Jun 24, 2016 | Don Campbell

They lived more than 53 million years ago and are among the smallest primates ever discovered.

Now, thanks to an NSERC Discovery Grant, Associate Professor Mary Silcox and her students will explore the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming to find more fossils of Picromomys petersonorum.

“We only have a few jaw specimens from Picromonys, so the goal is to recover new fossils in the hopes of shedding more light on this species’ evolutionary relationship to early primates,” she says.

Picromomys was small. Weighing in at only 10 grams, it’s one-third the size of even the smallest living primate. While paleontologists have been exploring the Bighorn Basin for more than 100 years, Picromonys was only first described in 1996.

In addition to paleontological field work, the grant will allow Silcox and her students to examine more than 1,500 fossil specimens of a group of early primates called Microsyopidae that underwent evolutionary shifts due to rapid climate change during the early Eocene. The grant also covers a continuation of her research into the evolution of early primate, rabbit and rodent brains.

“My students will get to look at CT and imaging data that offers experience not only in a research context but also a clinical context as well,” she says.

Silcox is one of 15 U of T Scarborough researchers to receive an NSERC Discovery Grant in 2016.

A total of $3.1 million in grants were given to UTSC researchers, which also includes one Discovery Accelerator Supplement and a Northern Research Supplement. The latter is a new program aimed to help with the logistical costs of doing research in the Canadian North. Professor Rudy Boonstra from the Department of Biology will receive funding from the new program to study the role of stress in natural wildlife populations.   

“Federal investments like these reflect the quality and important work our researchers are doing in pushing forward new and innovative ideas in their field,” says Professor Bernie Kraatz, VP of Research at U of T Scarborough.

Kraatz is also a recipient of an NSERC Discovery Grant to explore the development of new compounds that can be used for medical diagnostics, as well as better understanding human behavior related to climate change and conservation biology. 

“These grants fund research projects that will have a positive impact on society and will also help train the next generation of scientists here at U of T Scarborough.”

The total amount of scholarship and research funding across the University of Toronto was $46.4 million. The U of T funding was among more than 4,000 awards totalling $465 million announced today by NSERC for scholarships, fellowships, research supplements and equipment grants.

Congratulations to the following UTSC researchers:

  • Mary Silcox: Anthropology – Understanding the evolution of early primates
  • Julie Teichroeb: Anthropology and Health Studies – Understanding the drivers of individual and group-level movements in gregarious species
  • Jason Weir: Biological Sciences – The biogeographic drivers and genomic architecture of speciation in Amazonian bird
  • Rudy Boonstra: Biological Sciences – The role of stress in natural populations
  • Marc Cadotte: Biological Sciences – Biodiversity and the delivery of ecosystem services in novel landscapes
  • Nathan Lovejoy: Biological Sciences – Phylogenetics, biogeography, and evolution of fishes
  • Peter Molnar: Biological Sciences – Bioenergetic approaches for understanding and forecasting ecological and epidemiological impacts of climate change
  • Tod Thiele: Biological Sciences – Dissecting the structure and function of vertebrate sensorimotor neural circuits using larval fish 
  • Wayne Enright: Computer and Mathematical Sciences – The Development of reliable numerical software for the investigation of systems of differential equations
  • Suzanne Erb: Psychology – The impact of early developmental experience on cocaine-stress interactions in adulthood: an exploration of behavioural, physiological, and neural mechanisms
  • Cendri Hutcherson: Psychology – Testing the implications of a dynamic, neutrally-informed computational model of valuation, decision making and self-control
  • Rutsuko Ito: Psychology –  Delineating cortico-limbic-strital circuits in reward and punishment: segregation and integration
  • Heinz-Bernhard Kraatz: Physical and Environmental Science – Exploring the chemistry of ferrocene bioconjugates
  • Matthew Wells: Physical and Environmental Sciences – Transport and mixing of particles in stratified environmental flows
  • Xiao-an Zhang: Physical and Environmental Sciences – Next generation molecule probes for Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Sensing: design, synthesis, evaluation and application

Discovery Accelerator Supplement: Jason Weir, Biological Sciences – The biogeographic drivers and genomic architecture of speciation in Amazonian bird

Northern Research Supplement: Rudy Boonstra, Biological Sciences – The role of stress in natural populations