Baruch Professor Curates New, Permanent Exhibit at Museum of Natural History

In an exciting development for the everchanging field of evolutionary biology, Assistant Professor Zachary Calamari, PhD, of Baruch College’s Department of Natural Sciences unveiled a captivating exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Titled Mammals with Headgear, the exhibit explores the appearance of horns and antlers in hoofed mammals and delves into the evolutionary origins of these cranial ornaments.

Professor Zachary Calamari, PhD, doing what he loves most—excavating ancient fossils of headgear.

Dr. Calamari’s pathbreaking research has also been recognized with the prestigious Beckman Young Investigator award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, providing $600,000 over four years to support his studies.

The appearance of horns and antlers, particularly in ruminant hoofed mammals, can be traced back 15 million years and constitutes the primary focus of Dr. Calamari’s career. One challenge in understanding how they evolved is the lack of ancestral structures in the fossil record. “There’s no sort of nice, rudimentary, ancestral-looking thing that has a little bone bump,” Dr. Calamari said. “There’s no halfway point between horns and no horns. Maybe it’s out there somewhere, but the fossil record doesn’t always give us what we want.”

This absence has sparked a century-long debate in the scientific community about whether horns and antlers emerged independently on multiple occasions or whether they have a single origin.

To shed light on this evolutionary riddle, Dr. Calamari’s research employs a combination of genomics, shape analysis, and modeling techniques. As fossil RNA is not in itself viable for sequencing, he instead uses modern genomics to examine gene expression in living hoofed mammals and correlates it with the shapes and patterns of horns and antlers observed in extinct species. This research aims to uncover the genes that allow the development of these cranial ornaments and understand precisely how they influence the diverse forms now on display throughout the natural world.

The Mammals with Headgear exhibit, part of the museum’s Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Collections Core, provides visitors with an interactive experience. It features information on the distinguishing characteristics of horns versus antlers and allows visitors to explore 3D models, view photos of RNA extraction from tissue samples, and gain insight into the cutting-edge techniques employed in Dr. Calamari’s research.

Beyond the exhibit, the Beckman Young Investigator award will allow Dr. Calamari to expand his research further. His project involves three key components: single-cell sequencing, RNA sequencing coupled with epigenetic analysis, and the application of machine learning to map gene expression data onto 3D morphology.

A look at the new exhibit, which is a permanent addition to the American Museum of Natural History.

These techniques aim at advancements beyond the world of evolutionary morphology and aid in our understanding of diseases such as bone cancer. Additionally, unraveling the genetic underpinnings of horn development in livestock may lead to improved breeding practices and animal welfare by minimizing the need for physical horn removal, a procedure that currently causes pain and stress to animals.

Perhaps most exciting, the grant also supports paid summer research experiences for Baruch College students, offering valuable hands-on training in scientific inquiry, and equipping them with essential experience in science writing and data collection.

Dr. Calamari reflected on the transformative role that such research experiences have had on his own life: “I was a first-generation college student. I didn’t really know what I was doing getting into academia, and one of the things that really made pursuing lab research feasible is that I got paid to do it. This grant is going to make that possible for the next generation of Baruch students.”


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