Mark Westneat

Mark is a Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy and a member of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago, and is a Research Associate in Zoology at the Field Museum of Natural History. He is also the Director of Graduate Studies for the Integrative Biology program at UChicago. Previous positions include Curator and Department Chair of Zoology at the Field Museum, and Robert A. Pritzker Director of the Museum’s Biodiversity Synthesis Center. Mark’s research program focuses on the phylogenetics (family tree) of marine and freshwater fishes, the assessment and conservation of coral reef fishes, the biomechanics of feeding, locomotion and respiration in animals ranging from insects to fishes to birds, and the synthesis of evolutionary trees with biomechanical traits to better understand evolution. Mark’s teaching and training are primarily focused on college and graduate level work in phylogenetics, comparative anatomy, biomechanics, and marine biology. Outreach activity has recently focused on museum exhibits as lead scientific content advisor for the exhibit The Machine Inside: Biomechanics, web-based biodiversity outreach such as the Encyclopedia of Life, virtual world science for children such as WhyReef in WhyVille, and popularizing science using social media.

Research Interests

My research interests range from biomechanics and functional morphology to phylogenetic systematics and evolutionary patterns in the Tree of Life. I get most enthusiastic about research on highly diverse systems- either lots of species (biodiversity, coral reefs!) or lots of mechanisms (functional diversity, jaws and skulls!). We generate a lot of phylogenetic trees in the lab, contributing to the grand Tree of Life, and we do that with a particular goal in mind; to map out patterns of structural, functional, and ecological diversity onto those trees. This is exciting because we can get at major questions of diversification in charismatic groups of organisms, whether those might be fishes, birds, or insects.

Teaching and Training

I teach several courses that are for upper-level undergraduate or graduate students, including Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy and Vertebrate Functional Morphology. Graduate student and postdoctoral training (mostly them training me) is also a key part of lab activities. The lab usually includes an assemblage of undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and colleagues so please contact us if you are interested in joining or visiting the lab.

Field Work

Expeditions to coral reefs and rocky nearshore marine habitats make up the major part of my field work. I also have an active field program in Lake Michigan, and sampling fishes in freshwaters of the Midwest. We use a wide range of methods to collect fishes and assess their biodiversity, including SCUBA diving, visual census, and specimen collection using nets, spears, trawls, and good old rod and reel. I have learned as much biology casting a lure or hiking through the woods as I have listening to lectures over the years.

Outreach and Public Education

We engage in frequent efforts to take our science to broader audiences through teaching at local schools, museum exhibits, social media, and efforts to communicate through news and television outlets.