Did you know that about one-third of known fish species can hear as well as humans, if not better? That hearing capability is made possible by their conductive hearing system, named Weberian apparatus, which is equivalent to the middle ear of humans but functions better in aquatic environments. Paleontologists and functional anatomists in Liu Lab study the origin and evolution of that special organ system, the relationships of form and function in the hearing system, as well as its responses to environmental changes. 


Systematic Paleontology 


Our research program investigates the systematic paleontology of fossil organisms by leveraging cutting-edge visualization techniques such as high-resolution computed tomography alongside multimodal (morphology and genomic) phylogenetic methods. We conduct tried and true field research to collect, curate, and study vertebrate fossils to document biodiversity in all four dimensions. Through our activities, we advocate for the continued expansion and use of natural history collections. We practice and train students in the science of taxonomic descriptions and comparative anatomy and contribute to maintaining domain expertise in the fundamental task of describing past and present biodiversity. Our mission is to save scientifically valuable fossils from erosion and destruction, describe new fossil species to improve our understanding of the biota of earth, and resolve the interelationships of fossil species to build a solid foundation for large-scale analyses of macroevolutionary trends. 


Deep Time Macroevolution





More than 99% of the species that have ever lived on earth are extinct.  Fossilized biological remains and the rich data they carry provide important perspectives on the reliability of phylogenetic hypotheses, biogeographic scenarios, and models of trait evolutionary tempo and mode. We collect and analyze primary taxonomic and morphometric data of fossils, as well as evaluate and improve paleontological data in large databases. We perform quantitative analysis to trace the morphological changes of vertebrates through geological time. We aim to answer big questions about the evolution of life such as: how morphological novelty evolves and what drove the evolution of vertebrates, both through the looking glass of the fossil record. 


Functional Anatomy




Understanding the functional anatomy of organ systems can illuminate how extrinsic (e.g. ecology) and intrinsic (e.g. disease) factors influence evolution at species and ecological community levels. We study the anatomy of sensory organ systems of vertebrates as related to function, in order to understand the mechanism of the essential organ systems. With particular interest in the fish auditory system as a novel model, we use both dissection and CT-based 3D digital anatomy and biomechanical simulation to model and test how sound pressure is conducted and then transduced into neural signals. Our aims are to understand the proximal (physiological and biomechanical) and ultimate (evolutionary) mechanisms underlying the normal functional range, dysfunction, and disorders of the auditory system of vertebrates as a whole.



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