Research

My research is concerned with understanding biodiversity dynamics over the last ~500 million years by combining perspectives from macroevolution, sedimentary geology/stratigraphy, and ecology. I use the fossil record of marine invertebrates to investigate the role of ecology and geological processes in the generation and maintenance of evolutionary patterns through deep time, both within lineages and at the paleocommunity scale. Major research questions can be broadly divided into two complementary, overlapping themes: Extinction and Community Paleoecology. I am also an expert on fossil crinoids (echinoderms related to starfish and sea urchins), and frequently use their fossil record as a model group for addressing macroevolutionary questions. As a result, another component of my research focuses on Crinoid Systematics.

 

Extinction

Causes & consequences, risk & recovery

My research in this area covers both background and mass extinctions. Recent investigations have focused on extinction risk, patterns of recovery following mass extinctions, and long-term evolutionary consequences of mass extinctions, such ecological restructuring. My work in these areas spans a wide range of data sources and analytical approaches, including phylogenetic comparative methods, museum surveys, and fieldwork.

Overarching questions:

  • Do certain ecological traits increase species’ susceptibility to extinction?

  • What are the long-term consequences of mass extinctions?

  • What is the timing of recovery following extinction events?

  • How do the drivers of species loss differ between background and mass extinctions, and how are they the same?

Related research projects:

  • Ecological and other drivers of extinction risk in diplobathrid crinoids

  • Was the "Lilliput Effect" ubiquitous in the marine realm following the late Ordovician Mass extinction?

  • Shifts in functional ecology vs. morphology following mass extinctions

Extinction & persistance
Extinction & persistance

Data used to investigate extinction risk in crinoids, including evolutionary relationships, stratigraphic ranges, and habitat preferences. [Modified from Cole, in press]

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Diversity & extinction
Diversity & extinction

Patterns of diversification and extinction in a group of crinoids. [Modified from Cole, 2018]

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Extinction & persistance
Extinction & persistance

Data used to investigate extinction risk in crinoids, including evolutionary relationships, stratigraphic ranges, and habitat preferences. [Modified from Cole, in press]

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Paleoecology

Phylogenetic perspectives on paleocommunities

Niche occupation and resource partitioning are fundamental components of species’ ecology. My work in this area focuses on phylogenetic  community paleoecology, including the assembly and structure of communities and changes in niche space occupation through time. A major long-term goal is to apply these methods to Paleozoic and modern crinoid faunas to assess niche conservatism and occupation of functional groups through time.

Overarching questions:

  • How are paleocommunities assembled and how has their composition changed?

  • What is the phylogenetic structure of paleocommunities?

  • To what degree are niches conserved through time?

  • How do mass extinction events restructure communities?

 

Related research projects:

  • Phylogenetic structure and niche occupation of Ordovician crinoid paleocommunites

  • Niche conservatism across Paleozoic crinoid communities

Crinoid
Crinoid

Comparison between phylogenetic groupings (right) and functional ecological groups (left) in an Ordovician crinoid community. [From Cole et al., 2019]

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Crinoid ecomorphology
Crinoid ecomorphology

Correspondence between crinoid skeletal morphology and functional ecology. [From Cole et al., 2019]

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Crinoid
Crinoid

Comparison between phylogenetic groupings (right) and functional ecological groups (left) in an Ordovician crinoid community. [From Cole et al., 2019]

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Crinoid Systematics

Describing new taxa & resolving the crinoid tree of life

Crinoids have an exceptional fossil record that spans over 480 million years, making them an exemplary model group for addressing macroevolutionary questions. Because much of my research make use of phylogenetic comparative methods to account for shared evolutionary relationships among species, it is essential to have high-quality phylogenies to implement these methods. My work in the field of crinoid systematics provides phylogenetic context and makes important improvements in the quality and resolution of the underlying data for subsequent studies.

Phylogenetics:

In recent years I have focused on inferring evolutionary trees for camerate crinoids, Major milestones include completing comprehensive phylogeny of all Ordovician camerates (Cole 2017) and of all diplobatrhid crinoids (Cole 2018; the largest phylogeny that has been inferred for crinoids). This work has contributed to a revision of the classification of all fossil and living crinoids (Wright, Ausich, Cole, et al., 2017).

Taxonomy:

I have named or am currently involved in projects naming >20 new species, >10 new genera, and a new family of crinoids. Most of this work has focused on improving sampling from the Ordovician, including description of a crinoid Lagerstätte from Canada, and filling in important paleogeographic gaps by describing specimens from undersampled regions (e.g., Gondwanan crinoids from Spain and Baltic crinoids from Estonia).