Dr. Leslea J. Hlusko

Dr. Hlusko's research focuses on mammalian evolutionary biology.

Genes and Fossils

Currently, Dr. Hlusko is studying the genetic and developmental basis of mammalian skeletal evolution and variation by looking at primate dentition. She has been analyzing the teeth of the pedigreed breeding colony of baboons at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in Texas.

Quantitative genetic analyses of the baboons enable Dr. Hlusko to model statistically the roles genes play in the overall popoulation of the colony, in traits such as tooth size, enamel thickness, and extra cusps on teeth.

Dr. Hlusko then integrates the genetic data with the fossil record to study morphological evolution from a genotypic perspective. By using the rich African fossil record that documents the last 10 million years of Old World monkey evolution, she is able to determine when, and in what order dental morphological changes occurred.

An Ideal Approach

Dr. Hlusko's research on the modern baboon provides her with insight on the genetics that influence anatomical variation. It also enables her to reconstruct the genetic evolutionary history of primate dentition through interpretation of the fossil record.

The interdisciplinary combination of genetics and paleontology is perfect to Dr. Hlusko:

"Quantitative genetics is an ideal way to explore the genetic architecture of small scale phenotypic variation -- the level of variation at which many paleontologists work."

Dr. Hlusko: ​Q&A

Why did you decide to become a scientist?

I took a circuitous route to science -- I started college intending to be a fine arts major and ended up more interested in human evolution. During a field school in sub-Saharan Africa, I fell in love with paleontological fieldwork and went to work as a contract archaeologist after college.

I found myself drawn to questions that could be answered with more certainty. I took more college biology courses as a continuing education student and ultimately found my way to graduate school and evolutionary biology as a career path.

What led you to the questions you are now investigating in your research?

During my first semester of graduate school I went to a few lectures that completely changed the way I see the world. In 1996, "evo-devo" was starting to come into its own.

I was awe-inspired by the work of Ken Weiss, Neil Shubin, Rudy Raff, Jukka Jernvall, and others. I knew that I wanted to study primate fossils and was determined to take a genetic approach to understanding skeletal variation and evolution.

How does your research affect your classroom and/or lab?

Paleontologists call me a geneticist and geneticists call me a paleontologist. This can be a terrific middle-ground to occupy because I bring an "outsider's" perspective to each discipline.

I ask a lot of questions, and try to show my students that curiosity is what it’s all about. The brightest people I’ve met are curious about everything, comfortable asking questions, and ok acknowledging that they don’t know it all.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

I have to admit that I am most driven by the field work. I work in fairly remote parts of East Africa and collaborate with local scholars and residents. There is a serenity that you only get from experiences that remind you of your place within the evolutionary process. Finding the remains of animals that lived millions of years ago and working collectively with a group of people from very different walks of life is exciting, challenging, rewarding, and addictive.

For more information, visit:

The Hlusko Lab

May 2006