Professor Zachary Calamari Shows Us Just How Much You Can Learn from a Skull

This award-winning scientist’s new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History opens new horizons for understanding mammalian morphology.

Photo by Paige Ehrl

In an exciting development in the ever-changing field of evolutionary biology, Assistant Professor Zachary Calamari of Baruch College’s Department of Natural Sciences has 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 mysterious evolutionary origins of these cranial ornaments. Professor Calamari’s cutting-edge research in this area 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.

Horns and antlers, particularly in ruminant hoofed mammals, constitute the primary focus of Professor Calamari’s investigations, the appearance of which can be traced back 15 million years. One challenge in understanding their evolutionary origins 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,” Professor 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, Professor Calamari’s research employs a combination of genomics, shape analysis, and modeling techniques. As fossil RNA is not viable for sequencing, he 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 Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Collections Core, showcases this research and provides visitors with an interactive experience. The exhibit 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 pathbreaking techniques employed in Calamari’s research.

Beyond the exhibit, the Beckman Young Investigator award will allow Professor 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. These techniques could potentially lead to advancements beyond the world of evolutionary morphology and aid in our understanding of diseases like 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 the 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. Professor Calamari reflected on the transformative role that such paid 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.”