Dr. Denise Su is an expert in paleoecological reconstruction and currently serves as the Gertrude Haskell Britton Chair of Education and Curator of Paleobotany and Paleoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Her research is revealing the environments in which our most ancient human ancestors lived and will ultimately provide insight into whether environmental factors shaped the trajectory of hominin evolution.
Paleoecology casts a broad net across many scientific disciplines to reconstruct ancient ecosystems. Every fossil, small or large, plant or animal, can yield important information. In addition to paleontological information, Su reviews data about a site’s geology, sedimentology, fossil pollen, and anything else relevant. In some cases, she’ll also draw on research into analogous contemporary animal or plant populations.
In 2000, Su began doing field research as a member of the Eyasi Plateau Paleontological and Geological Project at Laetoli in Tanzania. This site has rock exposures between 3.6 million and 3.85 million years old, the time when Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”) walked the Earth. Based on the project’s work at the site, Su has pieced together enough evidence to reconstruct the patterns of forests, grasslands and other habitats that prevailed there during that time period.
Su is also co-leader of the Zhaotong Paleontological Project at Shuitangba in Yunnan Province, China. Since 2007, this project has been excavating an exposure of Late Miocene sediments approximately 6.1 million years old. Paleoecological evidence from this location, which includes numerous plant and animal specimens, promises to provide a picture of an ancient ecosystem outside of Africa but concurrent with early hominin evolution.
Su continues to analyze the data from Laetoli and Shuitangba as part of her work as a Museum curator, a position she has held since 2012. She is further refining the picture of what these ancient ecosystems were like, and plans to expand her research by locating another field site. With enough analysis in place, she will be able to address the larger questions concerning the influences ancient ecosystems may have had on human evolution.
Jablonski, N. G., Ji, X., Kelley, J., Flynn, L. J., Deng, C., & Su, D. F. (2020). Mesopithecus pentelicus from Zhaotong, China, the easternmost representative of a widespread Miocene cercopithecoid species. Journal of Human Evolution, 146, 102851. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2020.102851
Wang, X., Grohé, C., Su, D. F., White, S. C., Ji, X., Kelley, J., . . . Yang, X. (2018). A new otter of giant size, Siamogale melilutra sp. nov. (Lutrinae: Mustelidae: Carnivora), from the latest Miocene Shuitangba site in north-eastern Yunnan, south-western China, and a total-evidence phylogeny of lutrines. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, 16(1), 39-65. doi:10.1080/14772019.2016.1267666
Haile-Selassie, Y., Melillo, S. M., & Su, D. F. (2016). The Pliocene hominin diversity conundrum: Do more fossils mean less clarity? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(23), 6364-6371. doi:10.1073/pnas.1521266113
Su, D. F., & Harrison, T. (2015). The paleoecology of the Upper Laetolil Beds, Laetoli Tanzania: A review and synthesis. Journal of African Earth Sciences, 101, 405-419. doi:10.1016/j.jafrearsci.2014.09.019
White, T. D., Ambrose, S. H., Suwa, G., Su, D. F., DeGusta, D., Bernor, R. L., . . . Vrba, E. (2009). Macrovertebrate paleontology and the Pliocene habitat of Ardipithecus ramidus. Science, 326(5949), 87-93. doi:10.1126/science.1175822