroo. PNAS 106: 11646-11650.

Human role in big kangaroo demise (BBC News)
Cooking and Human Origins, Big Kangaroos, Little Dinosaurs (Featured on PRI's The World Sci Tech Podcast)

DeSantis, L.R.G., Feranec, R.S., MacFadden, B.J. 2009. Effects of interglacial warming on ancient mammalian communities and their environments. PLoS ONE 4: e5750

Ancient Mammals Not So Finicky (Science Now)
Climate change? Big mammals may be flexible (msNBC)
Fossil Teeth Hint at Animal Adaptation to Global Warming (Wired Science)

DeSantis, L.R.G., MacFadden, B.J. 2007. Identifying forested environments in Deep Time using fossil tapirs: evidence from evolutionary morphology and stable isotopes. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 258: 147-157 (Special Issue: Advances in Angiosperm Paleobotany and Paleoclimatic Reconstruction – Contributions Honoring David L. Dilcher and Jack A. Wolfe)

In Life's Race, Tapirs Took a Slow and Steady Pace (Wired Science Blogs)

DeSantis, L.R.G., Bhotika, S., Putz, F.E., Williams, K. 2007. Sea-level rise and drought interactions accelerate declines on the Gulf Coast of Florida, USA. Global Change Biology 13: 2349-2360

Palm deaths accelerating on Florida coast; likely cause is rising seas (University of Florida News)
Global warming may be killing palms (UPI.com)

Radio, TV, and Museum Exhibit Appearances

The Academic Minute - Dr. Larisa R. G. DeSantis, Vanderbilt University - Mammalian Ecology in Deep Time

Channel One News - Tennessee Evolution Law

To the Point with Warren Olney - Academic Freedom versus Science

Fossil dig adventure with junior paleontology camp - Florida Museum of Natural History Megalodon Exhibit Video

 

Teaching

Ecology, Evolution, and Climates through Time (EES 114W/114, Fall, 3 Credits)

Currently, climate change is occurring at unprecedented rates and affecting biological organisms globally. Understanding the potential causes and consequences of climate change, both today and in past is critical to making informed conservation decisions. The primary goal of this course is to investigate the effects of climate change on the ecology and evolution of organisms, with a focus on terrestrial vertebrates. Specifically, lectures will integrate paleontological research methods, vertebrate evolution and extinction, ancient climates, and the ecology of vertebrates through time. Students will also gain an understanding of how paleontological data is collected, analyzed, interpreted, and scientific hypotheses evaluated - using examples from North America and other globally significant fossil sites. Lectures and discussions will focus on salient time periods (e.g., K/T boundary, PETM, Pleistocene), primarily during the Cenozoic (65 million years to the present), providing the context for learning about fossilization, systematics, evolution, mass extinctions, paleoecology, biogeography, biostratigraphy, and other paleontological research tools. Through the combination of lectures, in-depth discussions of the described texts, written assignments, and weekly quizzes, students will leave the course with a general understanding of how organisms have changed over geologic time in response to changing environments and climates. Scientific writing will be explicitly discussed, including methods for synthesizing scientific literature. This course can help prepare students of broad backgrounds with a deep time perspective on past environmental and climate change, the causes and consequences of extinctions, and conservation and management implications.

Paleoecological Methods (EES 282, EES 390-4, Fall/Spring, 3 Credits)

Understanding ancient ecosystems may never have been as important as it is today, in the face of rapid global climate and subsequent environmental change. The primary goal of this course is to discuss paleoecological tools and methods including the study of ancient floras and faunas, plant macrofossils, pollen, taphonomy, sediments, stable isotopes, rare earth elements, isoscapes, dental microwear and mesowear, invertebrate and vertebrate morphology, paleontological databases, ecological ground truthing, and meta-analyses. Through the combination of lectures, in-depth discussions of the primary literature, and a group project, students will leave the course with a general understanding of a variety of paleoecological methods of use to earth and life scientists. Papers will range from classic methodological works to applications of paleoecological methods. Additionally, these papers will primarily focus on terrestrial Cenozoic environments ranging from the analysis of a local Tennessee fossil site to global syntheses. Students are expected to actively participate in course discussions, lead specified discussions, and synthesize paleoecological literature through a group project that will ideally result in a collaborative paper of publication quality. This course can help prepare students in the earth and environmental sciences and biological sciences with a deep time perspective on past environmental and climate change, while exposing those with academic interests to possible tools and techniques of use to their research.

