Conversations with: Dr Isabelle Winder

I am very pleased to introduce this week’s guest, Dr Isabelle Winder, who is an evolutionary anthropologist! Her research covers a wide range of topics, from primatology, comparative anatomy, primate responses to climate change and, of course, human evolution! Isabelle currently holds a lectureship in Zoology at Bangor University where she teaches a number of specialist modules, including a field course in Uganda. She has also worked at the Palaeo Centre at the University of York and is an Honourary Research Associate in the Department of Musculoskeletal Biology & Institute for Ageing and Chronic Disease at the University of Liverpool.

Dr Isabelle Winder from Bangor University

What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?

I have quite broad research interests, and usually describe myself as a “question-driven” researcher. By that I suppose I mean I prefer to focus on a question and learn the methods I need to tackle them rather than develop a particular methodological expertise which I could apply systematically to different species or topics. The questions that most interest me have to do with how primates (and within that group, humans) came to be the way they are, and what the implications are for understanding ourselves and our future.

Within that, I have a longstanding interest in how interactions with the environment have shaped primates, including hominins. I use mapping approaches (GIS or geographical information systems) to analyse patterns in the distribution of a primate and explore its ecology and associations with different environments. I also work on anatomy. This started out as an interest in how anatomy is shaped by the environments organisms grow and evolve in. It has since turned into a broader interest in the relative importance of environment and other factors like structural constraint, chance, use and behaviour in shaping body structures. Just recently, I have also expanded my ecological work to look at how primates are responding to anthropogenic habitat change.

Isabelle (left) and colleague Vivien Shaw (right) with their students presenting posters at the Anatomical Society Meeting in 2019

What originally drew you towards human evolution studies? 

I didn’t have a direct route into human evolution: my interests always seemed to cross disciplinary boundaries, and I didn’t focus on palaeoanthropology at all until my Masters. I think my fascination with evolution and humans’ place in the natural world (past and present) was always there. Certainly I don’t remember any particular event which could represent a starting point for it. I ended up studying Geography at University, because it was the subject that seemed most likely to let me study both the natural and human worlds. Then I did a Masters in Palaeoanthropology and a PhD in Archaeology.

I do remember always enjoying museums, including natural history collections and places that focused on people, and was always drawn to non-fiction reading (especially about evolution). I suppose I have been thinking about the big questions I study now for a very long time – it just took me a long time to decide that they would be part of my career.

What was your PhD topic? How did you choose this and who was your supervisor? 

My PhD was on the role of landscapes in human evolution, and how the spatial structure of the places our ancestors have potentially shaped our deep history. It was another example of my tendency to pick a question and follow it wherever it happened to go: the chapters were a series of case-studies that each unpicked different aspects of the same problem. For one I mapped extant African environments to see how these were patterned and which underlying processes drove landscape structure at different scales. Later on, I had chapters looking at how smaller scale variation in landscapes shaped the anatomy of humans and non-human primates, and how our habitat preferences had shifted through hominin history. The main argument was that spatially heterogeneous, complex, dynamic landscapes were significant parts of our evolutionary history.

I chose the topic and supervisor together. My supervisor, Prof. Geoff Bailey, had proposed in a paper in 2006 that the fact that many hominin fossils come from the Rift Valley and the Cradle of Humankind was not just an artefact of preservation bias, but a key to understanding our evolution. Tectonic landscapes are spatially heterogeneous and dynamic (fast changing), and their potential role in primate evolutionary history had otherwise not been studied. The paper captured my interest, and Geoff became my supervisor – my work was part of his ERC-funded project DISPERSE (Dynamic landscapes, coastal environments and hominin dispersals).

After your PhD, where have you worked and on what projects?

I did a post-doc at the University of York, also on the DISPERSE project, and then moved to Bangor as a lecturer after that. My postdoctoral project followed up the same theme, but with more emphasis on evolutionary processes (my PhD had looked mostly at patterns). In particular, I worked on evolutionary complexity and got interested in whether human evolution had been neatly tree-shaped or more reticulate – with hybridisation playing a more significant role than we had previously thought. I also looked more closely at primate behaviour and particularly the kinds of choices non-human or human primates make, with an eye to seeing how our ability to choose how we behave might have shaped our evolution.

What current projects are you working on at Bangor University? What results have you got from these projects so far? 

One of the main projects I’ve got on at the moment is looking at non-human primate responses to climate change. This is a new line of research since I arrived at Bangor, and is proving really interesting. The first bit of it was a project one of my 2017-18 Masters students (Sarah Hill) did looking at baboons. She picked baboons partly out of interest, but also because we’ve all see the news about baboons raiding crops, encroaching on cities and stealing food from tourists – we tend to assume, as scientists and more generally, that they are resilient creatures. They live all over sub-Saharan Africa, and are all IUCN-listed as being animals of “Least Concern” for conservation, with the single exception of the Guinea baboon which is “Near Threatened” but not yet endangered.

