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Massey Lab research

CollaborationsStudent research projects | Publications

About Dr Jason Massey

Jason is a biological anthropologist broadly trained in evolutionary anthropology with a focus on primate evolution and skeletal growth and development. He received his PhD training at the University of Minnesota in the United States. Upon completion of his PhD, he began a teaching focused post-doc at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He joined Monash University and the Biomedicine Discovery Institute in 2020.

Jason’s research interests lie within the interplay between ontogeny and evolution, whereby slight alterations in a population’s ontogeny can lead to divergent adult shapes – potentially leading to evolutionary change. To approach these broader questions, he uses three-dimensional surface scanning technology, landmark-based geometric morphometrics, and multivariate statistical analyses on population-level differences in growth and development. His work has primarily focused on the skeletal remains of gorillas and chimpanzees in Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania. Over half of the skeletal remains in the collections are associated with demographic, behavioural, ecological, and veterinary datasets. Correlations drawn from these datasets provide unprecedented context for skeletal morphology. In addition to his work with extant primates, Jason has recently begun applying these concepts and techniques to the fossil record at the site of Drimolen located in South Africa. This site is approximately 2 million years old and offers a snapshot into a key period in human and primate evolution.


Our research

Current projects

1.Population-level ontogenetic variation in African apes
2.Skeletal variation and evolution of mountain gorilla populations
3.Ontogenetic evolvability and plasticity
4.Life history and skeletal analysis of Gombe baboons
5.Palaeontology and palaeoecology of South African papionins
6.Clinical variation in human anatomy

Visit Dr Massey’s Monash research profile to see a full listing of current projects.

Research activities

Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Project

The Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Project (MGSP) is an international collaboration whose goal is to recover the naturally accumulated skeletal remains of mountain gorillas from Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda and to build capacity for their long-term preservation as a scientific and educational resource. The project is co-directed by scientists and veterinarians from the Rwanda Development Board – Department of Tourism and Conservation and the George Washington University, in partnership with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International’s Karisoke Research Center, Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, and New York University College of Dentistry. It has also benefitted from the contributions of students and researchers from the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda, the Smithsonian Institution, University of Indianapolis, and many others throughout the years. Recently the project has expanded to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda with support from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and contributions from researchers at the University of Oulu. The project is extensive covering research into hard tissue histology, correlating life history events and diet with skeletal markers, trauma and pathology, and skeletal growth and development. It has also helped to create and utilize new photogrammetry technology to quantify body size and growth in living, wild primate populations.

My work with three-dimensional surface scanners has added to one of the main missions of this project: the digital preservation of this rare and unique skeletal collection. I utilize the 3D data to study variation and ontogeny in these gorilla populations through three ongoing projects:

1.The adult and ontogenetic variation between populations of African apes. There are many differences in the behaviour, ecology, and diet of different populations of Apes. This is particularly true of the mountain gorilla populations that reside in the Virunga Massif of Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. Both of these sites have a long history of ongoing behavioural research and recent skeletal data suggests that their underlying anatomy mimics these behavioural differences.

2.The ontogeny of sexual dimorphism. In many primate species, male and female adults are easily differentiated based broadly on robusticity of muscle attachments, overall body size, and canine size. However, juveniles are much more ambiguous. In gorillas, where adult sexual dimorphism is extreme, only start showing skeletal differentiation around the development of the second molar. Understanding the pattern and timing of ontogenetic divergence in aspects of the skeleton is important for understanding how this extreme variation can be developed in a relatively short period, and can show the upper limit of ontogenetic variation within a single species.

3.Correlating life history, behavioural, and functional information to hard tissue morphology. The two sites at which MGSP collaborates, Virunga and Bwindi, have a wealth of lifetime behavioural data, veterinary records, ecological data, and genetic sequences. So much is known for living species with accompanying long-term, ongoing research sites. Correlating some life history events to skeletal remains allows us to view the fossil record, where only hard tissue remains, with a more informed set of life history and behavioural proxies.

Fossil Primates at the site of Drimolen Paleocave, South Africa
Drimolen, the South African fossil site, has recently garnered international scientific attention and global news announcing the oldest fossil specimen of our genus, Homo, in the journal Science. Drimolen also records a new population of fossil baboons. In addition, fossil colobines (quite different to today’s colobine species) are also found alongside the hominin remains at the site. Placing these fossils in the context of other populations found throughout the Cradle of Human Kind will greatly expand our knowledge and understanding of community variation at a key point in African primate evolution. It will additionally provide a deeper understanding of the primate community living simultaneously with our human ancestors around 2 million years ago.



Human anatomical variationIf a new medical device is to make it to production or a new surgical approach is to be perfected, knowledge of the underlying anatomy and the degree to which that anatomy can vary is of upmost importance. Therefore, the study of human anatomical variation is imperative in clinical and surgical settings.

Techniques/expertise

The Morphology, Ontogeny & Evolution lab uses three-dimensional scanning technologies, multivariate statistical techniques and field excavation to study skeletal shape, variation, and ontogeny. We are located in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology and have access to dissection facilities and 3D imaging laboratories.

Monash and our department’s relationship with the Australian Synchrotron provide access to CT, MRI and microCT data acquisition. 3D surface scanners are also available in our lab and other labs in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology. Our lab is also associated with Centre for Human Anatomy Education’s 3D printing facilities.

Our lab studies and uses three-dimensional, landmark based, geometric morphometrics to study shape. The use of landmark coordinates provides advantages over just linear distances or angular measurements including the preservation of geometric properties of each specimen during statistical analyses. It also allows visualization of shape change between contrasting landmark configurations.


Collaborations

We collaborate with many scientists and research organisations around the world. Some of our more significant national and international collaborators are listed below. Click on the map to see the details for each of these collaborators (dive into specific publications and outputs by clicking on the dots).

Dr. Shannon McFarlin (The George Washington University, Washington DC, USA)
Dr. Kieran McNulty (University of Minnesota, MN, USA)
Dr. Katharine Balolia (Australian National University, ACT, Australia)
Dr. Justin Adams (Monash University, VIC, Australia)
Dr. Andrew Herries (La Trobe University, VIC, Australia)


Student research projects

The Massey Lab offers a variety of Honours, Masters and PhD projects for students interested in joining our group. There are also a number of short term research opportunities available.

Please visit Supervisor Connect to explore the projects currently available in our Lab.