Macroecology and Biogeography (EES 390, Spring, 3 Credits)

Macroceology integrates the fields of ecology, systematics, evolutionary biology, paleobiology, and biogeography to understand how organisms and their environments interact and are distributed over large spatial and temporal scales. The primary goal of this course is to engage in interdisciplinary discussions that address many of the following topics: the discipline of macroecology; the nature of species, niches, and communities; the abundance and distribution of species; the composition and assembly of continental biotas; the structure and function of individuals, populations, and species dynamics; allometry and body size; evolutionary dynamics; species diversity; and, methodological advances in macroecology. Through the combination of lectures, in-depth discussions of the primary literature, and a group project, students will leave the course with a broad understanding of macroecology that integrates biological, ecological, and geological principles. Macroecology papers will range from classics to recent works. Students are expected to actively participate in course discussions, lead specified discussions, and synthesize paleoecological literature through a group project that will ideally result in a collaborative paper of publication quality. This course can help prepare students in the earth and environmental sciences and biological sciences with a broad understanding of species diversity and distributions across space and time, with relevance to conservation biology and current climate change.

Topics in Macroevolution (EES 390, Spring, 3 Credits)

Few topics in the earth and biological sciences are as unifying as the theory of evolution. With a focus on evolutionary processes that operate on a large scale, we will discuss topics including evolutionary theory, biogeography, systematics, species concepts, speciation, extinction, and how these topics are of relevance to modern conservation. We will also discuss major evolutionary events including how abotic processes have affected the evolution of terrestrial and marine organisms. While the course will discuss topics of relevance to a diversity of organisms including plants and animals, many examples will drawn on our understanding of terrestrial vertebrates. Through the combination of in-depth discussions of the primary literature and a group project, students will leave the course with a broad understanding of topics in macroevolution that integrates biological, ecological, and geological principles. Papers will range from classics to recent works, spanning over 100 years - although we will focus on literature over the past 50 years. Students are expected to actively participate in course discussions, lead specified discussions, and synthesize literature through a group project that will ideally result in a collaborative paper of publication quality. This course can help prepare students in the earth and environmental sciences and biological sciences with a broad understanding of macroevolutionary theory, processes, and major events in earths history.

neanderthal

Representative Publications

DeSantis, L.R.G., Schubert, B.W., Scott, J.R., Ungar, P.S. 2012. Implications of diet for the extinction of saber-toothed cats and American lions. PLoS ONE

DeSantis, L.R.G., *Beavins Tracy, R.A., *Koontz, C.S., *Roseberry, J.C., *Velasco, M.C. 2012. Mammalian niche conservation through deep time. PLoS ONE 7: e35624 [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035624]

DeSantis, L.R.G. 2011. Stable isotope ecology of extant tapirs from the Americas. Biotropica 43: 746-754. [DOI: 10.1111/j.1744-7429.2011.00761.x]

Schubert, B.W., Ungar, P.S., DeSantis, L.R.G. 2010. Carnassial microwear and dietary behaviour in large carnivorans. Journal of Zoology 280: 257-263 [DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2009.00656.x]

DeSantis, L.R.G., Feranec, R.S., MacFadden, B.J. 2009. Effects of global warming on ancient mammalian communities and their environments. PLoS ONE 4: e5750 [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005750]

Prideaux, G.J., Ayliffe, L.K., DeSantis, L.R.G., Schubert, B.W., Murray, P.F., Gagan, M.K., Cerling, T.E. 2009. Extinction implications of a chenopod browse diet for a giant Pleistocene kangaroo. PNAS 106: 11646-11650 [DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0900956106]

DeSantis, L.R.G. 2009. Teaching evolution through inquiry-based lessons of uncontroversial science. The American Biology Teacher 71(2): 106-111 [DOI: 10.1662/005.071.0211]

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