It seemed to us that baboons would be a good test case for modelling future climate change. We assume they’re ecologically resilient and flexible, but does that mean they will be all right in the Anthropocene? As it turns out, Sarah found that three of six baboon species were at higher risk than we thought, likely to lose more than a quarter of their suitable habitat by 2070 under most or all of our climate change scenarios. And since we didn’t include anything really extreme – all the models were based on models of fairly likely situations with either 2.6 or 6 degrees of warming, not the extreme predictions of 8 degrees – this was obviously concerning.

Since Sarah’s work, we have started to look at other taxa too: lorises, gorillas, macaques, south-central American monkeys and more. The results are rarely entirely as we would expect – closely related species won’t necessarily respond the same way! Along the way, we are also finding out more about other human impacts, ecological patterns and how communities will change. It’s really interesting!

My other big project at the moment is on human evolution more specifically, and follows up the ideas about landscape that I wrote about during my PhD and postdoc. I’m working on synthesising a cluster of ideas about the Extended Synthesis of evolutionary theory, and exploring how these concepts might add to our understanding of our own past. This is still just getting started, but will include some nice bits of modelling that try to expand on simple niche models like the ones we’ve been building for non-human primates, to try to add more complexity and see how other factors might interact with the ones we already have data on.

Why is your research important for understanding early hominin behaviour and evolution?

I’d argue that without understanding evolutionary patterns and processes in the non-human primates, we will never be able to understand our own evolutionary history. We think of evolution as being shaped by environments and ecology (including behaviour), but we still have so much to learn about how that works, in specific cases and in general!

Blue Monkeys from Central and East Africa. Photo taken by Isabelle

What project or publication are you most proud of?

Oh, that’s a difficult question! It’s usually the most recent one. Overall, I think I’m going to cheat and pick two…

Firstly, I’m very proud of the paper about baboons and climate change (Hill and Winder, 2019, Journal of Biogeography). This is the first published bit of that research programme, and is based on Sarah’s MZool dissertation – which I think is fantastic. It’s really unusual to get a paper like that one out of an undergraduate project and I’m an extremely proud supervisor. Plus, I think it has a really important message: apparently resilient, flexible species may be at much higher risk than we thought from anthropogenic impact.

Secondly, the paper I wrote in 2014 about the importance of reticulation in primate evolution (Winder and Winder, 2014, Annals of Human Biology) is one I have a real soft spot for. I found doing the research absolutely engrossing, and got to present the ideas at the 2013 Society for the Study of Human Biology symposium and have a great discussion with others there. It was really fun to write, and also (I think) has an interesting message about just how complicated the history of the primates really is.

Does your research have impact outside of academia? 

I suppose that depends what you mean by impact. In terms of practical application, the climate change projects have the most potential. In some of them, we actually suggest places where species will persist and where protected areas might usefully be located, for instance. So far I don’t know of specific instances where these suggestions have been taken up, but it will be interesting to see if we can help more with practical conservation in future.

Otherwise, I think what I aspire to is more about engaging with people outside of academia than necessarily changing what they do. Human evolution is fascinating (OK, I’m biased) and I’ve always loved the fact that people find it interesting. I enjoy doing things like public lectures, writing for a wider audience and getting outside of the University to talk to people. That’s one of my favourite bits of the job, and I like to think it has an impact at least on some of the people I talk to!

What is your favourite and worse thing about academia? 

My favourite thing is the fact that no two days are ever the same, and I get to do so many of the things that I enjoy: research, supervision, fieldwork, writing, reading and teaching are all activities I really value and would want to find time for even if I weren’t an academic. The fact that I get to have them as my job is just wonderful.

In terms of least favourite things, I think the fact that I know so many brilliant scientists and teachers who are stuck on casual contracts is probably the worst. It seems such a shame that with more students than in any previous generation the sector is increasingly relying on people who are not paid enough to support themselves, and have no security. It seems particularly unfair when you remember how much time, energy and money many of those people have already invested in their education.

Isabelle in the field in Kibale National Park, Uganda, with her students. Photo by Alexander Georgiev (@BangorPrimates)

What advice would you give to a student interested in your field of research?

I tried very hard to think of something profound to say here, with limited success. I do think it’s important to recognise that the really interesting problems in human evolution are often on the boundaries between disciplines – so having broad interests, and being willing to learn new ways to think and work as you go along, is vital.

It’s also important to enjoy what you do. By that I don’t really mean enjoying the products (though the elation from a paper finally coming out can be a great short-term motivator). I mean you need to enjoy what you do every day, the process of getting to those results. If you find the work you’re doing is consistently boring or frustrating you, you may need to find another method or approach. Avoiding things that make you miserable, at least when that is within your control, is important!

Published by lucyjt96

PhD researcher in the Archaeology of Human Origins research group at the University of Liverpool

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